27, September 2017
Nigerian refugees claim they have been arbitrarily punished by soldiers for Boko Haram attacks in Cameroon as study alleges 100,000 have been forced out. Refugees who fled the Islamist militant group Boko Haram are being driven out of Cameroon and back to Nigeria, where they face violence and destitution, human rights organisations have said.
The Cameroonian military has forced 100,000 refugees to return to north-east Nigeria since 2015, in many cases after torturing, assaulting and sexually abusing them, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The study builds on figures released earlier this year by the UN High commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency. The figures were accompanied by the UNHCR’s first public criticism of the authorities over the returns in two years.
Refugees said soldiers had accused them of belonging to Boko Haram, or of being “Boko Haram wives”, while torturing or assaulting them and dozens of others on arrival, during their stay in remote border areas, and during mass deportations.
One refugee described an attack he witnessed in Minawao refugee camp: “A pregnant woman lost her place in the food line. When she pleaded with an official to let her back in, a soldier attacked her with a big stick. She fell to the ground and started bleeding. I later heard that she died before she reached the clinic.”
Another said: “They humiliated us like animals and beat us like we were slaves. They beat my 22-year-old brother so badly with a wooden stick on his head and his chest that he later died of internal bleeding.”
A 19-year-old woman who arrived in a Cameroonian village described the sexual abuse she witnessed. “The soldiers took advantage of women. They said that if we had sex with them, they would give us food and protect us. If we refused, they would come the next day to where you lived. They took away lots of men and women as Boko Haram suspects. Other times, they deported people to punish them because you said no. I know 18 women who agreed to have sex with the soldiers because of this and three of them got pregnant.”
HRW called on the Cameroonian government to stop all forced removals, and to prosecute soldiers who had been involved in abuses. The group also urged the Nigerian government to admit publicly that it is too dangerous for refugees to return to Borno state.
“The Cameroonian military’s torture and abuse of Nigerian refugees and asylum seekers seems to be driven by an arbitrary decision to punish them for Boko Haram attacks in Cameroon and to discourage Nigerians from seeking asylum,” said HRW’s associate refugee director, Gerry Simpson. “Cameroon should heed the UN’s call on all countries to protect refugees fleeing the carnage in north-east Nigeria, not return them there.”
The Nigerian military has repeatedly declared that it has won the war against Boko Haram, despite ongoing abductions and bomb attacks. One faction of Boko Haram is thought to have been pushed further and further into the islands of Lake Chad, driving out herding and farming communities who have sought shelter in Chad.
Cameroon has responded to the threat posed by Boko Haram mainly in military terms, and its soldiers have faced accusations of abuse before. In August, Amnesty International released a report detailing allegations of torture by the Cameroonian military, which the government denied as “outrageously accusatory”, accusing Amnesty of “playing the role of an organisation for the defence of terrorist interests”.
The latest accusations came just after the country’s president, Paul Biya, told the UN that Cameroon, having hosted thousands of refugees, “understands how much they feel hurt, victimised and threatened in their very existence”. “Therefore, let us mobilise and, through our policies, behaviours and actions, refocus on people,” said Biya.
Despite several appeals, the UNHCR has received less than a quarter of the $94m (£70m) it needs this year to help refugees who have fled to Cameroon from Nigeria and Central African Republic. Human Rights Watch warned that failure to address the shortfall risked sending Cameroon the message that donor governments do not care what happens to Nigerian refugees and that Cameroon is on its own in dealing with them, potentially making the country less accountable.
The number of internally displaced people in Nigeria is 1.7 million, far higher than the 200,000 estimated refugees in neighbouring countries. Towns in north-east Nigeria are struggling to cope with the thousands of people who continue to arrive. Overcrowding, flooding, a lack of food and an outbreak of cholera have made living conditions worse.
Organisations working in north-east Nigeria said forced returns have been widespread there, too, and also reported military abuses. In a 2015 report, Amnesty said the Nigerian military had executed 1,200 people and arbitrarily arrested 20,000, and that 7,000 people had been killed and many tortured in detention.
Culled from The Guardian