By Misha Hussain and Abdoulaye Massalaki
DAKAR/NIAMEY (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some 20,000 Nigerians have fled to Chad, Niger and Cameroon in the past two weeks after their towns and villages were attacked by Islamist sect Boko Haram, according to the United Nations and government figures.
The influx of refugees has put further strain on some of the poorest nations in Africa, which are already struggling to feed and protect their own people in a region that is recovering from drought.
Human rights group Amnesty International says Boko Haram may have killed some 2,000 people around Jan. 3 in Baga in northern Nigeria.
The Sunni Muslim sect, which is trying to carve out an Islamic state in the largely Muslim north of Nigeria, has killed thousands in a five-year rebellion which is seen as the biggest security threat to Africa's top oil producer and is a headache for President Goodluck Jonathan ahead of an election on Feb. 14.
In the past 10 days, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates 6,000 Nigerian refugees have fled east into Cameroon and a further 1,500 have gone north to seek shelter in Niger.
Chad estimates 13,000 people have entered its western Lake Chad region. Some have drowned in their attempt to flee, others have been left stranded on lake islands awaiting rescue boats.
"We are preparing for things getting much worse, not better," said Karl Steinacker, UNHCR country representative in Niger, where around 150,000 people have taken shelter since the insurgency in Nigeria began five years ago.
Steinacker told the Thomson Reuters Foundation a lack of jobs, high food prices and the sudden increase in population in Niger's eastern Diffa area, the part most affected by the refugee influx, were putting pressure on scarce resources.
"In Diffa, people can no longer cross into Nigeria for work as it's too dangerous. But farmers in Niger are exporting to Nigeria where prices are higher due to the violence, so locals can't afford to eat," Steinacker said by telephone from Niamey.
Niger said it had launched an emergency operation on Monday to help the refugees seeking shelter in Diffa, a sparsely populated desert area.
"Today we are launching this emergency plan totaling 20 billion francs ($36 million) to help the refugees," said Interior and Public Security Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou.
A first shipment of 800 tonnes of cereals, 1,880 blankets, 2,200 mosquito nets and other essential supplies had left the capital Niamey for the Diffa region, he said.
The Boko Haram insurgency began in 2009, but the number and scale of attacks rose sharply last year after the government imposed emergency rule in the three worst-hit states in northern Nigeria.
In October 2014 Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon agreed in Niamey to coordinate a military response to the fight against Boko Haram, but the deal is all but dead, according to sources at the United Nations.
Massaoudou called on donors to help the refugees in Niger. Earlier this month, Chad appealed for humanitarian aid and Cameroon asked for foreign military assistance to help fight the insurgency.
(Reporting by Misha Hussain in Dakar and Abdoulaye Massalaki in Niamey; Editing by Tim Pearce)