DAKAR, Nov 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Boko Haram violence in the drought and flood-stricken swamplands of Lake Chad, which has destroyed livelihoods, torn communities apart and forced millions to flee their homes, could worsen Europe's migration crisis, a United Nations official has warned.
A regional offensive by Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon earlier this year drove the militant group from much of the territory it held in northern Nigeria, undermining its six-year campaign to carve out an Islamist caliphate.
But the militants have since struck back with a renewed wave of deadly raids and suicide bombings, prompting Chad to declare on Monday a state of emergency in the Lake Chad region - giving authorities new powers to search and monitor residents.
More than 2.5 million people have been uprooted by conflict in the four countries since May 2013, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.
The plight of African migrants struggling to reach Europe has stirred international alarm, and the vast number of people displaced could fuel migration across the Mediterranean, said Toby Lanzer, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel.
"There is every chance that some of these people will seek refuge further afield," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The combination of abject poverty, environmental degradation and lack of opportunities for young people could also fuel further violence and insecurity in the region, Lanzer said on Monday.
"Given the vast numbers of youths in the Lake Chad Basin... the ground is ripe for extremist groups to go in and recruit."
Lanzer spoke ahead of an EU-Africa summit on migration on Wednesday in Malta, where the European Union is set to announce a 1.8 billion euro ($1.94 billion) trust fund to tackle the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement in Africa.
"Migration will become far more serious if we don't address underlying causes of poverty, climate change and violence," Lanzer said.
LIVES WRECKED, TRADE DISRUPTED
Lake Chad - which suffers from cyclical droughts and floods - was once one of the world's largest lakes but has shrunk by 90 percent in the last 50 years.
This, coupled with rising insecurity, has destroyed people's livelihoods including fishing and farming, reduced cross-border trade and left communities increasingly dependent on humanitarian aid, according to OCHA.
"Lives have been wrecked, the economy is in tatters and terms of trade have been severely disrupted," Lanzer added.
Around 2.1 million of the 2.5 million displaced are living in Nigeria, while 400,000 have been forced across borders to seek refuge in or been uprooted within Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, according to the latest OCHA figures.
Most are living with local communities, piling pressure on families already struggling to survive, aid agencies say.
"Communities have been torn apart and the social fabric has been badly disrupted by violence, triggering intercommunal tension," said Christian Wabnitz, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operations coordinator for Lake Chad.
Health facilities are lacking staff, equipment and basic medicines, malnutrition rates are soaring, and the rainy season threatens a rise in malaria and cholera cases, Wabnitz said.
Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) has deployed mobile medical services across the region to help those uprooted by the conflict, but said it could not reach all the displaced due to the "volatile and unpredictable situation".
"We remain very concerned for those who are unable to reach healthcare because they feel it is too unsafe to travel, or they live somewhere without medical services," said Federica Alberti, MSF head of mission for Chad.
The violence has hit women and children particularly hard as they are being abducted, raped and trafficked, forced to work as lookouts and used as suicide bombers, according to OCHA.
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(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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