U.S. Opens Door to Ukrainian Refugees, Shuts It for Others From Africa

People fleeing conflict in Cameroon wonder why they aren’t getting the same treatment as Ukrainians.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Migrants, including Cameroonians, travel toward the United States in Panama.
Migrants, including Cameroonians, travel toward the United States in Panama.
Migrants mainly from Cameroon, Haiti, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Bangladesh, and Angola cross the border between Colombia and Panama on their way to attempt to cross into the United States, in La Peñita village, Panama, on May 22, 2019. Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

Refugee and immigration advocates cheered the Biden administration’s decision to extend temporary protected status to Ukrainians in the United States, offering them safe harbor from the devastation of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. But that swift designation has brought about difficult new questions for the administration on its handling of asylum-seekers from other war-torn countries—primarily Cameroon. People fleeing conflict and violence from the Central African country have for five years sought from Washington the same protections that Ukrainians were granted after one week of conflict.

For refugee advocates and human rights activists, the difference between U.S. policy on refugees from Ukraine and Cameroon is a split-screen that encapsulates the Biden administration’s approach to immigration and refugee policies. They argue that U.S. President Joe Biden has been too slow to reverse the crackdown on immigration and refugees from his predecessor Donald Trump’s administration, and say Biden’s rush to extend temporary protected status (TPS) to Ukrainians while still blocking Cameroonians from the same protections point to an inherent racism in U.S. immigration policy.

“Where so many of us are exasperated is that Ukraine can have a designation in such a short amount of time, and yet the Cameroonians are still being told to wait,” said Amy Fischer, an advocacy director at Amnesty International.

Refugee and immigration advocates cheered the Biden administration’s decision to extend temporary protected status to Ukrainians in the United States, offering them safe harbor from the devastation of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. But that swift designation has brought about difficult new questions for the administration on its handling of asylum-seekers from other war-torn countries—primarily Cameroon. People fleeing conflict and violence from the Central African country have for five years sought from Washington the same protections that Ukrainians were granted after one week of conflict.

For refugee advocates and human rights activists, the difference between U.S. policy on refugees from Ukraine and Cameroon is a split-screen that encapsulates the Biden administration’s approach to immigration and refugee policies. They argue that U.S. President Joe Biden has been too slow to reverse the crackdown on immigration and refugees from his predecessor Donald Trump’s administration, and say Biden’s rush to extend temporary protected status (TPS) to Ukrainians while still blocking Cameroonians from the same protections point to an inherent racism in U.S. immigration policy.

“Where so many of us are exasperated is that Ukraine can have a designation in such a short amount of time, and yet the Cameroonians are still being told to wait,” said Amy Fischer, an advocacy director at Amnesty International.

“There’s clearly no way to look at it other than to say one is a country that is making the headlines and is full of white faces, and the other one is not making the headlines and is a predominantly Black country,” Fischer added.

The Department of Homeland Security and the White House National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment. But Biden administration and Homeland Security officials have in the past held up their extensions of TPS to asylum-seekers from Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia to counter claims that the immigration and refugee system discriminates against Africans.

Since 2017, Cameroon has been beset by violence and instability that has sparked a widespread humanitarian crisis and driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Two major conflicts are fueling the country’s instability. The first is a conflict between the Cameroonian government, led by longtime Cameroonian President Paul Biya, and separatists from the English-speaking minority. That conflict, which began in 2017, has killed at least 4,000 civilians, forced over 700,000 to flee their homes, and left over 2.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Cameroon also faces a violent insurgency from the Islamist extremist terrorist group, Boko Haram, in the country’s north that has displaced some 340,000 people.

Refugee rights activists have been vexed by the Biden administration’s slow-walking of a TPS designation for Cameroon, saying the administration hasn’t been forthcoming with them about whether Cameroonians in the United States would be extended this protective status. If TPS won’t be granted, advocates at least want to know why it would be withheld. Instead, the decision has been stuck in a bureaucratic limbo as it awaits a final determination from officials at the Homeland Security Department and White House.

“This is something we have been trying for a long, long time,” said Daniel Tse, an advocate for Cameroonian asylum-seekers with the Haitian Bridge Alliance nonprofit organization.

For Tse, the fight is personal. He fled to the United States from Cameroon and successfully won his asylum case, but only after being detained in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities for over a year. For the past two years, he has been coordinating an advocacy campaign to help Cameroonians gain TPS with U.S.-based diaspora groups and other immigrant rights organizations.

He said he was disappointed by the Biden administration’s slow-walking of Cameroon’s TPS designation compared to Ukraine’s. “If the system doesn’t favor minority countries, we are not really surprised,” he said. “But it just hurts me that the world and the Biden administration keeps failing us after making all these promises.”

Spokespeople for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the White House National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment.

The TPS system, managed through the Department of Homeland Security, grants legal status and work permits to foreign citizens of countries wracked by crisis, such as ongoing armed conflict or natural disasters. Importantly, TPS only extends to foreigners who are already in the United States at the date the TPS is enacted, not those outside the country trying to gain entry. TPS is typically assigned for a period of six, 12, or 18 months, but it can be extended—and often is. Other countries that have TPS designations in addition to Ukraine include Myanmar, El Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.

A TPS designation for Cameroon would apply to approximately 40,000 people in the United States currently, according to estimates from immigrant and refugee rights organizations.

The campaign to get Cameroonians TPS designations has found allies on Capitol Hill, where the progressive flank of the Democratic Party has hammered Biden over being too slow to roll back restrictive policies on allowing the flow of immigrants and asylum-seekers into the United States.

In the House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, has issued calls on Biden to grant Cameroonians TPS. On the Senate side, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and 17 other Democratic senators sent a letter to Biden in March calling for a TPS designation for Cameroon, citing in part the harsh treatment by the Cameroonian government of asylum-seekers who are forcibly repatriated by the United States.

“The Cameroonian government’s continued crackdowns on political opposition and dissent and security forces’ documented use of incommunicado detention and torture create risks for anyone deported to Cameroon,” the senators wrote.

Refugee advocates say not yet granting a TPS designation for Cameroonians is a downright failure by the Biden administration. A report released in February by Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit advocacy organization, found that Cameroonians forcibly returned to their home country faced persecution and other serious human rights violations. The report concluded that the United States “violated the principle of nonrefoulement, a cornerstone of international refugee and human rights law.” Nonrefoulement is an international principle forbidding a country from forcibly returning asylum-seekers to their home country if they would face persecution or violence there.

The report also concluded that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, overseeing the deportation of Cameroonians who sought asylum in the United States, “failed to protect confidential asylum documents during deportations, leading to document confiscation and apparent retribution by Cameroonian authorities.”

In its report, Human Rights Watch documented cases of Cameroonians who were forcibly deported being beaten, tortured, or raped by Cameroonian state agents after being deported from the United States.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Sara Hagos is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @_sarahagos

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