Imaan Sulaiman-Ibrahim is the Federal Commissioner of the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons (NCFRMI). In this interview, she speaks on why the activities of NGOs need to be regulated and what the commission is doing to ease the plights of refugees in the country.
What is the mandate of your commission and what are the areas you tackle to bring succour to refugees?
Our mandate as a commission is to offer assistance and protection to persons of concern—the refugees, asylum seekers, returnees IDP and people at the risk of becoming stateless. We are also the lead agency for migration; it means we are the custodian of the migration policy. Thus, we lead when it comes to return, readmission and reintegration.
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From my resumption, I realised we have a few challenges in the area of administration and operations. We dusted the 2017 road map and replaced it with Project 5S. The first S means that the commission will have to strengthen its internal framework so that we can be able to deliver on our mandate better. The second S means that we need to deploy our activities through digital technology. Also, we should be able to operate from anywhere because we are an emergency, humanitarian and intelligence driven commission, so, we are all over the place. Similarly, we should be able to work from wherever we are and at par with other humanitarian agencies around the globe. So, going digital was non-negotiable. The third one is that we are also trying to streamline data as key to carrying out our functions. Since we are dealing with human beings, we need to be able to identify them by names. Having data is key and we continue to work with relevant partners to ensure we have clean data. We have a budgetary allocation for that and we have begun to deploy, and work is in process.
The fourth is sustainable and durable solutions, which is a core to our mandate as an agency. When disaster happens, we come in only when we need to complement National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). But we have to come so things are stabilised to be able to provide solutions as quickly as possible and one core responsibility for this season for the commission is camp exit. Exiting camp will mean we have achieved durable solutions for the person of concern through strategic partnership. We will like to partner, not just with humanitarian and development agencies but the media houses because they play a critical role in the way people perceive what we do and the kind of help we give to these people, as well as the way people perceive what the government is doing.
Nobody has invested in humanitarian affairs like this government. I have worked in people’s development in the last twenty years of my life, both nationally and internationally, I can say it confidently that we are on the right path when it comes to social investment for the country. We have not only social investment strategy but the president has also helped to provide a ministry that would be able to domesticate and house all the projects for sustainability. Being the heartbeat of the government, he has brought in an able person to man it. We thank her for direction.
How would you balance the need to create more camps because of the insurgency in the northwest and resettling victims uprooted by violence from their homes in the northeast?
In the northeast, there are few patches of problem in the areas and we have a lot of Nigerian refugees that are willing to come back home. Just recently, the president launched a presidential committee on the return to the northwest. This will complement each other and we are waiting for the SOPs so that we can work it out. Repatriation had begun as far back as 2016 to Adamawa and Borno states, we have a blueprint but we want to perfect it and reflect the recent energy placed on the safe return of victims. Everybody has a role and the stakeholders involved in this whole operation are much. We have the security agencies, development agencies and humanitarian agencies that will come in, starting from when they leave and what they need.
For instance, the last repatriation saw the government of Cameroon playing its own role in ensuring that the refugees were given some care packages. When they come back, we have agencies that offer them empowerment programmes. The federal government, Borno State government and the North East Development Commission have plans to create about 10,000 houses that will house a lot of households. Resettlement is an ongoing process. So, you can see that everybody has a role to play. While refugee commission will deal with the areas of reintegration, rehabilitation and resettlement, the North East Commission does its part, so does NEMA. Security agencies on their part ensure we bring back people that will not be a security threat to us. They are screened and where they are to stay will be secured because the core of durable solutions is that it should be done in safety and dignity.
When returnees come back, it is either they are just a regular migrant or victims of human trafficking or forced migration for labour. When they come back, we have a lot of instructions and work closely with UN for migration management and we have our five Rs to work it. As a commission, we have our own in-house reception centres where people who have no where to go because of being victimised by family members can stay. We have someone that has been there for three years. Now, she has her sewing outfit and she is getting to an age where she can move out and begin to live on her own. We have those reception centres in Lagos.
Currently, I am proposing for some resource centres in Abuja and one in each geopolitical zone, in collaboration with the Lagos State Government and IOM. We also have a transit centre for people that just want to stay for a few days or weeks before we are able to do family contact tracing.
From two researches on the causes of irregular migration, we are trying to see how we can work on a housing estate for returnees because sometimes it is due to ambition to get more from life that these people leave the comfort of their homes and when they come back, they do not want to go back to their villages. So, we want to do a resettlement city project so that they can live in the city and begin to pick up their lives and contribute to nation building.
We are launching programmes like project ICT and other skills to equip them with skills at the level they desire because in the past, there were mass empowerment programmes on specific things to learn without taking into consideration their interest but now, we are working with skills that will be of interest to them. We want to empower them at a level they cannot make a relapse and ensure there is a value chain for them. So, we are working with the relevant people, we are partnering with SMEDAN, NITDA, INNOSON motors and the private sectors to train them on various skills.
You talked about data. Does the commission have the number of Nigerians refugees outside the country?
Because of the clandestine nature of migration, nobody has the accurate data, but we have some data because getting it is a continuous effort of not just the commission but with the ministry. If you look at the UNHCR figures of refugees in Chad, it is about 20,000; for those in Cameroon, we have 180,000 but repatriation has begun so the number may have reduced. For Niger, it is a bit alarming, it is about 300,000 who have fled from Nigeria for safety. We have a lot of them who have opted for voluntary return. But if we look at the areas of irregular migration, it is very difficult because all those things are done in a very quiet manner because it is a cartel, so we won’t know. What we are trying to do now is that as they return, we capture them and work with other agencies in order to have a central data base.
What are the challenges facing the commission in repatriating Nigerian refugees?
The basic challenge is that we have not built a strong institution; it is not just for our commission but the country at large. We have so much to do in ensuring that we roll out the full capacity of this commission. In the case of NAPTIP, not every country has a coordinated fight against human trafficking like Nigeria. If you go to countries like Niger, UK and Ghana, they have different arms of government working on fighting human trafficking but Nigeria has a coordinated approach. The agency does not only look at the litigation side of trafficking, but also protection and prosecution areas of it. NAPTIP has the powers that police have to prosecute but the only thing they don’t have is the arms, but because we have not been able to build the institution, it is not able to deliver the result we require as a nation. I think that is the main challenge for our commission too.
The commission has been in existence for over 30 years to deliver on the government’s commitments around all the treaties we have signed internationally but have we built the institution? That is the question we have to ask ourselves and we have to speak the truth to ourselves to build a strong institution because it is better to manage systems than people. People come and go but when you have strong systems, they can stand the test of time.
How do we streamline the activities of NGOs to ensure they don’t become a nuisance in carrying out their activities?
Like I said, we must be able to build on institutions because if we do not set our parameters, everyone will do what they like. As a country, we have to be very serious about our businesses. Borno is a state of NGOs and no wonder the governor of Zamfara refused to have camps because when you have it, they come in. Going forward as a ministry, we have put in all the right checks, there is one with the Ministry of Budget and National Planning. Then, there was no humanitarian ministry but now we have an instrument for every NGO to register. We also have our measuring parameters. An NGO that wants to work in the space for IDP and refugees has to come and register for such purpose. That is what I mean by strengthening our internal framework. So, for an NGO to qualify and work, they don’t only come and register and get screened but also bring their work plan to be in line with the national work plan. That is what we are getting at; we are not there yet because there are lots of gaps but it is the future. We are so focused that it is going to happen because there is lot of abuse and exploitation around it.