Over 40,000 people have fled violence in recent weeks by armed groups in northwestern Nigeria near the border with Niger, a region prone to communal clashes between herders and farmers, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday.
The UN agency said the refugees, "mainly desperate women and children", were being allowed to seek protection in Niger despite border closures as a result of the new coronavirus pandemic.
"Ongoing violence in parts of northwestern Nigeria forced an estimated 23,000 people to seek safety and security in Niger last month," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement.
"Fearing and fleeing the same insecurity in the border areas, an additional 19,000 Niger nationals have become displaced inside their own country," it added.
"Those fleeing speak of extreme violence unleashed against civilians, murders, kidnappings for ransom and pillaging and looting of villages," the statement said.
Gangs of mainly Fulani herders, in frequent conflict with farmers over land and water rights, started cattle rustling and small-scale criminality decades back.
Lately, they have exploited a security vacuum to become essentially an insurgent army of thousands.
The flight to Niger takes the total number of refugees fleeing that part of Nigeria to more than 60,000 since the first influx in April last year, it said.
The latest influx follows bloodshed in the Nigerian states of Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara, the agency said.
In the worst single day of violence, on April 18, bandits riding more than 100 motorbikes killed 47 people in coordinated pre-dawn raids on several farming villages in Katsina State.
The bandits were thought to be members of criminal gangs specialising in cattle theft and kidnap for ransom in the area.
Boko Haram attacks
Niger is also beset by jihadist violence, notably around Lake Chad, where the borders of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria converge.
The area around Diffa, a city of around 200,000 people located near the Nigerian border, has been repeatedly attacked by fighters of Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a Boko Haram splinter group.
The Diffa region shelters more than 300,000 Nigerian refugees and internally displaced people.
Overall, Niger hosts more than half a million refugees, from Mali and Burkina Faso as well as Nigeria, according to a recent UN report.
Boko Haram's insurgency has claimed more than 36,000 lives since it began in northeastern Nigeria in 2009 and displaced nearly two million from their homes.
Around 4,000 people were killed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso last year in jihadist violence, which is often intertwined with inter-community tensions, according to a UN estimate.
Niger, Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon and Chad, have set up a multinational joint task force aimed at rolling back jihadists in the region with the help of local self-defence units.
But Chad, considered the best fighting force in the region, said last month it would fight jihadists only within its own borders after suffering heavy troop losses.