Banki, Nigeria- 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 that served as the border with 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 realized 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 United Nations 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 were 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 think 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 decades ago to defend such vulnerable people. A forced return like the one reported in Cameroon emblematizes the most extreme and unforgiving reaction to those searching for a haven.
Many countries are taking less-drastic steps that have still alarmed refugee advocates. Over the past three years, Pakistan has pressured hundreds of thousands of long-term war refugees from Afghanistan to return home, despite the dire poverty and violent insurgency in their homeland. 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 expellingthousands 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 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has sought to reach agreements with countries that are sending refugees home, to ensure that only voluntary repatriations occur.
But the agency’s assistance came too late for thousands of Nigerians in Cameroon.
Aid groups are still unsure what prompted what they call a mass eviction. Some UN officials say the refugees were probably forced out in advance of a large military operation. Other aid groups say that Cameroon, one of the world’s poorest nations, has simply grown tired of hosting Nigerians. Cameroon has been inundated by refugees in recent years, with more than 300,000 people fleeing wars in the Central African Republic and Nigeria.
Cameroon’s government has rejected the UNHCR statements on the forced returns. “I’m telling you there were no forced expulsions,” Richard Etoundi, head of the protocol unit in the Ministry of External Relations, said in a phone interview.
In addition to the thousands who were reported forced from Cameroon, many more were persuaded to go back to northeastern Nigeria after being lied to about the conditions there, according to refugees and aid officials.
Arriving home, the refugees are finding a lack of housing, severe overcrowding and a scarcity of food and water.
This month, the head of UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, said he was “extremely worried” about the flood of Nigerian refugees returning from Cameroon to “a situation dangerously unprepared to receive them.”
The Cameroonian military acted so hastily in removing the refugees that it inadvertently swept up a group of Cameroonian women and children in a raid in the village of Keraoua. They now sleep on the floor of an unfinished building in a bombed-out side street in Banki.
Abba Goni, 76, fled Banki nearly three years ago on a green bicycle with “China” stamped on the frame, riding on the packed sand from village to village, an old man much faster on two wheels than on his two gnarled feet.
Goni was born and raised in Banki, once a city of 150,000 surrounded by fertile farmland, just over a mile from the Cameroonian border. In September 2014, the extremists known as Boko Haram surged into town on trucks and motorcycles, shooting wildly and burning buildings. Goni’s first escape on the green bicycle was in the dead of night. His two wives and nine children followed.
For a few weeks, they lived outdoors, subsisting on whatever fruits they could find. When Boko Haram caught up with them, Goni got back on his bicycle, heading toward Cameroon.
Since Goni was a boy, members of his Kanuri ethnic group had moved back and forth between Cameroon and Nigeria without any documents. Boko Haram, too, had crossed the border with impunity. But the group’s stronghold remained in Nigeria, and Goni knew that if he headed deep enough into Cameroon, he would most likely be safe. In 2015, he and his family arrived in Majina, where some local men allowed him to cultivate a small patch of farmland.
“It was a decent life,” he said.
The government of Cameroon, though, was struggling to provide for so many refugees. Residents of northern Cameroon blamed food shortages on refugees.
The Washington Post