The triggers and drivers of displacement in Niger, a country in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa, are complex and intertwined. Changes in rainfall patterns have caused both periods of drought and flash flooding that destroy crops and deepen chronic food insecurity. Both the hazards themselves and their impacts trigger displacement. Food insecurity also increases competition for scarce resources and enflames intercommunal tensions, blurring the distinction between the drivers of disaster and conflict displacement. Niger also faces a growing jihadist threat in the regions of Diffa, Maradi, Tahoua and Tillaberi, where fighting between governments and militants has spilled over from neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria.
At least 57,000 new conflict displacements were recorded in 2019, 42,000 of them in the first half of the year. This represents a significant increase on the figures for 2018. Flooding also triggered 121,000 new displacements during the year. Data on drought displacement is unavailable.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
Niger’s south-eastern region of Diffa has been battling the spillover of the Boko Haram insurgency since 2015. The group initially used Diffa as a safe haven, a place to seek refuge, funds and recruits, but the region’s historical religious, cultural and economic ties to Nigeria’s Borno state, where Boko Haram emerged in 2002, has made it relatively easy for the group to entrench itself there. Hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced by the insurgents, attacks by other non-state armed groups and military operations against them. Boko Haram’s presence has also aggravated intercommunal tensions which have escalated into a deadly conflict on the shores of Lake Chad in the far east of the region.
The presence and activities of jihadist groups in the south-west of the country, where it borders Burkina Faso and Mali, have also triggered displacement in the states of Tahoua and Tillaberi. Attacks on civilians and the widespread presence of explosive devices have forced people to flee, and some have done so pre-emptively. The jihadists have also exploited intercommunal tensions, and the ensuing violence has been far deadlier and has displaced at least as many people as their direct attacks.
Sudden and slow-onset disasters displace people in Niger each year. Flooding accounts for the majority of disaster displacements, and urban areas, including the capital Niamey, are affected. Decrees have been issued that prohibit the construction of homes in flood-prone areas, but building continues and whole neighbourhoods are inundated during the rainy season.
Drought has also triggered significant displacement, but numbers are hard to come by. The phenomenon is difficult to record because it takes place gradually over a long period of time. It is also challenging to differentiate between interlinked drought and conflict displacement.
The bulk of Niger’s economy is dependent on rain-fed agriculture, and periods of drought and associated drops in crop yield fuel recurrent food security crises and the subsequent displacement of pastoralist and farming communities. The country suffered serious drought in 1973 and 1984, and below-average rainfall continues to affect rural communities. Large numbers of schools have been shut in some regions as families leave and take their children with them. The drop in student numbers is a key indicator of drought displacement.
Conflict displacement occurs mainly in Diffa, Tahoua and Tillaberi, and most recently the Maradi region. There were around 109,000 IDPs living in Diffa, 58,000 in Tillaberi and about 23,000 in Tahoua as of December 2019. The number of news displacements during the year increased to 57,000 from 52,000 in 2018.
Diffa was also home to more than 115,000 refugees from Nigeria as of October 2019, following an increase in the arrival of people fleeing criminal violence in Nigeria in the early part of the year. Nigeria has closed its borders, essentially trapping its citizens outside the country. A significant number of refugees from Mali also live in Tahoua and Tillaberi.
Drought displacement takes different forms in Niger. For pastoralists, it results from their livelihoods reaching a critical threshold below which they are not sustainable because drought episodes have become more frequent and intense. Vulnerable farmers often have no choice but to migrate seasonally to urban areas in search of alternative income to ensure their households’ survival. These movements, referred to locally as the “exodus”, increase during times of drought. Seasonal migration driven by poverty is a strategy, but it is not a choice. It is a form of distress migration and should be considered displacement.
Niger’s IDPs are in particular need of protection because they live in insecure areas. The insecurity has also led them to live in overcrowded camps, unfinished buildings and tents that are vulnerable to floods. It impedes their access to basic services such as health and education, because it is too dangerous to travel to clinics or schools. Only 10 per cent of displaced children are able to attend school.
Food insecurity is a chronic challenge, and humanitarian agencies’ restricted access to Tahoua and Tillaberi means they are sometimes unable to deliver much-needed assistance.
Niger became the first country to domesticate the Kampala Convention when it adopted a law on internal displacement in 2018. The law addresses displacement triggered by conflict, human rights violations, disasters and development projects. It recognises IDPs’ rights, provides for their protection and envisages support for ending displacement as defined by the IASC Framework on Durable Solutions. It also promotes regional and national measures to prevent and mitigate the factors that lead to it.
The law also specifies budgets and funding mechanisms to address displacement, attributes responsibility to specific agencies for its prevention and calls for coordination between national and international agencies in protecting and assisting IDPs.
The government’s Regional Directorate of Civil Status (DREC) collects data on displacement in Diffa. This information is published by the protection cluster. The cluster in turn is led by UNHCR, which compiles data for the whole country. Both the DREC and UNHCR report on the number of IDPs living in a given area at a given point in time, but do not publish systematic information on new displacements. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and International Rescue Committee (IRC) put out new displacement alerts, and we use these to calculate figures for these flows over a given period. DREC also collects data on Nigeriens who return from Nigeria but do not go back to their places of origin and so are considered internally displaced.
Data on flood displacement comes from a combination of local media sources, government reports and international organization’s assessments. In 2019, to determine the number of newly displaced people from the rainy season, IDMC used the housing destruction estimate from OCHA, following a review and triangulation exercise of other available sources.
Drought displacement data is difficult to come by because it is not collected or consolidated by any one agency. IDMC and UNDP organised a workshop in Niamey in July 2019 to assess the data ecosystem in Niger and improve the way the phenomenon is measured by establishing what type of information is available and what is required. It focused on a range of indicators that affect drought displacement, including food insecurity and livelihood opportunities.
The aim of the research we are doing with our partners in Niger is to establish a common understanding of the main indicators that affect and may trigger drought displacement. Our methodology envisions a more robust, coordinated and data-driven process of collection and verification.