Crisis Denied in Cameroon: Government Refusal to Recognize Suffering in NWSW Deters Donors

Cameroon has long been viewed as a model of stability in a region fraught with conflict. Under the surface, however, tensions between its Anglophone and Francophone populations have simmered for decades. The Anglophone minority, mostly concentrated in the North-West and South-West regions (NWSW), has been marginalized, discriminated against, and economically disenfranchised since a referendum ended federalism and joined the two populations in a full political union in 1972.

In late 2016, instability gave way to violence when protests against the government’s imposition of Francophone teachers and lawyers in Anglophone schools and courts were met with military action.1 The government’s reaction to the protests resulted in the formation of several non-state armed groups and fueled existing separatist sentiment. Armed groups enforced school boycotts,2 and the subsequent violent confrontations have forced more than half a million people to flee their homes. According to the UN, the conflict has left 1.3 million people in need of assistance. 

Cameroonian authorities deny the severity of the displacement and humanitarian need. Making matters worse, both Cameroonian forces and non-state armed groups severely restrict freedom of movement, preventing local populations from accessing their land and basic services. Both also have taken steps to limit the access of humanitarian workers to populations affected by the conflict. However, through sustained engagement with local officials, communities, and armed groups, relief groups have been able to build trust and expand their reach into areas hit hard by the violence. Most of these groups have relied on their own internal funding, not specifically designated for the NWSW, to assess and serve the affected populations because international donors have yet to step up and engage in a meaningful way.

Instead, foreign donor governments and other international stakeholders have focused on supporting a peace process, which clearly deserves international engagement. However, it is unlikely to bear fruit in the near term because the parties involved refuse to engage in meaningful dialogue. This fact raises the question of why donors so far have refused to expand their engagement beyond the peace process to address the humanitarian consequences of the fighting.The humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly as aid organizations burn through the last of their resources.

To better understand the issues humanitarian actors face in the NWSW, a team from Refugees International traveled to Cameroon in March and April 2019. Refugees International found that access to affected communities remains a challenge for these organizations. Although aid groups can make changes to improve the effectiveness of their response, increased funding―and specifically, a more cooperative response from the national government―would change the humanitarian landscape most dramatically. Most important, international donor involvement would increase global attention to the crisis and allow UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to overcome obstacles to the humanitarian response and better protect the NWSW’s civilian population. 


To the Government of Cameroon:

  • Publicly recognize the severity of the crisisCameroonian authorities are responsible for addressing the needs of civilians. Their failure to recognize the extent of displacement and humanitarian need has direct implications for the well-being of people in the NWSW and contributes to the failure of the international community to support the response effectively. 

To the Government of Cameroon and Armed Groups:

  • Guarantee unrestricted access. The Government of Cameroon and non-state armed groups must ensure safe passage for civilians, health workers, humanitarian organizations, and the diplomatic community throughout the NWSW. 
  • Accept that humanitarian organizations must adhere to humanitarian principles. Cameroonian authorities and non-state armed groups must accept the adherence of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), local groups, and UN agencies to the humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence. Aid groups need to have contact with all parties to the conflict to negotiate access and cannot side—or be seen to side—with any of the parties, including Cameroon’s military.

To the International Community and Donor Institutions: 

  • Increase funding. Donors cannot wait for things to deteriorate further. They must provide flexible funding to reach the $93.5 million the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates is needed for a thorough response in the NWSW. This immediate action is critical to ensure those organizations that have been using their internal funds are not forced to abandon the populations they have increasingly been able to reach.
  • Echo calls for unrestricted humanitarian access. The international diplomatic community in Yaoundé and political leaders in capitals worldwide must magnify the efforts of humanitarian organizations by echoing their requests for unfettered access to populations in need. 

To Humanitarian Organizations and UN Agencies in Cameroon:

  • Train local NGOs on humanitarian principles and strengthen their implementing capacity.The pre-existing network of local organizations has allowed humanitarian groups to build trust and gain access to populations throughout the NWSW. However, many of these groups have not been trained in humanitarian principles, resulting in occasional violations. It is vital that international humanitarian organizations and UN agencies provide local groups with training to ensure their compliance with humanitarian principles. They must also provide technical training to local actors working on protection issues to strengthen their ability to respond effectively.
  • Expand International NGO Safety Organization’s (INSO’s) operations into the NWSW regions. INSO’s provision of real-time security incident alerts, strategic planning support, crisis assistance, and guidance on improving access is vital in enabling organizations to overcome security obstacles. Cameroonian authorities must permit expansion of their operations. 
  • Establish an INGO Forum with donor support. Many INGOs fear reprisals from the Cameroonian authorities for reporting on the crisis and the extensive needs of the affected population. Launching an INGO Forum, which could operate either from within or outside of Cameroon, would allow operational organizations to report collectively on the practical realities and challenges.
  • Uphold the “ground rules” for engagement and information sharing with Cameroonian authorities. Together with OCHA, humanitarian organizations have drafted agreed-upon ground rules for effective and principled engagement with Cameroonian authorities. However, these rules have not been fully respected.Aid organizations must follow these guidelines to work alongside the Government of Cameroon and its armed forces. Given the significant impediments to access, doing so is vital to protect the already-limited humanitarian space.

To UN Leadership:

  • Establish full-time positions within UN agency offices in the NWSW. Despite the ongoing crisis, which shows no signs of waning, UN staff has been appointed to the NWSW on a temporary basis only.UN agencies in these regions, especially OCHA and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), should create permanent positions for staff in their offices in the main NWSW cities of Bamenda and Buea to ensure continuity and prepare for expanded operations, contingent on donor funding.
  • Increase the visibility of the crisis, mobilize donor support, and call for unfettered humanitarian access. Severe underfunding, lack of international attention, and the stalemate between aid groups and Cameroonian authorities are crippling the humanitarian response. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres must plan a visit to Cameroon to engage with President Paul Biya on these crucial issues.

  • Launch country-based pooled funds for a more nimble humanitarian response in Cameroon. With trend lines only worsening, international humanitarian organizations must explore longer-term funding options.With donor support, OCHA should begin putting in place the mechanisms needed to establish pooled funds in Cameroon. Such funds are flexible and not earmarked, allowing both local and international aid organizations to respond to the most pressing needs in a timely manner.


In March and April 2019, a Refugees International team traveled to Yaoundé, Cameroon for two weeks to research the state of the humanitarian response to the ongoing crisis in the North-West and South-West regions (NWSW). The team conducted more than 25 interviews, both in person and over the phone, with local and international nongovernmental organization (INGO) staff, UN officials, and international embassy representatives. Team members also requested to meet with Cameroonian authorities, but these queries went unanswered or were denied. Refugees International did not attempt to meet with displaced populations; they have been subjected to numerous humanitarian assessments over time but have received remarkably little aid, so the team was concerned that such interviews would both worsen assessment fatigue and create false expectations among those in dire need. Moreover, a 10-day lockdown in the NWSW kept the Refugees International team from visiting these regions.

Despite Cameroon’s relative stability in a region fraught with conflict, tensions between its Anglophone and Francophone populations have been simmering for decades. Even though English is one of the country’s two official languages, Anglophone communities in Cameroon have been marginalized, discriminated against, and economically deprived since a referendum that joined the two Cameroons in 1972.3 The Anglophone minority now accounts for 20 percent of Cameroon’s 22 million citizens and is concentrated in the NWSW region.

Since the country’s independence from colonial powers in the 1960s, the NWSW has experienced political and social tensions, driven largely by grievances over the marginalization of the Anglophone population. In October 2016, instability gave way to violence when protests against the government’s imposition of Francophone teachers and lawyers in Anglophone schools and courts were met with military action.5 The reaction to the protests fueled already existing separatist sentiment and dozens of non-state armed groups formed to retaliate against Cameroonian security forces and institute and enforce school boycotts.

Both non-state armed groups and Cameroonian security forces have targeted the civilian population in Anglophone areas. Approximately 1,800 people have been killed since the escalation of the conflict.7 Cameroonian security forces have committed extrajudicial killings, made arbitrary arrests, tortured detainees, and set fire to numerous towns and villages. Non-state armed groups have burned down schools and enforced school boycotts, using kidnapping and assault to deter attendance.8

Displacement and Needs

The conflict has displaced large numbers of people and resulted in a significant humanitarian crisis. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the violence has left 1.3 million people in need of assistance. The UN estimates that the number of those internally displaced by the turmoil in the NWSW has steadily increased since May 2018, when 160,000 Cameroonians were first forced to flee.9 Current estimates of displacement within the Anglophone population in the NWSW now stand at more than 530,000 and continue to rise daily.10 It is estimated that 50 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fled from their towns and villages into rural areas in the bush or forest.11 Others have found shelter in host communities; many are living in overcrowded conditions in need of basic hygiene and domestic items.12

Because of the continuing conflict, violence against and abuse of the civilian population are the most pressing concerns for the people in affected areas. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has documented widespread protection issues and human rights violations, including the burning of property, kidnapping, rape and sexual assault, child labor and abuse, and illegal arrests. Women, children, and people with disabilities reported the highest numbers of protection concerns.13

Many IDPs and communities affected by the conflict have witnessed atrocities and are in need of psychosocial support. The UN estimates that more than 266,000 children need care after experiencing trauma, losing family members, engaging in the conflict, or finding themselves separated from their families.14 In addition, sexual and gender-based violence is common in the NWSW, where survivors need urgent medical care and psychosocial support.

The needs for shelter and non-food items are also extremely pressing. Many IDPs are living in makeshift shelters or repurposed agricultural facilities. These poor living conditions expose them to health issues such as malaria and respiratory disease, and the situation is expected to decline further with the upcoming rainy season.15 Many IDPs who have found shelter in host communities experience overcrowding that presents increased protection and health issues. 

The majority of the displaced population previously relied on agriculture or raising livestock for both food and income. Forced to flee their villages, they now lack access to fields and markets.16 This circumstance has increased the threat of food insecurity for IDPs in the NWSW. According to OCHA, 1.5 million people in the region are food insecure.17

Although the NWSW was a relatively well-developed region of the country, ongoing fighting is quickly eroding existing infrastructure. Since the onset of clashes, separatists have enforced school boycotts. Warring parties have hindered service provision by targeting and destroying education and health facilities. An estimated 40 schools in the NWSW have been affected; 42,500 children have not had consistent access to education over the past three years.18


1 Tah, Peter. “Cameroon Conflict: ‘We Live in Fear in Bamenda’.” BBC News. November 15, 2018.

2 Chris W.J. Roberts, “Ambazonia: Justin Trudeau’s Biafra?” Canadian Global Affairs Institute Policy Perspective, September 2018, accessed May 18, 2019,

3 Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, “Timeline: Unfolding of the Independence Movement in Ambazonia,” accessed May 18, 2019,

4 “Timeline: Unfolding of the Independence Movement inAmbazonia.”

5 Peter Tah,“Cameroon Conflict: ‘We Live in Fear in Bamenda,’” BBC News, November 15, 2018,

6 “Ambazonia: Justin Trudeau’s Biafra?”

7 International Crisis Group, “Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis: How to Get to Talks?” Report No. 272, accessed May 18, 2019,

8 Human Rights Watch, “Cameroon: Events of 2018,” accessed May 18, 2019,

9 OCHA, “Emergency Response Plan, 2018,” accessed May 18, 2019,

10 OCHA, “Cameroon: North-West and South-West Crisis Situation Report No. 5 – As of 31 March 2019,” accessed May 18, 2019,

11 “Cameroon: North-West and South-West Crisis Situation Report No. 5.”

12 UNHCR, “Cameroon 2019 Supplementary Appeal,”accessed May 18, 2019, 

13 Cameroon 2019 Supplementary Appeal.

14 “Cameroon: North-West and South-West Crisis Situation Report No. 5.”

15 OCHA, “Cameroon: North-West and South-West Crisis, Situation Report N°4 as of 28 February 2019,” accessed May 18, 2019,°4-28.

16 “Emergency Response Plan, 2018,”

17 “Cameroon: North-West and South-West Crisis Situation Report No. 5.”

18 “Cameroon: North-West and South-West Crisis, Situation Report No. 4.”