A safe haven for children in Niger escaping the atrocities of Boko Haram

Article, 20.02.2017

Thousands of civilians are forced to flee attacks of Boko Haram and military operations in the Lake Chad region. Niger is one of the countries of the Lake Chad Basin that hosts a large number of displaced people. Among them are traumatised children. The SDC’s Humanitarian Aid Department supports a project of the Italian NGO COOPI providing psychosocial support and a safe environment for those young survivors.    

A staff member of COOPI speaking to a group of children in a camp.
A staff member of the organisation COOPI sets up recreational activities for conflict-traumatised children in a camp. © SDC

The violence perpetrated by Boko Haram and military operations have resulted in massive displacement throughout the Lake Chad Basin, which includes Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad. In Niger alone, some 340,000 people are in need of humanitarian assistance, most of them in the Diffa region, in the south-eastern part of the country, at the border with Nigeria.

The conflict has not only affected people’s physical well-being, but also their mental health. Many survivors of Boko Haram raids have experienced violence and witnessed the killing and maiming of their family members. In the heat of the conflict and during displacement, some children have been separated from their parents or orphaned. Communities have also lost the little they have acquired after years of work. Moreover, the ongoing conflict has interrupted education and economic activities, leaving behind people with little or no hope for the future.

As a result, many people including children are suffering from mental conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Without psychosocial support, trauma, anger and hatred will continue to prevail among these communities, making reconciliation and peace more unlikely in the future.  

Recreational activities as a mean of post traumatic therapy

The SDC’s Humanitarian Aid Department finances a project of the NGO COOPI, which provides psychosocial support and a safe environment for displaced children and young people in the Diffa region. The Italian NGO has created 33 centres in refugee camps and IDP sites, where they can meet and play football, do drawings and perform traditional dance. These recreational activities and others provide the possibility for children to express their feelings and are thus an effective form of post-traumatic early treatment. In places where schools are not functioning, the youth centres are also providing literacy classes to girls and boys, creating a certain sense of normality.

Involvement of host communities

The child and youth centres are managed by community-based protection committees. Trained by COOPI, they play a critical role as they organise recreational activities, identify the children who need help and refer them to appropriate services. In 2016, protection committees were established and trained in the Diffa region, identifying 183 orphaned children, 25 children separated from their families, as well as 9 unaccompanied children. They also referred 56 cases of violence, abuse and neglect to COOPI for mental health support from December 2015 to September 2016.

Training of medical and educational staff

The project is also aimed at strengthening mental health and psychosocial services for traumatised adults and children in Niger. Local physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists have been trained by COOPI in identifying mental health cases as well as in providing a robust medical and psychosocial response. 200 teachers from 15 schools in Niger have benefited from training in psychosocial support, facilitating their daily work with traumatised children in class.