Last updated on August 14th, 2022 at 09:29 am
Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Thursday that Cameroonian authorities subjected dozens of asylum seekers deported by the United States under the Trump and Biden administrations to serious human rights violations between 2019 and 2021.
The 149-page report, “How Can You Throw Us Back?’: Asylum Seekers Abused in the US and Deported to Harm in Cameroon,” traces what happened to the estimated 80 to 90 Cameroonians deported from the United States on two flights in October and November 2020, and others deported in 2021 and 2019.
People returned to Cameroon faced arbitrary arrest and detention; enforced disappearances; torture, rape, and other violence; extortion; unfair prosecutions; confiscation of their national IDs; harassment; and abuses against their relatives. Many also reported experiencing excessive force, medical neglect, and other mistreatment in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in the US.
“The US government utterly failed Cameroonians with credible asylum claims by sending them back to harm in the country they fled, as well as mistreating already traumatized people before and during deportation,” said Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Cameroon and US governments need to remedy these abuses, and US authorities should provide opportunities for wrongly deported Cameroonians to return and reapply for asylum.”
Human Rights Watch added that by returning Cameroonians to face persecution, torture, and other serious harm, the US violated the principle of nonrefoulement, a cornerstone of international refugee and human rights law.
The rights group said between December 2020 and January 2022, Human Rights Watch interviewed 41 deported Cameroonian asylum seekers, 4 asylum seekers in the US, and 54 other people in the US and Cameroon, including relatives and friends of those deported, witnesses to abuses, lawyers, immigrant rights activists, and experts. Human Rights Watch collected and analyzed US asylum and immigration documents of deported people, as well as photographs, videos, recordings, and medical and legal documents corroborating accounts of mistreatment in Cameroon.
Cameroon has faced humanitarian crises in several regions in recent years. Respect for human rights has deteriorated and the government has increasingly cracked down on opposition and dissent. Violence since late 2016 by government forces and armed separatist groups in Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions has caused mass displacement, as have intercommunal violence and ongoing conflict with Boko Haram in the Far North region.
“We put all our hope in the USA when we went to seek refuge,” said a 37-year-old man who was deported to Cameroon in October 2020. “We did not imagine the US would return us like that.” He spent nearly three years in US immigration detention and was arbitrarily detained in Cameroon after his return. He remains in hiding.
The people interviewed were deported during the Trump administration, which was characterized by hardline immigration policies, narrowed access to asylum, and racist, anti-migrant rhetoric. Though conditions in Cameroon had not improved, the grant rate for asylum or other protection for Cameroonians by US immigration courts dropped by 24 percent between fiscal years 2019 and 2020. The US deported over 100 Cameroonians in 2020.
The Biden administration took the positive step of cancelling a February 2021 deportation flight to Cameroon. However, it deported several Cameroonians in October 2021 and has failed to designate Temporary Protected Status for Cameroon, despite conditions making return unsafe.
Nearly all of the deported people interviewed had fled Cameroon between 2017 and 2020 for reasons linked to the crisis in the Anglophone regions. Human Rights Watch research indicates that many had credible asylum claims, but due process concerns, fact-finding inaccuracies, and other issues contributed to unfair asylum decisions. Lack of impartiality by US immigration judges – who are part of the executive branch, not the independent judiciary – appeared to play a role. Nearly all of the deported Cameroonians interviewed – 35 of 41 – were assigned to judges with asylum denial rates 10 to 30 percentage points higher than the national average.
ICE also failed to protect confidential asylum documents during deportations, leading to document confiscation and apparent retribution by Cameroonian authorities.
Between 2019 and 2021, Cameroonian police, gendarmes, military personnel, and other officials detained or imprisoned at least 39 people deported from the US. Authorities detained many without due process or in inhumane conditions, for periods ranging from days to months. Some were held incommunicado.
Human Rights Watch documented 14 cases of physical abuse or assault of 13 deported people, 13 by Cameroonian authorities – including 9 in detention – and 1 by armed separatists. State agents raped three women in custody, subjected a man to forced labor, and severely beat returnees, often during interrogations. Several of these cases amount to torture.
A woman deported in October 2020 said she was tortured and raped by gendarmes or military men during six weeks in detention in Bamenda, North-West region: “Every two days … they were using ropes, [rubber] tubes, their boots, military belts … They hit me all over my body. They said that I’ve destroyed the image of Cameroon … so I had to pay for it.”
State agents harmed or targeted the family members of at least seven deported people. While looking for returnees, government forces allegedly shot and killed a woman’s sister, abducted a man’s 11-year-old son, and severely beat a man’s mother. Others were arbitrarily detained, extorted, and harassed.
Cameroonian authorities threatened and abused returnees not only for reasons linked to why they initially fled, but also for seeking asylum in the US, and for actual or imputed opposition to the government. “[Officials] said … ‘You people left here, you ran … to the US, telling lies about the government,’” said a woman deported in October 2020.
Nearly everyone interviewed also cited mistreatment during US immigration detention, transfers, or ICE flights. ICE detained all but one of the 41 asylum seekers interviewed for prolonged and unnecessary periods, an average of 1.5 years. Human Rights Watch documented 24 cases of alleged excessive force, cruel or inhuman treatment, or other physical abuse by ICE officers, other officials, or ICE contractors against 18 Cameroonians subsequently deported.
Deported Cameroonians have yet to receive a remedy for harms experienced. As of January, many remained in grave danger in Cameroon or struggled to survive after fleeing again. Human Rights Watch and members of the Cameroon Advocacy Network (CAN), a coalition of immigrant rights groups and Cameroonian immigrants in the US, urged the US government to grant Cameroonians deported between 2020 and 2021 humanitarian parole to return to the US for “urgent humanitarian reasons.”
“The suffering that Cameroonians deported by the US have been through is heartbreaking and makes it crystal clear that Cameroon is not safe for return,” said Daniel Tse, CAN coordinator. “If the Biden administration hopes to make the US immigration system more humane, it should rectify the wrongs done to Cameroonian asylum seekers and halt deportations to Cameroon.”