The Country Director of Jesuit Refugee Services Nigeria, Fr. Patrick Etamesor, speaks to Vatican News on the creation of the charity organization in the country, its work among displaced populations and the need for a multiform response to the security challenges faced by Africa’s most populous nation.

In recent years, Nigeria has been fighting an ongoing battle with insecurity, fuelled by violent religious extremism mostly linked to Boko haram, and the activities of so-called “bandits” who have been responsible for raids on villages, kidnappings and killings.

The violence, mostly concentrated in the northern and middle-belt areas of the country, has led to the deaths of tens of thousands, displaced millions of people and dealt a heavy blow to the nation, impacting education, access to healthcare, religion and other socio-economic activities.

While the Nigerian government and security operatives continue to work to tackle the situation, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) - an international Catholic organization with a mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees and forcibly displaced persons – is directing its resources to respond to the needs of the populations made vulnerable by insecurity.

JRS Country Director for Nigeria, Fr. Patrick Etamesor SJ, spoke to Vatican News, highlighting the reason for the creation of the Nigerian branch of JRS and the ongoing work of the Jesuit-run refugee service in the country.

The creation of JRS Nigeria

Fr. Etamesor explains that JRS Nigeria was created in 2018 as a “clear response to the needs and concerns that were prevalent across the country at the time and still are,” pointing at the insurgency in the northeast of Nigeria and other social issues.

In the face of the situation, the provincial of the North-West Africa Province of the Society of Jesus, under which Nigeria falls, highlighted the need to JRS international director, Fr. Tom Smolich SJ, who set plans in motion to ensure that JRS shaped a response to meet the needs of the suffering, displaced people in the country.

JRS was originally founded in November 1980 by the then Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Pedro Arrupe SJ, in response to the plight of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their war-ravaged country. Today, JRS has programmes in over 50 countries worldwide, in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.

The work of JRS Nigeria

The JRS country director notes that the context of the organization’s work in Nigeria is “vast and at the same time very complex,” as it also covers a large geographical area.

In the north-east, where there have been more reports of the activities of insurgents, he says that JRS is doing its best to be true to its motto (to accompany, serve and defend) by serving the internally displaced people and meeting them at the point of their need, including offering educational services (refurbishment of schools, training of teachers), promoting social entrepreneurship and advocacy work in the field of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) and child protection.

The northwest of the country, for its part, has seen a lot of instances of kidnappings and banditry, and is also a point of focus of JRS. There is also a growing number of internally displaced persons in the region.

To further put the situation in perspective, Fr. Etamesor says that according to UNICEF, an estimated 12.8 million people have been affected by the crisis in the northeast and northwest of Nigeria, and of that number, 2.3 million have become displaced.

Fr. Etamesor insists that JRS “goes to the place where the people in need are” (in host communities or settlements) and attempts to provide a good response notwithstanding the challenge of their multifold needs which no one organization can fully cater to.

Need for a multifaceted response

Drawing from his experience of working with JRS and his first-hand contact with the situation of displaced people, Fr. Etamesor recommends a response with various components to the multi-faceted challenge faced by the northern region of Nigeria.

The Jesuit priest insists that military action or giving humanitarian aid, as specific responses on their own, will not be sufficient to respond to the security crisis. And even though “speaking up always helps” that too, falls short of what is needed.

Rather, he stresses, there is a need to ensure a coordinated response from political, government, humanitarian, religious and development actors. This response should also include an economic dimension, including directing funding to the area and ensuring that the funds are properly spent.

“It's only when all of these various sectors coalesce together,” Fr. Etamesor underlines, “that we can begin to see how to chart a way forward out of the various multiform conflicts that the country finds itself currently.”

This article first appeared on Vatican News