Why NGO activities should be regulated – Imaan Sulaiman-Ibrahim
Imaan Sulaiman-Ibrahim is the Federal Commissioner of the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Displaced Persons (NCFRMI). In this interview, she explains why the activities of NGOs must be regulated and what the commission is doing to alleviate the plight of refugees in the country.
OWhat is the mandate of your commission and what areas do you address to help refugees?
Our mandate as a commission is to offer assistance and protection to people of concern – refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced returnees and people at risk of becoming stateless. We are also the lead agency for migration; this means that we are the guardians of migration policy. Thus, we lead in return, readmission and reintegration.
As soon as I took over, I realized that we had some challenges in the area of administration and operations. We dusted off the 2017 roadmap and replaced it with the 5S project. The first S means that the commission will have to strengthen its internal framework so that we can better fulfill our mandate. The second S means that we must deploy our activities through digital. Also, we should be able to operate from anywhere because we are an emergency, humanitarian and intelligence focused commission, so we are everywhere. Likewise, we should be able to work wherever we are and at the same level as other humanitarian agencies around the world. So going digital was non-negotiable. The third is that we also try to rationalize data as being essential to the performance of our functions. Since we are dealing with human beings, we need to be able to identify them by names. Having data is essential and we continue to work with relevant partners to ensure we have clean data. We have a budget allocation for this and have started to roll out, and the work is in progress.
The fourth relates to durable and sustainable solutions, which are central to our mandate as an agency. In the event of a disaster, we only respond when we need to supplement the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). But you have to come so that things stabilize so that solutions can be found as quickly as possible and one of the main responsibilities of this season for the commission is the exit from the camp. Leaving the camp will mean that we have found durable solutions for the person of care through a strategic partnership. We would like to partner, not only with humanitarian and development agencies, but also with the media, as they play a vital role in how people perceive what we do and the kind of help we provide to those people, as well as how people perceive what the government is doing.
No one has invested in humanitarian affairs like this government. Having worked in people development for the past twenty years of my life, both nationally and internationally, I can say with confidence that we are on the right track in social investment for the country. We not only have a social investment strategy, but the president has also helped provide a ministry that would be able to domesticate and house all sustainability projects. Being the heartbeat of the government, he brought in a capable person to run it. We thank her for the leadership.
How would you strike a balance between the need to create more camps due to the insurgency in the northwest and the resettlement of victims uprooted by the violence from their homes in the northeast?
In the northeast, there are few problems in the regions and we have many Nigerian refugees who are ready to return home. Just recently, the president launched a presidential committee on the return to the northwest. This will complete and we are waiting for the SOPs so that we can resolve it. Repatriation had started as early as 2016 to Adamawa and Borno states, we have a plan but we want to perfect it and reflect the recent energy put into the safe return of victims. Everyone has a role and the actors involved in this whole operation are numerous. We have the security agencies, the development agencies and the humanitarian agencies that will come, from when they leave and what they need.
For example, the latest repatriation saw the government of Cameroon play its own role in ensuring that refugees received care packages. When they come back, we have agencies that provide empowerment programs for them. The Federal Government, Borno State Government and the North East Development Commission plan to create about 10,000 houses which will house many households. Resettlement is an ongoing process. So you can see that everyone has a role to play. While the Refugee Commission will deal with the areas of reintegration, rehabilitation and resettlement, the North East Commission is doing its part, as is NEMA. Security agencies, on the other hand, ensure that we bring back people who will not pose a threat to our security. They are vetted and their place of stay will be secure because the core of durable solutions is that it must be done in safety and dignity.
When returnees return, it is either because they are regular migrants or victims of human trafficking or forced labor migration. When they come back, we have a lot of instructions and work closely with the UN on migration management and we have our five Rs to do that. As a commission, we have our own internal shelters where people who have nowhere to go because they are victimized by family members can stay. We have someone who has been there for three years. Now she has her couture outfit and she is reaching an age where she can move out and start living on her own. We have these reception centers in Lagos.
Currently, I am offering resource centers in Abuja and one in each geopolitical zone, in collaboration with the Lagos State Government and IOM. We also have a transit center for people who just want to stay for a few days or weeks before they can trace family contacts.
Based on two researches on the causes of irregular migration, we try to see how we can work on a housing estate for returnees because sometimes it is out of ambition to get more out of life that these people leave the comfort of their homes and when they come back, they don’t 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 start to take back their lives and contribute to nation building.
We start programs like ICT project and other skills to equip them with skills at the level they desire because in the past there were mass empowerment programs on specific things to learn regardless of their interest, but now we are working with skills that will interest them. We want to empower them to a level where they can’t relapse and make sure there’s a value chain for them. So we work with the people involved, we work in partnership with SMEDAN, NITDA, INNOSON motors and the private sectors to train them in various skills.
You mentioned data. Does the commission have the number of Nigerian refugees out of the country?
Due to the clandestine nature of migration, no one has exact data, but we have some data because getting it is an ongoing effort not only by the commission but also by the ministry. If you look at the UNHCR figures on refugees in Chad, it’s around 20,000; for those in Cameroon, we have 180,000 but the repatriation has started so the number may have decreased. For Niger, it’s a little alarming, it’s about 300,000 who have fled Nigeria for safety. We have many who have opted for voluntary return. But if we look at irregular migration areas, it’s very difficult because all these things are done in a very discreet way because it’s a cartel, so we won’t know. What we’re trying to do now is that as they come back, we capture them and work with other agencies to have a central database.
What challenges does the commission face in the repatriation of Nigerian refugees?
The fundamental challenge is that we have not built a solid institution; it’s not just for our commission, but for the country as a whole. We have so much to do to ensure the deployment of the full capacity of this commission. In the case of NAPTIP, not all countries have a coordinated fight against human trafficking like Nigeria. If you go to countries like Niger, UK and Ghana, they have different branches of government fighting against human trafficking, but Nigeria has a coordinated approach. The agency not only deals with the litigation aspect of trafficking, but also with its areas of protection and prosecution. NAPTIP has the powers that the police have to prosecute, but the one thing they don’t have are weapons, but because we haven’t been able to build the institution, they’re not unable to deliver the result we need as a nation. I think this is also the main challenge for our commission.
The commission has existed for over 30 years to meet the government’s commitments to all the treaties we have signed internationally, but have we built the institution? This is the question we must ask ourselves and we must tell ourselves the truth 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 to rationalize the activities of NGOs to ensure that they do not become a nuisance in the exercise of their activities?
As I said, we have to be able to rely on the institutions because if we don’t set our parameters, everyone will do what they want. As a country, we have to be very serious about our businesses. Borno is an NGO state and no wonder the governor of Zamfara refused to have camps because when you have them they come in. As a ministry, we have put in place all the right controls, there is one with the Ministry of Budget and National Planning. At the time, there was no humanitarian ministry, but now we have an instrument for each NGO to register. We also have our measurement parameters. An NGO that wants to work in the space for displaced people and refugees must come and register for this purpose. This is what I mean by strengthening our internal framework. Thus, for an NGO to be qualified and work, it must not only come to register and be examined, but also bring its work plan so that it is in line with the national work plan. This is where we are coming from; we are not there yet because there are a lot of gaps but that is the future. We’re so focused that it’s going to happen because there’s a lot of abuse and exploitation around it.