LAGOS • Some 500,000 children have been forced to flee Boko Haram militants in the last five months after an upsurge in attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) said.
As a result, the total number of children in the Lake Chad region who have been forced to flee has shot up to 1.4 million, Unicef said in a statement yesterday.
Nigeria was the worst affected, with nearly 1.2 million children - more than half of them under five years old - uprooted by the Islamist insurgency, which is concentrated in the country's remote north-east.
Some 265,000 other children have been affected in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which Boko Haram has increasingly targeted after the countries joined Nigeria in a regional counter-offensive.
"Each of these children running for their lives is a childhood cut short," said Mr Manuel Fontaine, Unicef regional director for West and Central Africa. "It's truly alarming to see that children and women continue to be killed, abducted and used to carry bombs."
The report was issued less than a week after what appeared to be the first Boko Haram bombing of a camp in Nigeria for people displaced by the group. The bombing in Yola - capital of eastern Nigeria's Adamawa state, an area that had been considered secure, raised new concerns about Boko Haram's reach.
The militant group has been fighting to establish a hardline Islamic state in north-east Nigeria since 2009. It made international headlines for its abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, Nigeria, in April last year.
At least 15,000 people have been killed since then, some 1,100 of them in a wave of suicide bombings, deadly raids and bomb attacks since Mr Muhammadu Buhari became Nigerian President on May 29.
Mr Buhari has said he is confident that "conventional" attacks will be stopped by November, although suicide and homemade bomb attacks could continue.
Earlier this month, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) revised upwards its estimate of those internally displaced by the conflict from 1.5 million to more than 2.1 million because of the recent surge in attacks.
The IOM's Nigeria head of mission Enira Krdzalic said many internally displaced people (IDP) living in host communities had yet to receive basic food and shelter. She called for more to be done.
The charity Medecins Sans Frontieres also appealed for international help on Wednesday, after 16 people died and 172 fell ill in a cholera outbreak at three IDP camps in north-east Nigeria.
The UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel region, Mr Toby Lanzer, said thousands of Nigerians who fled to a refugee camp in south-east Niger were in an "atrocious" situation.
Unicef said it has increased its operations in the Lake Chad region, including child vaccination schemes, education and counselling.
Nearly 65,000 children under five have received treatment for severe acute malnutrition, it added.
But Mr Fontaine said more funding was needed because the agency has received only a third of the US$50.3 million (S$70.5 million) required to finance its operations in the Lake Chad region this year.
That has left over 124,000 children hit by the violence unvaccinated against measles. Some 208,000 are out of school and over 83,000 lack access to safe drinking water.
"With more refugees and not enough resources, our ability to deliver life-saving assistance on the ground is now seriously compromised," said Mr Fontaine.