Human Rights Watch Implores the US Gov’t to Grant Cameroonian Asylees Protected Status

Human Rights Watch has in a statement issued December 18, 2020, called on the United States government to halt deportation of Cameroonians to Cameroun and to grant Cameroonians seeking asylum in the United States a protected status intended to protect “nationals and habitual residents of countries experiencing extraordinary and temporary conditions from being returned to those countries if they are not able to return in safety”.

According to the statement, Cameroonians who are deported back face “serious threats to their lives and freedom upon return.” Deportees to Cameroon, according to Ilaria Allegrozzi, Senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, face the risk of torture and ill-treatment because of their opposition to the government.

Referring to the specific case of citizens of the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons, Human Rights Watch notes “Anglophones deported to Cameroon face a serious risk of abuse by government security forces because they may be assumed to have links to separatists, or from the separatists themselves. Torture is common in official and unofficial detention centres, including military bases, where many people are being held incommunicado”.

The conflict in the Cameroon has created a largely neglected refugee crisis displacing women and children into the forests (C) WIDCO

The international rights watchdog pushes the argument further with highlights of the degrading conditions the people have faced. In this regard, the statement reads “Given these conditions, many Cameroonians qualify as refugees under US asylum and International refugee law. Cameroonians in Africa will also qualify under the expanded refugee definition in the 1969 Africa Refugee Convention, which recognizes as refugees those who have fled their country “owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality.”

The conflict in the Cameroons erupted in 2016 when Anglophone teachers and lawyers took to the streets to protest the use of French in Anglophone schools and common Law courts, under the banner of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC). The government took a hardline and outlawed the CACSC, arrested some of its leaders and forced the others into exile, and the corporate demands morphed into political demands, with many English speakers saying they want to restore self-rule in the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons and to rename it Ambazonia.

The response of the Cameroon army has been brutal and abusive with children, women and the old targeted, killed and their livelihood destroyed. Opposition parties have been silenced and protesters arrested and arbitrarily imprisoned. Journalists, especially from the minority English-speaking region, have been a target with many of them arrested, jailed, and some killed in custody.

Thousands of civilians have since been killed in the conflict since 2016 as armed pro-independent groups battle troops from the Republic of Cameroon to return the territory to independence. The United Nations puts the death toll at over 3,000 but several international and local NGOs say the figure is well over 12,000. The armed conflict has displaced over 1,5 million internally and tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries.

Human Right Watch notes that even though living in Cameroun or going back to Cameroun is a risk, the rate of granting asylum to Southern Cameroonians in the US has drastically dropped 81% in 2019 to 61% in 2020. Many Southern Cameroonian asylum seekers have also reported cases of abuse from ICE personnel who reported physical violence to force out statements from asylum seekers that are used to deport them.

The statement further implores the US government to investigate all the atrocities committed by ICE and action taken against the perpetrators. “Southern Cameroonians fleeing very real danger in their country deserve protection from abuse and a fair assessment for their asylum claims,” Said Allegrozzi.

The Human Rights Watch statement has been received with acclaim, especially as many of the deportees forced back home in two batches in Mid-October and November 2020 have been placed in sacred detention cells in several parts of Cameroon without access to their families or lawyers. Local rights groups have expressed fears they are being tortured and could be killed and buried at unknown locations.

The effort follows many other attempts by key stakeholders in the United States to offer an exception to Cameroonian asylum seekers as the Trump administration continues to crack down on immigration into the country. A group of US lawmakers issued a joint statement to the State Department, with another addressed directly to the Undersecretary at the Bureau of African Affairs Honourable Tibor Nagy on November 9, urging a halt of the deportations. Right up until November 13 when the last batch of asylum seekers was deported to Cameroon, there is little evidence that the administration was about to veer course. 

However, there are hopes that a change of administration could usher in a new approach in addressing the situation of asylum seekers from the Cameroons. A draft resolution being sponsored in the House of Representatives "Urging the United States to uphold its commitments under international treaties related to refugees and asylum-seekers and halt deportation of Cameroonian citizens," has raised hopes that the government would soon rethink its policy on the issue. 

Alejandro Mayorkas, first Latino tapped to head DHS (C) NBC News

These hopes have been bolstered by prospects of the confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden's pick for the Department of Homeland Security, Cuban Immigrant, Alejandro Mayorkas. Mr. Mayorkas first official statement gives room to guess that things could be done differently. 

"When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge. Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones," he said.