International medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has accused the Cameroonian military of forcefully sending back Nigerian refugees. Cameroon’s army says the displaced Nigerians are choosing to return home.
Thousands of Nigerian refugees returning to their country after spending several years in Cameroon are doing so under compulsion, that’s according to international medical aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said the displaced persons are being relocated to territories with little or no facilities for basic human needs.
Boko Haram insurgents are also active in these regions, MSF warned. Most of the refugees will end up in the Nigerian villages of Banki, Gulumba, Gamboru as well as Bama town.
Mayara (not his real name), told MSF that he had lived in Kolofata, a town in northern Cameroon for more than one year.
“They just decided to send people back to their country without any explanation,” Mayara said. “We did not tell them we wanted to come back to our country. They forced us to come here. They woke us early in the morning and took us to a field where they gathered all of us.”
He said life in Cameroon had not been pleasant at all. “We had water and food problems. We never benefited from any food distribution. You either farmed or did menial jobs like breaking firewood, or selling water. This was how we survived,” Mayara said.
He said they had gone for several days without food. “There were people selling drugs, so, if your child was sick you would have to pay for drugs.”
Driven away from family
Mayara’s experience is similar to that of 55-year-old Malla: “I don’t know the whereabouts of my family after they were deported by Cameroon soldiers a month ago,” said Malla, whose real name has also been changed.
MSF says the deported Nigerian refugees are living in deplorable conditions
“I was brought here two weeks ago. The soldiers came and gathered people. Those who didn’t have a Cameroonian ID were put into vehicles and driven away.” He stressed that despite the hardships in Cameroon, it was not his wish to be taken back to Nigeria but he said he had no choice.
“It would have been better if we were taken to Pulka or Gwoza, which is our area, than coming here.” The refugees could not tell them [Cameroon’s military] where to take them because they were scared they would be taken to a different place.
“They did not even allow me to go inside my house to take some of my belongings. Since coming here, I have not heard from my family to know how they are faring,” Malla, who spent three years with his family in Cameroon added.
Cameroon’s military, as well as the UN refugee agency UNHCR, say the refugees are only sent back across the border after giving their full consent. “All is voluntary. Sometimes they want to refuse but we try to convince them. They accept to go back home,” Ismaila Abba, a Cameroonian military official who was escorting the refugees told DW.
Adji Mojo, 58, one of those being repatriated and a spokesperson for the returnees, said they appreciated what the Cameroonian government did for them.
“I work with the local government at Gamboru Ngala. We are very grateful for the assistance we have received since we entered the country as well as to the military operation that took us to Mobi,” Mojo told DW.
The Tripartite deal
The Nigerian military has assured the returnees of their safety. Last month, Nigeria, Cameroon and UNHCR, signed a Tripartite Agreement for an orderly, voluntary repatriation of the refugees. In an interview with DW, the UNHCR representative in Cameroon, Lazare Kouassi Etien, dismissed the allegations by MSF and said the Tripartite agreement was being followed to the letter.
“Those [MSF] are ground-less statements. Nobody is forcing a refugee in Cameroon to be repatriated,” Etien said. “We are doing our level best to meet some of the needs for food, water, health and education. We have to work together in the sense of appropriation so that we improve the living conditions of everybody here.”
Boko Haram has killed at least 15,000 people and forced more than two million to flee their homes during its seven-year campaign to carve out a caliphate in northeastern Nigeria. More than 85,000 Nigerian refugees reside in neighboring Cameroon’s far northern region, where the Islamist militants also launch attacks, often using female suicide bombers and children.
Moki Kindzeka contributed to this article on DW