Budu, carrying her young brother on her back in Ngala reception center. 

More than 70,000 people live in the Ngala camps, the most congested in Nigeria. They are located in the North East of the country, close to the border with Cameroon and at the heart of the conflict between the Nigerian armed forces and Boko Haram. 

Living conditions are inhumane with more than 7,000 people crammed into the reception centre for months, waiting to receive a shelter that does not come, due to lack of space.

Meanwhile, Budu and her family have been trying to survive in the reception centre for the past four months. She and her family of 8 people have fled their village near Barte in fear of attacks.  They live in a makeshift shelter made of torn canvas and wood, amidst hundreds of other similar shelters.

Taken: 10 March 2020
Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

When the virus looms over crowded camps

Overcrowding, fragile shelters, unsanitary conditions, fires and flooding. This uninterrupted cycle of challenges hits vulnerable displaced families every year in north-east Nigeria.

In Al Yacub camp, the heavy rains and wind of the previous week swept the latrines away. The entire structure, made of sheet metal, tipped over and collapsed in a large puddle of mud.

In Kawar Maila camp, a big tree was uprooted and toppled over, destroying shelters in its fall.

These informal settlements are extremely exposed to the harsh weather conditions of north-east Nigeria. The shelters, often improvised constructions of straw, sticks, cloth and metal sheeting, are crammed into small patches of lands. They are left barely standing after the heavy windstorms that hit the region every summer.

Covid-19: an additional threat

North-east Nigeria region has seen over a decade of raging conflict between non-state armed groups and government forces. Civilians have borne the brunt of this uninterrupted violence and, according to the Humanitarian Needs Overview, 1.8 million people remain displaced after being forced to flee their homes.

Last month, the estimated number of people in urgent need of lifesaving assistance in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states reached 10.6 million according to the Humanitarian Response Plan. This figure represents the highest recorded number of people in need since the beginning of the coordinated humanitarian response in 2015.

Bilkisu and her children sitting in front of their makeshift tent - Ngala reception center.

''In the last 6 years, I’ve been forced to move three times. The first two times I was fleeing violent attacks, and then the third time because of floods,” says Bilkisu, 33, a mother of three living in Ngala reception center.

"I don't even recall how many months we have been here, my husband and my son built our hut with the support of some other people and we have been living there since then. We have nothing but this hut and some coal to make fire."

Bilkisu and her family are part of the 7,000 people crammed in Ngala reception center. The overcrowding of camps in NE Nigeria entails alarming living conditions, with a general lack of basic hygiene and water facilities, with families sometimes forced to sleep in the open or cram themselves into makeshift shelters or tents. In these conditions, implementing the basic measures of hygiene is more than challenging. 

''Most of the people here have been defecating in the open, usually running to the nearby bush. Some of the tents are just next to ponds full of crap and feces, I tell my children to stay away so they don't get sick." she says

Taken: 10 March 2020
Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC
Read caption Displaced families are incredibly vulnerable to Covid-19 and other diseases when they are living in overcrowded conditions. Picture taken in Ngala camp transit camp. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

It is in this context that the threat of Covid-19 looms. Officially, at least one case of Covid-19 has been detected in 12 displacement sites in the north-east. However, the highly infectious nature of the virus, combined with overcrowding and the prevalence of other diseases, will have serious implications for people in camps.

No space for social distancing

Fatima* is one of the people in need of assistance. She is currently living in an overcrowded displacement camp. A year ago, she tried to go back home, thinking that the situation in her village had stabilised but once there, the insecurity deteriorated again. “[Groups of armed men] could come in the night and do what they want and escape. The next day the army would also come into town and make us feel uncomfortable.”

“…[The armed men] might come in the night and do what they want and escape and the next day the army would also come into town and make us feel restless…This is the second time I have been displaced, after we left at first the security situation was calm and then we went back to village. The situation deteriorated again and we were forced to leave....During the day we spend the day under the sun, and in the night we spend it in the cold weather. We have no place to go to and we do not know anyone in this town.” Fatima, (real name withheld) a displaced woman in the displacement camp in Monguno..”  

Interview conducted on 12 March 2020 in Monguno.
Photo by Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC
Read caption Fatima has been forced to flee several times as she feared for her life. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

Living in forced displacement for years, families like Fatima’s have no choice but to settle in overcrowded camps. A quarter of all formal and informal camps in the north-east are drastically overcrowded, leaving only 3 to 15 square meters of liveable surface per person. This is three times lower than the minimum humanitarian standards.

Security concerns surrounding the camps limit the space available for dwellings and basic services such as latrines, boreholes and schools. Displaced communities in camps are left with no choice but to share communal shelters, or sometimes sleep in the open.

“During the day we are under the sun, then we spend the night in cold weather. We have no place to go to and we do not know anyone in this town,” says Fatima.

Practicing proper social distancing and regular handwashing in these unsanitary and congested conditions is unrealistic. Urgent measures to decongest overcrowded camps are desperately needed.

Taken: 12 March 2020
Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC
Read caption Aerial view of Monguno displacement camp. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC

Cycle of disaster

Beyond jeopardising the fight against Covid-19, the congestion in camps plunges displaced people in a cycle of hazards and disasters. All year round, the safety, dignity and privacy of residents are frequently compromised, especially for women and girls who are at risk of gender-based violence.

Every year, deadly fires devastate camps in the spring at the peak of the hot season. The rainy season that follows brings along a high risk of flooding and damage to homes and infrastructure, as well as outbreaks of malaria and waterborne diseases like cholera. Within the last few weeks alone, rainstorms left hundreds of shelters flooded or even destroyed. Paths and streets within the camps have turned into large mud pools, limiting movements for the elderly and those with a disability. Stagnant and brown water accumulating next to latrines or water points can quickly be contaminated and carry deadly diseases.

Our response

Since March, our teams have been working to prevent the spread of Covid-19 across north-east Nigeria. We have performed regular awareness raising sessions on the importance of hygiene and social distancing. We have also installed hundreds of handwashing stations and distributed thousands of kits consisting of soap, buckets and other items to help people practice improved hygiene.

In addition, we have recruited and trained community-based workers to raise awareness among their communities, monitor essential services in the camps and look for gaps in the provision. Committees within the community have been set up to maintain the different handwashing stations.

During the lockdown, these community-based workers continued to hold hygiene sessions and Covid-19 prevention sessions. They came up with their own ways to promote social distancing, using white powder and ashes to make visible lines or circles that serve as a demarcation.

Covid-19 is not the only disease threatening people living in these conditions. Cholera is also a significant threat as the heavy rain continues. We have prepared cholera kits, including hydration tablets, water purification tablets, soaps and containers in preparation for a potential outbreak.

With the rainy season, our teams are on the ground daily, working with the displaced communities to rehabilitate damaged shelters and latrines. Together we identify areas prone to flooding and fill the ground with sand to reduce the risks, or dig drainage to evacuate the water.


The humanitarian response to the coronavirus crisis is more challenging than ever. Most importantly, more space is desperately needed to relocate shelters away from flood-prone areas and tackle overcrowding, whilst battling to limit the risk of Covid-19.

The rainstorms early July have heavily shaken Al Miskin transit camp. In this informal site in Maiduguri, most of the shelters are makeshift and can hardly sustain the heavy rains and winds. Paths and streets within the camps have turned into large mud pools, limiting movements for those disability or the elderly. Stagnant and brown water accumulating next to latrines or water points can quickly be contaminated and carry deadly diseases like cholera.

In this picture, a communty based worker is using a water pump to evacuate the water. This is supported by OFDA.

Credit: Mathilde Vu/NRC
Read caption Heavy rains early July have turned roads and paths into large pools of muddy water in the displacement camps of Maiduguri. A community-based worker attempts to pump the water out of the path. Photo: Mathilde Vu/NRC