Safely supporting those fleeing Boko Haram in Nigeria

Published by Andrew B Brown on

October 2017 – Crisis Response Journal –

Throughout 2016, Boko Haram insurgents continued to commit grave human rights violations and carry out attacks against civilians including suicide bombings, widespread sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), kidnapping and forced recruitment, in north-eastern Nigeria and in the Lake Chad Basin. Despite achieving considerable gains in counter-insurgency operations, the Nigerian Armed Forces and Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) military operations’ led to further forced population movements. Boko Haram’s guerilla tactics led to new large-scale and secondary displacements towards Cameroon, and inside Niger, where entire villages were emptied. At the beginning of 2016, the majority of new arrivals into Cameroon’s Minawao refugee camp came from border areas, where they had previously sought asylum and safety, but owing Boko Haram incursions and military retaliations, they were forced to move further inland.

Since June, the majority of new arrivals have come directly from Nigeria, some claiming to have escaped Boko Haram captivity while others cited leaving because of the deplorable conditions in IDP camps. As of October 2016, about 170,000 Nigerian refugees were hosted in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The conflict had also internally displaced 192,912 persons in Cameroon’s Far North region, 82,260 in Chad’s Lake region (as of 31 Oct) and 184,230 persons in Niger’s Diffa region (as of 30 Sept).

Encouragingly, a great number of civilians were freed from Boko Haram captivity by the military in Nigeria. In addition, Local Government Areas (LGAs) in north- eastern Nigeria where 800,000 persons had been trapped over the past years were liberated. However, owing to the highly volatile security and protection situation, it remains to be seen whether conditions in north-eastern Nigeria will become conducive for the voluntary repatriation of refugees in safety in dignity and whether respective tripartite agreements between Nigeria, host countries and UNHCR will be signed.

In a region, which is already characterised by extreme poverty, harsh climatic conditions, poor infrastructure, limited access to basic services and epidemic outbreaks, continued protection and assistance for refugees, IDPs and other affected communities are required in 2017.[1]

Answering that call, I accompanied an INGO to the country in August 2017 to assess the needs of some of the IDPs in both authorized and unauthorized camps in and around Maiduguri, Borno State and Yola, Adamawa State.

In preparation for the mission, I was an integral part of the planning process, which allowed me to set a base line for deploying staff to Nigeria. Taking intelligence from three different sources allowed us to make informed assessments on the risks within country, which were clearly defined under the headings of:

  • External & Internal Conflict
  • Terrorism
  • Crime including kidnap; and
  • Civil Unrest

Ensuring compliance with Duty of Care and defining, in simple terms, what this actually meant for operating in such a high risk environment was taken from its definition – “The legal obligation to safeguard others from harm while they are in your care, using your services, or exposed to your activities”. This can seem a herculean task for any organisation with limited resources; so approaching it on a phased basis, described below, helped to define and align the activities that contributed to our holistic duty of care.

It is also important to recognise that the level of duty of care provided must be proportionate to the level of risk, i.e. the higher the risk, the more duty of care measures require to be in place. Duty of Care can never be a one size fits all approach.

Phase One – Pre-deployment

In our preparation we recognised the scale of the risk in our considerations for operating in this high-risk areas and prior to departure ensured the following was in place:

  • Established security contacts on the ground – UNDSS under the initiative of Saving Lives Together we were able to access daily intelligence reports and advice. This was also complemented with subscription to INSO reports for Nigeria and a connection to staff on the ground to give that ‘local perspective’.
  • Contact with OCHA and UNHCR allowed us to secure contacts and an understanding of where our mission might collaborate with others.
  • Providing professional deployment and security briefing for all staff – a generic country briefing and a location specific briefing prior to departure.
  • All staff had undertaken hostile environment awareness training recently, supplemented with an online refresher in surviving an active shooter incident and medical health awareness.
  • A ‘personal risk profile’ data was compiled on all staff.
  • Up-to-date maps, plans and photographs of work locations and accommodation were obtained; and a
  • Communications plan was devised to monitor both locally and remotely the team during the mission.

Phase Two – Deployment

Having a Security Advisor as part of the team allowed the staff safety and security to become part of the daily business. Co-ordination of activities in the field perhaps posed the biggest challenge with the daily plan changing frequently. Following best practice with each day beginning with a team meeting over two locations – Maiduguri & Yola to:

  • Confirm the planned activities of the day, including a Plan B and C should Plan A not materialise.
  • Prescribed hourly contact to keep track of each team.
  • Being equipped with a suitable 4×4 and local approved driver who had both good local knowledge and security awareness in his driving – positioning on the road; strategic parking at IDP camps to facilitate a quick get away if required and a vehicle that was fully functional with working seatbelts – higher risk of being involved in a road accident rather than crime puts this into perspective.
  • Providing leadership in managing expectations of the team not only in work but also ensuring that they took ‘downtime’ to relax and refresh their energy levels – operating in this environment for the inexperienced is both physically and mentally demanding.
  • A daily debrief was provided to check welfare, actions achieved and the plans for the following day. It also helped in team building to share stories.
  • Identifying good local contacts and establishing a network – this quickly gives you direction to the best sources in terms of infrastructure of a mission, sharing data, gathering security advice, bet places to eat/stay and identifying potential locations in establishing a future mission.
  • Staff were encouraged to carry a small rucksack with them at all times on the basis of it being a ‘go bag’ that could be used in emergency situations. The suggested content was as follows: Plug
    • adapters& Surge protection
    • Power pack
    • Spare phone with local SIM card & credit
    • Torch + spare batteries
    • Para cord or a couple of bootlaces – used to secure equipment/room, etc
    • Small roll of Duck Tape
    • Spare Lightweight clothing
    • Survival blanket
    • Waterproofs
    • Personal First Aid Kit
    • Sun protection
    • Multi tool & Compass
    • Malarial medicine
    • Passport photographs – may be needed for government documents
    • Copies of all your travel documents – a paper copy and a copy downloaded onto a small password protected USB drive
    • $500 to $1000 in US Dollars – it is a currency accepted anywhere in the world and can get you out of trouble.
  • In visiting IDP camps it was essential to have someone who could introduce us to the community. You should consider perhaps taking something to give to the community; this will be advised by your contact.
  • Importantly, when gathering data from the community through interviews, it is wise to have a member of the team designated as a ‘Guardian Angel’ who can stand back and observe the community and surroundings to identify any signs of tension or danger arising. Especially important to gracefully depart if a member of the community tells you that the community is becoming tense!

Phase Three – Debrief & Training Cycle

Most of us returning from a hostile environment are only too glad to get back to the comfort of home and the loving arms of our family and friends, often forgetting the importance of debriefing.

Conducting both a ‘hot debrief’ immediately at the end of the mission captures the points that are foremost in the team’s mind and invariably the ones that matter to them the most. It is important to follow this up in a structured manner with a formal team debrief, perhaps covering the following aspects:

  • Personal Safety – how safe & secure did they feel during the deployment?
  • Training – were they properly prepared through the pre deployment activities?
  • Intelligence – were the country and location specific intelligence briefings of use and were they in a language that was understandable?
  • Accommodation – was it suitable, secure and could they relax in their surroundings?
  • Transport – was it suitable and fit for purpose?
  • Tasks & Team Management – was it properly structured with a degree of flexibility; were the daily debrief meetings and sharing of stories helpful and did they feel supported in their work?
  • Communications – were they reliable and were they confident in their use of communications in an emergency?
  • Any other points.

Once this information is gathered, a report should then be produced to capture all the learning points from the mission including the specific nuances of operating in the country and locations. This report should hen be shared with the senior management team of the organisation to ensure that policies and practices are aligned and revised if not. This cyclical process allows subsequent pre deployment training to be refined and adjusted to ensure that it becomes a continual process of learning in deploying staff on missions to hostile environments.  It is only by doing this process, combined with independent audit can an organisation feel comfortable that it is meeting its Duty of Care and importantly recognising that valued staff are more productive thus making the organisation more effective in its mission. 


Speaking with the IDP communities it is all too easy to see why they have uprooted their families to flee the violence from Boko Haram; we would all do the same to protect our families.

Being able to help fellow human beings is a privilege and to do it safely requires organisations embrace duty of care to the benefit of all. 

[1] Nigeria Regional Refugee Response Plan – January to December 2017

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