The rights group said the government should designate Cameroonians in the United States for temporary protected status, which is 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. US authorities should also investigate allegations that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel physically abused Cameroonian asylum seekers to force them to sign documents related to their deportation.
“The US government should suspend deportations to Cameroon because of the serious threats Cameroonians face to their lives and freedom upon return,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In addition to a generalized risk of serious harm because of violence in the Far North, North-West, and South-West regions, deportees to Cameroon also face a risk of torture and ill-treatment because of their real or imputed opposition to the government.”
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Immigrant rights groups and the media reported that ICE deported more than 90 Cameroonians on two deportation flights, in October and November 2020. Human Rights Watch confirmed that at least several dozens of those deported had sought but did not receive asylum, according to court documents and interviews with lawyers, activists, and volunteers.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Cameroon in the past year in the Anglophone North-West and South-West regions, where violence has been acute since late 2016, as armed separatists seek independence for the country’s minority Anglophone regions. Violence has displaced tens of thousands of people in the past year, adding to the hundreds of thousands who have fled their homes since the start of the violence.
Security forces have responded abusively to separatist attacks, often targeting civilians, their lives, and livelihoods. Armed separatists have killed, tortured, assaulted, and kidnapped hundreds of people. They have also prevented humanitarian workers and teachers from doing their jobs, depriving children of access to education. Few people responsible for serious abuses have been held accountable since the crisis in the English-speaking regions began in late 2016.
In the Far North region, the Islamist armed group Boko Haram has deliberately attacked civilians, including internally displaced people, with almost daily killings, kidnappings, thefts, and destruction of property.
The government has also cracked down on political opponents and opposition party supporters, charging hundreds participating in peaceful protests in September 2020 with terrorism and rebellion, and using the pandemic as pretext to silence opposition and quell dissent.
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 centers, including military bases, where many people are being held incommunicado.
Cameroonians fleeing the Far North region are at serious risk of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, and harassment if they are returned, as the government has accused many residents of supporting Boko Haram. Cameroonians who are seen as sympathizers to opposition parties can also face threats if returned due to the government’s crackdown on the political opposition.
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.”
While asylum approval rates show that many Cameroonians in the United States have qualified for asylum or for withholding of removal because of the risk of persecution, the US government should designate Cameroonians for temporary protected status because of the “ongoing armed conflict within the state…[and] extraordinary and temporary conditions,” that constitute broader threats that prevent nationals of Cameroon from returning there in safety, as defined in US law.
Despite the wide and continuing range of risks in Cameroon, the rate of granting asylum for Cameroonians in US immigration courts dropped from 81 percent in fiscal year 2019 to 62 percent in fiscal year 2020. Cameroonians, along with asylum seekers from other African countries, have faced increased detention under the Trump administration. Studies have found that detained immigrants in general are less likely to obtain legal representation and to win asylum or other forms of protection from deportation. The Trump administration has also made numerous changes to the asylum system designed to make it extremely difficult for anyone to obtain asylum.
Recent complaints filed by US immigrant rights advocates allege abuses by ICE personnel against Cameroonian asylum seekers in detention. These include threats, coercion, and physical violence to force asylum seekers to sign documents related to their deportation. These complaints should also be investigated and corrective action taken by the Department of Homeland Security.
The two known flights of deportees from the United States to Cameroon, on October 13 and November 11, carried a reported 57 and 37 Cameroonians respectively. The more than 90 Cameroonians deported by ICE in the first two months of fiscal year 2021 already exceeds the total number of Cameroonians that ICE deported to Cameroon in fiscal years 2020 (49), 2019 (74) and 2018 (68).
Human Rights Watch has also called on the US government to suspend all deportations during the coronavirus pandemic to avoid contributing to the global spread of the virus.
“Cameroonians fleeing very real danger in their country deserve protection from abuse and a fair assessment of their claims for asylum and related forms of protection in US law,” Allegrozzi said. “The US government should suspend deportations of Cameroonians and ensure that all ICE abuse allegations are properly and impartially investigated.”