Over 17,000 Nigerian refugees have been returned from Cameroon.
Prima facie refugee status granted to Nigerians in Cameroon by Cameroonian Government.
Cash interventions help empower affected communities in urban areas.
Over 17,000 Nigerian refugees forcibly returned from Cameroon
On 16 November, Sani Ahmed, 55, woke up before dawn to collect firewood in the northern Cameroonian town of Fotokol, near the Nigerian border. His wife and three children, aged between 8 and 13, were still asleep inside their makeshift hut, when suddenly, armed soldiers and heavy vehicles surrounded the village. Pointing their guns at the villagers, the soldiers ordered the people to follow them, roughly pushing anyone who would not comply. Before Sani realized what had happened, he and dozens of other Nigerian refugees were being packed into cattle trucks.
“I didn’t know anything,” he said. “They just came and collected us like animals for slaughter.”
Once in the truck, they travelled for days. They were given no information. They did not know where they were going, how long it would be or what would happen to them when they arrived at their destination.
A total of 966 people were forcibly transported in cattle trucks from Cameroon back to Nigeria that day. The three-day journey from Fotokol to Sahuda was a traumatic experience. Elderly people, children and pregnant women were so tightly packed into the trucks that there was no space to breathe. There was little food or water, no toilet, and no shade to protect them from the burning sun.
During transit Sani was separated from his wife and children. He does not even know which country they are in.
“I have no news from them and I am very worried,” he laments. “In the night I sleep for an hour and I wake up thinking where they might be. I dream of them, day and night.”
Sani is one of the thousands of Nigerians who sought refuge in Cameroon when their communities were attacked by Boko Haram.
A regional refugee crisis
The flow of asylum seekers from Nigeria to neighbouring countries increased in May 2014, when the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. At that time, Cameroon hosted around 3,000 Nigerian refugees, who had left their country due to inter-ethnic conflict circa 2003, and had settled in the Adamaoua, Southwest and Northwest regions. By November 2015 the number of Nigerian refugees who had crossed into Cameroon had reached 64,000 people.
For the village communities living along the Cameroonian/Nigerian border, mobility and migration are a lifestyle of long standing, and a means of coping with a challenging environment. For generations people have crossed and re-crossed borders in order to trade, or to find water and grass for their cattle.
For these communities to move on this scale, compromising age-old relationships of inter-marriage and shared cultural affinities, it took a manmade disaster: the intensification of the Boko Haram conflict.
Cameroon maintains an open border policy for Nigerian asylum seekers, and is signatory to all major legal instruments on refugees, including the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention.
But the increased insecurity in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region has led to a surge of refugees fleeing Boko Haram. Cameroon has seen the number of refugees from neighbouring countries double since January 2014.while, according to IOM, some 124,000 Cameroonians have been internally displaced as a result of the spillover of the Boko Haram conflict into the wider Lake Chad region.1 The influx of people fleeing violence in their home countries has overstretched the already-limited natural resources and services in the host communities, which, even before the arrival of the refugees, were facing chronic shortages and had to compete for sufficient access to land, water, firewood and basic services.
Prima facie refugee status granted
Since the beginning of the crisis, UNHCR has been negotiating with the Cameroonian authorities to declare the Nigerian refugees prima facie refugees. Because of their large numbers and the generalized violence from which they fled, conducting individual asylum interviews has been almost impossible. Cameroon granted prima facie status to all Nigerians escaping the conflict, both those living in the camps and in the host communities. Nigerians from the three affected states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe already living in Cameroon were also granted refugee sur place status, because the conflict prevented them from returning to their areas of origin.
Bulamar Bakkari, a 55-year-old cattle trader from the border town of Gamburu in Borno, fled to Cameroon with his family of eight and a further thirty relatives when, in August 2014, Boko Haram attacked his village, stealing most of his cattle and burning houses and crops to the ground. Bakkari’s family, like most of the villagers in the region, had long-lasting trade relationships with the communities on both sides of the border. When they first arrived in Cameroon they were welcomed by the local authorities and the army, and were given a place to stay and animals to herd.
Three quarters of the Nigerian refugees - some 48,000 people - have been registered at Minawao camp in the Far North region. UNHCR has been encouraging Nigerian refugees to settle further inland and, more importantly, to register in camps where they could receive assistance and be better protected. But the number of those living outside the camps is increasing: in addition to the 17,000 returned refugees, current figures estimate there are a further 16,000 Nigerian refugees who are not registered in official camps, but live with nearby host communities on the Nigerian border, or have set up temporary camps in the bush.
Bakkari’s family, like many others, decided not to move into a refugee camp and formerly apply for asylum but to camp in the border region, in the hope that the violence in Nigeria would subside quickly.
But days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, and since the beginning of August more than 17,000 Nigerian refugees living outside of formal camps have been forcibly returned to Nigeria. Deportations began following a series of suicide bombings and other deadly attacks by Boko Haram in Cameroon’s Far North region, ostensibly because authorities feared links between Nigerian nationals and the armed group.
Attacks and fear of attack increase in the Lake Chad Basin
While Boko Haram has been pushed into hiding in most of North-East Nigeria, the rate of suicide bombings and attacks across the wider Lake Chad Basin has escalated over the course of 2015. In Cameroon’s Far North region, attacks increased in the summer of 2015, with a total of 27 attacks and 180 civilian fatalities across the region, when the first of a series of regular suicide bombings took place. Fear of attack grew, and with it, suspicion of Nigerians, and displaced people in general.
The refugees who refused to enter the camps began to be perceived as potential supporters of Boko Haram, and somehow linked to the increasing attacks.
When Cameroonian soldiers encircled Bakkari’s community near Fotokol on 16 November, this time they had not come to offer assistance, but to deport them. “They first grabbed the children and locked them in the cattle trucks. Then they came for the adults,” Bakkari said.
He could not bear the thought of losing his cattle for a second time, and begged the soldiers to let him and his family take some animals with them. They too travelled for three days with little food or water before they crossed the border at Sahuda, where they were received by the Nigerian army.
From the border they were taken to a makeshift transit centre on the outskirts of Mubi town in Adamawa, where the Nigerian army conducted an initial screening process. A few days later they were transferred to IDP camps in Adamawa.
But without strong screening mechanisms and systematic registration of all refugees across the Lake Chad Basin, determining the origin and the status of the displaced is a very challenging exercise. Many people in the Far North of Cameroon do not possess any civil documentation. What they do have are strong cultural, linguistic ethnic and religious ties that cross the borders.
A fragile socio-economic context
Elizabeth is a 20-year-old mother, from Goza, in Borno. She was eight months pregnant when Boko Haram attacked her village last October. With her husband and other family members, she fled to Zelewit town in Cameroon, where another 3,000 Nigerian refugees had also sought protection. They were allowed to farm maize and onions in the surrounding hills and sell it in the market to buy food.
When the Cameroonian army came to her community, it was clear to Elizabeth that attitudes towards them had changed. The army asked the refugees to gather in another village, saying that they wanted to make an announcement. Some people, fearing that they were going to be deported, refused to follow. Elizabeth and her son were locked into the cattle trucks and driven through the neighboring villages, where the soldiers continued to collect people. When the truck was full, the three-day journey to the border crossing at Sahuda began.
According to UNHCR, under international conventions, the majority of the returnees from Cameroon are refugees and asylum seekers, and thus require international protection.
UNHCR has repeatedly emphasized that such return operations, if not voluntary, disrupt asylum space and the protection of refugees, and may in some cases be in contravention of international protection principles and even constitute an act of refoulement. UNHCR has been advocating on behalf of those who can’t or won’t go the camps, and has been negotiating with the Cameroonian authorities to allow Nigerians living outside of the camps to enter the camps to seek safety from the risk of transportation.
Cameroon’s decision to forcibly return the Nigerian refugees could not only affect relations between the two countries, but could in the longer term be detrimental to the centuries-long tradition of economic, religious and cultural ties that the cross-border communities have shared.
So far, social cohesion and peaceful coexistence have been maintained between refugees and host communities, and between cross-border communities, but the volatile security situation poses the risk of increased harassment and stigmatization for Nigerians, some displaced, and others from border villages. When paired with the fragile socioeconomic context of the broader Sahel region and its environmental catalysts - chronic food insecurity, recurring epidemics, limited natural resources, an arid climate and frequent droughts - this could fuel further tensions among the communities.
Humanitarian assistance is not enough to mitigate the risks the refugees face, if the assistance is not complemented by development initiatives that will strengthen the resilience of the overall population. Sustainable support and investment in infrastructure that benefits both host communities and refugees are essential in order to avoid potential inter-communal conflicts and to strengthen social cohesion between host populations and refugees. To this end, it is essential that host communities continue to be included in livelihood programmes and interventions supporting local basic services in order to preserve peaceful coexistence and asylum space.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.