While You Weren't Looking

If history has taught us one thing, it’s that while we’re focused on one crisis, the next is just around the corner. A weekly update on emerging global stories, written by Foreign Policy staff writer Amy Mackinnon. Delivered Monday.

U.S. Treatment of Cameroonian Asylum-Seekers Is ‘Tantamount to Torture,’ Advocates Say

A legal complaint details how ICE officers forced some detainees to sign their own deportation orders.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A group of migrants from Mali, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon travel on board the Spanish NGO Maydayterraneo's Aita Mari rescue boat on Feb. 10.
A group of migrants from Mali, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon travel on board the Spanish NGO Maydayterraneo's Aita Mari rescue boat on Feb. 10. PABLO GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly update on emerging global stories.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: A complaint details abuse against Cameroonian asylum-seekers at the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, the rift deepens between the leaders of France and Turkey, and why Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests could mark a major turning point.

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Asylum-Seekers Face Violent ICE Coercion

U.S. immigration officers have threatened, pepper-sprayed, beaten, and choked asylum-seekers from Cameroon to coerce them to sign their own deportation orders, the Guardian reports. A coalition of advocacy groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a complaint earlier this month describing a “pattern of coercion” by ICE agents at a Mississippi detention center that it called “tantamount to torture.”

According to multiple accounts in the complaint, immigration officials used the coercive tactics to compel detainees to sign documents that would waive their rights to further immigration hearings. At least one individual was hospitalized as a result.

One man, identified by the initials C.A., described how officers broke his fingers as they sought to force his fingerprint onto a document. “Officers grabbed me, forced me on the ground, and pepper-sprayed my eyes. … I was crying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ because they were forcefully on top of me pressing their body weight on top of me. My eyes were so hot. They dragged me outside by both hands,” said the individual, who was prevented from speaking to his lawyer before signing the document.

C.A. was placed on a deportation flight on Oct. 13 but was one of two Cameroonians pulled off the plane moments before takeoff, as an investigation had begun into the allegations of abuse. At least 100 asylum-seekers, including many from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were deported on the same flight.

After the European Union curbed the arrival of asylum-seekers and migrants, Cameroonians and other Africans turned to the United States, traveling via South America. But this isn’t the first time Cameroonian detainees have voiced concerns about their treatment there. In February, more than 40 Cameroonians at Pine Prairie detention center in Louisiana went on hunger strike, alleging “biased and illegal efforts” on the part of ICE to deny them parole and refuse the receipt of their parole applications, as well as “unfair, biased” decisions on the part of an immigration judge.

For two consecutive years, the Norwegian Refugee Council has deemed Cameroon the world’s most neglected displacement crisis due to an insurgency in the north and a brutal government crackdown on two English-speaking separatist regions. Since 2016, the two conflicts have killed over 3,000 people and displaced more than 700,000. On Saturday, at least seven children were killed when gunmen stormed a bilingual private school in Kumba, in the Anglophone region. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but local authorities have blamed separatist fighters.

Human rights advocates say Cameroonian asylum-seekers face significant risk if they are deported to the country. The gravity of the threat to them is reflected in U.S. immigration courts: 80 percent of Cameroonians won their asylum claims in fiscal 2019, compared to the 29 percent average, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

What We’re Following

Macron-Erdogan spat deepens. The French foreign ministry announced on Sunday that it would recall its ambassador to Turkey after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan questioned French President Emmanuel Macron’s mental health and his attitudes toward Muslims. Tensions between the two NATO members have spiraled in recent months over the conflicts in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as Turkey’s energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Earlier this month, Macron described Islam as “in crisis” around the world and said that a new bill later this year would reinforce France’s strict separation of church and state. Macron’s remarks drew sharp rebuke across the Islamic world, sparking calls for a boycott of French products. Macron’s comments came after a French teacher was beheaded after he showed a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in class.

Nigeria’s growing protests. At least 12 protesters were shot and killed last Tuesday when police opened fire on demonstrators at two different locations in Lagos, Nigeria. The recent protests against police brutality began on Oct. 3, after a video emerged of a young man being shot by an officer from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Delta state. The force has been accused of perpetrating brutal human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, for years. Despite the announcement on Oct. 11 that SARS would be disbanded, protests have continued, demanding sweeping reforms to the way the country is governed.

As protests erupted around the world following the police killing of George Floyd in May, Patrick Egwu wrote for Foreign Policy that police brutality in Nigeria was going unnoticed. “Whenever anyone is killed by the police in Nigeria, fancy hashtag activism for justice trends for some days. A moment later, everything returns to normal, and life continues,” he wrote. The recent wave of #EndSARS protests may prove to be a turning point, as they have become a lightning rod for youth discontent against the country’s ruling elite.

Hopes for peace in Libya. The two main factions in Libya’s civil war agreed to a nationwide cease-fire at U.N.-backed talks in Geneva on Friday. Previous attempts to broker an end to the yearslong conflict have failed, but the new agreement has cautiously raised hopes that it will lay the groundwork for a peace deal. The cease-fire, signed by the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, calls for all front-line forces to return to their bases and all mercenaries and foreign troops to withdraw within three months.

The Libyan conflict has drawn in a multitude of international players, including Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Their actions in the coming months could make or break the cease-fire. Today, the United Nations announced the launch of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum to facilitate talks within the country and lay the groundwork for national elections.

Venezuelan opposition figure flees. After sheltering in the residence of the Spanish ambassador for 18 months, Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo López fled the country on Saturday and is expected to join his family in Spain today. He was imprisoned in 2014 as mass anti-government protests began and released on house arrest in 2017. A mentor to opposition leader Juan Guaidó, López helped to orchestrate the opposition’s bid to challenge the legitimacy of Maduro’s rule in early 2019 from behind the scenes.

His departure leaves Guaidó without a key ally as Maduro seeks to squeeze the opposition ahead of legislative elections set to be held on Dec. 6.

Keep an Eye On 

With friends like these. Last Thursday, the Trump administration signed on to an anti-abortion declaration alongside 32 other countries, including Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, and Uganda. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar took part in a virtual signing ceremony of the Geneva Consensus Declaration, which declares “that there is no international right to abortion.” The document runs counter to the U.N. Human Rights Council’s declaration that access to abortion is a human right.

Carbon neutral Japan. In his first speech to parliament since taking office last month, Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga committed to making the country carbon neutral by 2050. The world’s fifth-largest carbon emitter, Japan has been criticized for continuing to build coal power plants: 17 new coal-powered plants are currently planned or under construction.

In 2019, the European Union announced plans to become carbon neutral by 2050. And last month Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China, the world’s worst polluter, would seek to reach the same goal by 2060. The announcements have thrown the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement into sharp relief.

A new president in the Seychelles. An opposition candidate has won the presidency in the Seychelles for the first time since the archipelago secured its independence from the United Kingdom over four decades ago. Wavel Ramkalawan, the leader of the Seychelles Democratic Alliance and an Anglican priest, was elected president and his party secured two-thirds of the seats in parliament in legislative elections held last week. Incumbent President Danny Faure, whose party has been in power since the late 1970s, conceded defeat. The U.S. State Department described the election as “another major milestone in Seychelles’s democracy.”

That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack