Antigua and Barbuda: Stranded Southern Cameroonians growing increasingly desperate 0

Cameroonian migrants stranded in Antigua say they’re reaching breaking point as the stress of surviving on meagre funds, separated from loved ones, takes its toll on their health and wellbeing.

Hundreds of refugees who arrived on charter flights from Nigeria late last year are believed to remain in the country, with their intended destination – the USA – seeming increasingly elusive.

Risky sea voyages to neighbouring islands taken by those hoping to reach the United States via South America have already claimed an estimated 16 lives. News broke on Thursday that several of those rescued from the March 28 boat disaster in St Kitts while attempting to reach the US Virgin Islands had escaped a Basseterre detention facility.

While many of the migrants still in Antigua have secured casual work, they say the paltry income falls far short of financing their onward journey.

One of those who spoke to Observer admits falling victim to scammers who conned him out of money wired from loved ones back home to pay for a fake passport that never transpired.

Thirty-five-year-old Jean* – who hails from one of Cameroon’s Francophone regions – says he arrived in Antigua on December 29, after forking out a colossal US$5,000 for a journey he was told would take him to Suriname.

From there, he planned to travel overland to the US, which last June offered temporary protected status to Cameroonians already in the country and where he hoped to claim asylum.

“The Nigerian agent abandoned us here,” he tells Observer. “When we call the agent or send a message – no reply.”

Desperate to get to South America, Jean says he paid another US$1,500 for a flight to Suriname.

“But when I get to the airport they say no, not possible, because Suriname say no Cameroonian in this country. I lost the flight,” he explains.

Suriname requires Cameroonians to have a visa to enter the country. Jean says he applied for one online and was initially successful.

“It is blocked because they found that it was a passage to the United States,” he says.

Exacerbating Jean’s anxiety is being separated from his wife and four-year-old son who he left at home, planning to send for them once he had secured his status.

Four months later – and still thousands of kilometres from the US – his frustration and anguish are palpable.

Jean is not an English-speaking Cameroonian – who have suffered years of discrimination in the majority French-speaking nation – but he says the bitter separatist conflict has become pervasive.

Many Cameroonians in Antigua say they face prison or even death if they were to return.

The pain of not being able to see or to provide for his family is insufferable, Jean says, adding that he occasionally avoids speaking with them because it torments him further.

“When I think about it sometimes I feel like collapsing, I can’t stop crying,” he tells Observer.

The Antigua and Barbuda government has waived work permit requirements for Africans who arrived on Antigua Airways and Hi Fly flights last November and December.

And it has told the migrants they are welcome to stay.

Indeed, around 60 percent of the 110 people interviewed by UN agencies recently indicated their intention to do just that.

Jean claims this is not the case in reality and that interviewees were simply keen to throw the authorities off the scent as they continue to find ways to leave the island covertly.

“No one wants to stay,” he says flatly. “Here, life is so difficult, everything very expensive. If I tell you that I live well here, I am lying. You think I can support my family? Do I eat well? With what appetite?

“The day I get out of here I’ll be relieved. Look at my face full of spots and pimples; these are the results of stress. Who can live away from his family and be comfortable?”

Jean might consider himself one of the lucky ones. More than 80 percent of those who spoke with the UN agencies reported being unemployed. Jean is eking out a living as a labourer for a benevolent Antiguan.

But as a trained lawyer, it’s far from what he envisaged as a young man studying to make a life for himself back in Cameroon.

“We had the chance to grow up with our own people and to have a reliable education. We didn’t ask for war.

“I was a young and brilliant lawyer of my state who had dreamed of becoming great. Today I am either a labourer or a worker, and it hurts me so much.

“If nothing is done for me I feel that I will crack, I assure you.”

Jean concedes that Antiguans have been good to him and his compatriots.

“Antiguans are kind to us, very nice people here, plenty people help us and send food. Every time we go to the shop they give us food,” he says.

Still, the 108-square mile isle doesn’t offer the opportunities Jean dreams of. Those, he thinks, can be better found in Florida where he has friends.

Several of his Cameroonian associates have already left the country on fake passports, he claims.

“Many have left this way; I do not hide you. I have someone who helped me with this but I never received it,” he says.

Asked how he got the money to pay for what he says was a counterfeit Ghanaian passport, he replies, “My share was paid from my home country by my close friend – US$2,000.

“The strategy was to make the passports that are visa-free for the countries that are on our way [to the US].”

Jean’s primary reason for speaking out now is in the hope someone can help him.

“If this message could reach the immigration officials of Guyana, Suriname, Nicaragua, for compassion to accept me in their territory,” he says.

“On the material level, any help is welcome, especially for housing here. The little money we had on arrival is completely finished; now we are just looking to eat.”

He adds, “I also need prayers.”

*Speaking on condition of anonymity

Source: Antiguaobserver