Cameroon has forcibly returned 385 refugees to Nigeria this year, most of them in the past month, a United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report reveals. This despite the country’s commitment as recently as 2017 to facilitate the safe return of Nigerian refugees fleeing Boko Haram violence.
By doing this, Cameroon is violating both national and international law. It is also putting vulnerable refugees at risk, and is eroding the effectiveness of protection frameworks and supporting extremist narratives.
Roughly 110 000 Nigerians have fled to Cameroon from Boko Haram-related violence. Of these, the UNHCR has registered 87 600. The Minawao refugee camp was built in 2013 specifically for Nigerians. The camp has capacity for 20 000 but reports indicate it hosts over 70 000. At least 30 000 additional refugees have been living in villages surrounding the Minawao camp and make up the bulk of the forced returns.
The Cameroonian government claims that Nigerian refugees constitute a security and economic threat, but has provided no evidence that Nigerian asylum seekers or refugees have been involved in attacks. Despite mounting evidence, Cameroon denies deporting refugees and claims they have merely moved people to safer localities.
After two years of quiet efforts to curtail forced returns, the UNHCR published two reports in May 2017 documenting over 90 000 returns since January 2015. The UNHCR has since formed a tripartite commission with Nigeria and Cameroon to facilitate safe, voluntary returns that Cameroon has repeatedly violated.
A September 2017 report by Human Rights Watch claimed Cameroon had summarily deported more than 100 000 Nigerians, with evidence that soldiers beat people to force them to comply. Allegations of torture and human rights abuses, including unlawful detention, torture and killing, have been lodged against the Cameroonian government.
New Nigerian arrivals are reportedly being aggressively screened, accused of being members or wives of Boko Haram, tortured and moved to remote locations away from UNHCR access. Gross abuses have been reported in the Minawao camp, including a lack of food, water and healthcare and restrictions on refugees’ rights to move freely.
Cameroon has a legitimate right to monitor who is in the country, but assuming Nigerian nationals are linked to extremists is false and distracts from the real issues. It also has dangerous consequences. Refugees forcefully returned from Cameroon to north-east Nigeria face displacement and destitution.
They are returned to a conflict region with no access to resources or support. Overcrowding is severe, housing is scarce and food is in short supply. Women are particularly vulnerable and face sexual exploitation. Children are being separated from their families. Some returnees, including children, are weakened by malnutrition and a lack of medical care and die during deportations.
The non-refoulement principle – which forbids countries from returning asylum seekers or refugees to countries where they face danger – is at the heart of international refugee conventions. Cameroon is a state party to both the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention and the 1951 Refugee Convention of Geneva and has incorporated these prohibitions into its own laws. By forcibly returning people, Cameroon is contravening national and international law and tarnishing its long history of hosting refugees.
Conducting forced returns erodes the authority of international laws to protect refugees. It sets a dangerous precedent and is part of an international trend of growing hostilities and shrinking protection for refugees.
Returning refugees as a security measure is a particularly dangerous precedent in the Lake Chad Basin, where Chad, Niger and Nigeria all face extremist threats and have tenuous human rights records. Analysis by the Institute for Security Studies argues that if other countries follow Cameroon, this would worsen an already dire situation. Worryingly, in February 2018, Nigeria – possibly in response to this practice – was similarly accused of forcibly returning 47 Cameroonian asylum seekers.
By repatriating people fleeing Boko Haram, Cameroon is forcing vulnerable people into situations that inherently contain many of the factors that fuel radicalisation. And this is happening in a region where Boko Haram is actively recruiting. Plus, one of Boko Haram’s objectives is to delegitimise governments as ruling entities. This is a central narrative of the extremist group, as are claims that states are illegitimate and unwilling to protect people.
Whether intentionally or by default, states that violate international and national human rights laws, and expose vulnerable people to imminent threat and poverty, lend significant weight to Boko Haram narratives.
Meanwhile Boko Haram activity in Cameroon has increased. It has displaced an estimated 200 000 Cameroonians internally and is recruiting members using a mix of coercion and financial incentives, particularly among disaffected youth. Up to 4 000 Cameroonians are believed to have joined Boko Haram. Evidence thus far indicates the group has had far more success in recruiting Cameroonians than infiltrating Nigerian refugee flows.
Responding effectively to Boko Haram in Cameroon requires practical, evidence-based efforts that address the root causes of extremism in a particular context. This must be done without violating the rights of refugees, or creating conditions that could worsen violent extremism.
As a signatory to international conventions governing refugees, Cameroon must reconsider its policy on deportations, and comply with international and national law to protect refugee rights. It must further allow entry of all asylum seekers and provide access to refugee registration. Programmes that counter Boko Haram recruitment must be started, and should include socio-economic development and education, particularly among disaffected youth.
Read the full ISS policy brief: Cameroon’s forceful repatriation of Nigerian refugees.
Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, Senior Research Consultant, Migration Programme, ISS