Cameroon Used to Welcome Refugees. Now It Forcibly Expels Them.
Nigerians fleeing violence at home are being kicked out of northern Cameroon and being sent back to areas terrorized by Boko Haram.
There was a time when Cameroon was considered to be one of the most generous refugee-hosting countries in the world. For almost 40 years, it took in hundreds of thousands of refugees who had fled persecution and armed conflicts in countries such as the Central African Republic, Chad, and Nigeria. But this was prior to the emergence of the militant group Boko Haram, a sect operating mostly in Nigeria whose uprising has led to the death of more than 20,000 people and forced millions from their homes as its members seek to establish an Islamic state in the Lake Chad region, which encompasses northeastern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, northern Niger, and western Chad.
Now, with thousands of Nigerians fleeing the jihadis and crossing into Cameroon, which itself is struggling to keep the same fighters at bay, much of that generosity has faded away. Cameroon is facing its own internal crisis, which seems to be shaping its actions toward outsiders. Since the government repressed peaceful protests in 2016 by Anglophone Cameroonians against perceived marginalization, more than 180,000 people have been displaced. Repatriation of Nigerian refugees has increased as the crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions has escalated—with over 10,000 refugees and asylum-seekers forcibly returned in the past 13 months.
In recent weeks, the situation has gotten worse. In one of its biggest clampdowns on asylum-seekers, Cameroonian authorities on Jan. 16 began the forceful repatriation of some 9,000 Nigerian refugees who fled across the border days before in search of safety after militants attacked the border town of Rann in Nigeria’s Borno state, killing at least 14 people.
Most of the returned refugees are reportedly women, children, elderly, or sick. They face an uncertain future back home in Rann; the militants who raided the town recently went on a rampage by targeting civilians, humanitarian facilities, and military installations.
Cameroon’s decision to forcibly repatriate refugees and leave them exposed to such violence is a clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids countries from sending refugees or asylum-seekers back to countries where they face real danger. The law constitutes the cornerstone of the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which the Cameroonian government is a signatory.
When the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria began in 2009, many Nigerians fled into Cameroon, but it was not until early 2013 that the number of Nigerians fleeing to the country became significant. In June of that year, the Cameroonian government, which at that time still acted with great benevolence, responded by setting up a refugee camp able to hold 20,000 people in the northern town of Minawao and allowing asylum-seekers to travel there.
But as the conflict escalated in Nigeria, tens of thousands sought refuge in Minawao, leading to overcrowding. The number of refugees in the camp rose to nearly 100,000 in mid-2015, causing authorities to begin to forcefully return some residents to their home country. Since then, at least 100,000 Nigerians have been deported from Cameroon, with a high of 76,500 asylum-seekers being pushed back in 2016, according to Human Rights Watch. About 110,000 people are still taking refuge in the country, with 90,000 of them at the camp in Minawao.
Efforts to protect refugees and asylum-seekers from being forcefully returned home led to the signing of the Tripartite Agreement for the Voluntary Repatriation of Nigerian refugees living in Cameroon by the governments of Nigeria and Cameroon alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at a ceremony in Yaounde on March 2, 2017. But it didn’t take long for Cameroonian authorities to violate the agreement.
That same month, more than 2,000 people were returned to Nigeria. Between April and May 2017, about 13,000 more were deported from Cameroon—with most of the deportations happening arbitrarily. Cameroonian soldiers have illegally and forcibly returned thousands of Nigerian refugees to the same volatile areas they fled. The country’s soldiers have mistreated, tortured, and abused many of these refugees and asylum-seekers in the course of their forced journey back home.
Last July, six Nigerian asylum-seekers, among them three children, who were being forcibly returned to the Nigerian border town of Banki in a Cameroonian army truck, were killed in a blast in the far north of Cameroon after their vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device in the town of Homaka. The incident is just one of many tragedies that have befallen the refugees and asylum-seekers forced out of Cameroon in military trucks.
The threats are even greater back in Nigeria. Since September 2017, more than a dozen refugees who returned to Nigeria have lost their lives, in most cases killed by Boko Haram foot soldiers during bomb attacks in internally displaced persons camps, where many of them end up after deportation. At least 11 refugees were slaughtered during a blast in the Banki camp in September 2017. Four Nigerians suspected to have returned from Cameroon were killed in a second Boko Haram attack in the camp at the end of June 2018. Others have died of severe malnutrition and illness made worse by the poor living conditions in camps.
The Pulka village camp, where many of the deported refugees and asylum-seekers are living, has a population of tens of thousands. Eight years ago, there were only 30,000 people in the entire village. Now, that number has doubled as a result of the displacement crisis caused by the conflict in the northeast of Nigeria. The humanitarian situation in the village is catastrophic.
“People in Pulka are getting water much lower than the minimum international standard” of at least 15 liters, about four gallons, for each person to use daily, said Luis Eguiluz, the Doctors Without Borders head of mission in Nigeria. “The water level in Pulka [which is below eight liters, about two gallons, per person a day] was just not enough to provide for that many people.”
Human Rights Watch documented many abuses perpetrated by Cameroonian armed forces in the report, “They Forced Us Onto Trucks Like Animals,” released in September 2017. According to the report, soldiers have frequently used extreme physical violence, and some refugees and asylum-seekers “including children, weakened after living for months or years without adequate food and medical care in border areas, have died during or just after the deportations, and children have been separated from their parents.”
How Cameroon moved from being a country so generous to refugees to one that violently deports them is baffling. In 2009, before anyone had ever heard of Boko Haram, Cameroon hosted 91,900 refugees and asylum-seekers, according to the UNHCR, which reported at the time that the country “does not punish asylum seekers for illegal entry, provided they come directly from a country of threat and present themselves immediately to the authorities.”
Today, all that goodwill has vanished. Cameroon no longer guarantees freedom for many refugees and asylum-seekers. It instead puts them in harm’s way.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian government has said little or nothing about these forceful deportations. The issue has not been taken up by candidates running for president in the country’s upcoming elections, as both President Muhammadu Buhari and his challenger, Atiku Abubakar, tend to focus their attention on the troubled economy and growing insecurity in the north. But whoever emerges victorious in the Feb. 16 vote has a responsibility to remind Cameroon of its obligations under international law when it comes to the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers and meet with Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, to put an end to forcible deportations.
The international community, for its part, must take more drastic action in order to force Cameroon to listen. Numerous warnings by the United Nations have clearly fallen on deaf ears, and repeating them continuously will likely bring same results. Western nations—particularly the United States—continue to offer financial and technical support to Cameroon’s military and are therefore in a position to demand changes. Washington appears to be planning to withdraw some aid, according to reports, and that is a step in the right direction. But it will take more concerted pressure. For a country that depends so much on foreign security assistance, only the threat of losing the goodwill of the West is likely to force Cameroon to change its ways.
Correction, Feb. 13, 2019: The minimum water requirement for people in humanitarian emergencies is 15 liters per person daily. A previous version of this article misstated this amount.