The U.N. says nearly 500,000 people in northern Nigeria have fled their homes in fear of what it calls an “increasingly monstrous” insurgency that threatens food security in many parts of the country.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who visited Nigeria this week, warned that what was formerly an internal conflict has become a regional crisis. The insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has “spilled across borders” into neighboring West African countries along with nearly 60,000 refugees, Pillay said.
“With thousands of refugees fleeing from Nigeria, and arms and fighters reportedly flowing across international borders in the other direction, this terrible conflict is no longer solely an internal matter," she said.
Pillay urged Nigeria to broaden its counter-terrorism strategy and work more closely with neighbors and the international community to stop the Islamist militant group known as Boko Haram. Inside Nigeria, she adds, farmers have abandoned their fields as they flee the insurgents, threatening food security in many areas.
Boko Haram has been blamed for thousands of deaths since launching its uprising against the government in 2009.
Human Rights Watch says 2014, so far, may be the worst year of the insurgency. It says the group has killed 700 people in attacks on 40 villages this year, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
“They have burned down houses, churches, clinics and schools." Pillay said. "They have murdered children in their beds. Some of its members are reported to have abducted and raped women and girls.”
Pillay also warned that heavy-handed tactics by security forces fighting Boko Haram can put civilians’ lives at risk.
“Many people I have met during this visit openly acknowledge that human rights violations have been committed by security forces, and these have served to alienate local communities, and created fertile ground for Boko Haram to cultivate new recruits.”
Human Rights Watch says despite 10 months of emergency rule in the three most dangerous northeastern states, the crisis continues to expand.
But when Nigeria or neighboring countries close borders to keep militants and weapons out, it only makes things worse, forcing families to stay in dangerous places, said Mausi Segun, a researcher for Human Rights Watch Nigeria.
“Boko Haram is able to run around and kill so many people and cause so much destruction," he said. "I think it really has been a failure on the part of the government to protect the people, their lives and their property.”
The Nigerian military maintains that it is beating Boko Haram and violence has increased recently because so many of their camps have been destroyed, leaving surviving fighters desperate.