Con­cern over forced re­turns of refugees

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

BANKI: The sol­diers ar­rived in the mid­dle of the night, tear­ing through the vil­lage of Nige­rian refugees, barg­ing into stick huts where fam­i­lies slept in knots on the floor.

For years, those refugees had been on the run from Boko Haram in­sur­gents, fi­nally es­cap­ing across a dried riverbed into Cameroon.

They had set­tled in the vil­lage of Ma­jina, where they farmed beans and mil­let.

“A peace­ful place,” the men said. And then, in March, the Cameroo­nian sol­diers ar­rived.

The troops rounded up the refugees hap­haz­ardly and pushed them into mil­i­tary trucks, of­ten sep­a­rat­ing par­ents from their chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses.

The refugees soon re­alised where they were headed: back to one of the most dan­ger­ous cor­ners of Nige­ria. To­day, they are liv­ing in a dis­place­ment camp in Banki, a city racked by one of the world’s big­gest hunger crises.

The UN would even­tu­ally put a la­bel on what hap­pened that night and many oth­ers to fol­low – “forced re­turn”. Over the past few months, at least 5 000 Nige­rian refugees have been rounded up in Cameroo­nian vil­lages and refugee camps and ex­pelled to a re­gion un­der fre­quent at­tack by in­sur­gents, ac­cord­ing to UN of­fi­cials.

Some aid of­fi­cials be­lieve the ac­tual num­ber of those forcibly re­turned is over 10 000, in­clud­ing peo­ple evicted in spo­radic op­er­a­tions since 2013. The Cameroo­nian gov­ern­ment has de­nied driv­ing out the Nige­ri­ans.

As the num­ber of refugees around the world soars – top­ping 20 mil­lion – they are fac­ing grow­ing hos­til­ity from host coun­tries and shrink­ing pro­tec­tion from the in­ter­na­tional le­gal frame­work put in place to de­fend such vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple decades ago.

A forced re­turn like that re­ported in Cameroon sym­bol­ises the most ex­treme and un­for­giv­ing re­ac­tion to those search­ing for safe haven.

In Kenya, a court blocked the gov­ern­ment from send­ing more than 200 000 in­hab­i­tants of the Dadaab refugee camp, mostly So­ma­lis, back to a na­tion be­set by war and a hunger cri­sis. But hu­man rights groups say many of the res­i­dents are be­ing pres­sured to leave any­way.

In­ter­na­tional hu­man rights groups last year ac­cused Turkey of ex­pelling thou­sands of Syr­ian refugees, a charge the gov­ern­ment de­nied.

Un­der the 1951 Refugee Con­ven­tion, rat­i­fied by 145 coun­tries – in­clud­ing Cameroon – vic­tims of war or per­se­cu­tion should not be re­turned to na­tions where they will face se­ri­ous threats. But that edict is be­ing ig­nored, ac­cord­ing to hu­man rights groups.

“Poorer coun­tries host­ing huge num­bers of refugees for many years, such as Kenya, Pak­istan and Turkey, have re­cently pushed back hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees and asy­lum seek­ers,” said Gerry Simp­son, a mi­gra­tion ex­pert at Hu­man Rights Watch.

“They seem to be tak­ing their lead from richer coun­tries, such as Aus­tralia, the EU and the US, who are pulling out all the stops to limit refugee ar­rivals.”

The UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees has sought to reach agree­ments with coun­tries that are send­ing home refugees, to en­sure they are only go­ing vol­un­tar­ily.

But the agency’s as­sis­tance came too late for thou­sands of Nige­ri­ans in Cameroon.

PIC­TURE: THE WASHINGTON POST BY JANE HAHN

A wo­man walk­ing with her chil­dren amid de­stroyed homes in Banki, Nige­ria.

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