More than 120,000 people, most of them children, are at risk of starving to death next year in areas of Nigeria affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, the United Nations is warning.
Intense fighting in parts of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon has left more than 2 million people displaced, farmers unable to harvest their crops and aid groups unable to reach isolated communities. One small state in Nigeria has more displaced people than the entire refugee influx that arrived in Europe last year.
A Guardian correspondent saw dozens of skeletal babies at a makeshift camp in the regional centre Maiduguri. Many had plastic nodules stuck to their skull, to allow the nurses to attach them to a drip. Many children are so thin their scalp is the only place where a visible vein can be found.
And yet despite these appalling scenes, Maiduguri is among the best served places in a region the size of Belgium. Much of the area is still insecure because of the war with Boko Haram, and countless thousands have not made it to population centres where some degree of care is available.
Orla Fagan, a Nigeria-based spokesperson for UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), said: “You’re looking at over 120,000 deaths next year if you can’t get aid to them – and they’re mostly children. If we can’t reach people with food and nutritional assistance there will be deaths.”
Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children, said following a recent trip that the entire region was “teetering on the brink”.
“We know in areas that we can get to that there are severe and acute malnutrition rates,” Watkins said. But beyond that, he said, “there are pockets that are probably far worse than the areas that we are dealing with. And the estimates are that there are probably 400,000 children who are in a condition of very severe malnutrition.”
He said unless emergency measures were taken, 200 children would die every day over the next year. A crucial meeting is planned for Abuja next Friday (2 December) at which aid agencies will try to agree a plan of action.
“And yet despite this background, this is a completely hidden emergency,” Watkins said. “The international community hasn’t responded on any scale at all.”