Concern over forced returns of refugees
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.
A woman walking with her children amid destroyed homes in Banki, Nigeria.