Americans are well acquainted with the influx of Central American asylum seekers along the southern United States border. But the Central Americans are not alone. Lost in the news cycle are people of many nationalities who have crossed continents to seek refuge in the United States. One such group from Cameroon has been forced to flee in part by contradictions in U.S. policy, only to have America slam the door in their face.
The longstanding marginalization of the country’s Anglophone minority gave way to violence in 2016 when the Cameroonian military met peaceful protests with excessive force. This overreaction strengthened separatist sentiment, and Anglophone pro-independence groups took up arms.
With government forces wrongly assuming that most civilians support the secessionist cause and separatist groups attacking people who have not joined the fight, civilians are trapped and face arbitrary detention, torture, and the destruction of their homes. It is hardly surprising that more than 1,000 Cameroonians, who have every reason to flee their country, have found their way to the southern border of the United States.
The U.S. government has recognized and responded to abuses in Cameroon. The Department of Defense cut ties with Cameroonian forces earlier this year, citing human rights abuses and the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 358 this month, condemning human rights abuses by both government security forces and armed groups in Cameroon. The U.S. Department of State has acknowledged the excessive use of force and targeting of civilians by Cameroonian military forces in its 2018 Human Rights report.
Regrettably, and despite this U.S. recognition of severe problems in Cameroon, there has been little U.S. action to help the millions left in the crossfire or to address their mounting humanitarian needs. In fact, the United States has contributed a mere $300,000 toward the $93.5 million required to assist the 1.3 million people in need.
So between January and May 2019, 1,023 Cameroonians arrived in Mexico. Nearly all arrived on foot. Most traveled by air to Ecuador, and then traveled north through Central America and Mexico to make their way to the U.S. border. They are relieved to have finished the worst of their trek, having made it without any knowledge of Spanish and little food or water on the dangerous journey. Many report robberies at the hands of armed groups and deaths along the way.
Cameroonians in Tijuana waiting to cross into the United States include lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and members of Cameroon’s opposition party — people who had thriving careers before violence broke out at home.
I met with those in Tijuana waiting to have their claim heard, and they serve as proof that ignoring a far-away population in need doesn’t mean they won’t show up on your doorstep.
Once in Tijuana, the Trump administration’s new Migration Protection Protocols (‘Remain in Mexico’) policy, requires Mexican authorities to compile a list of asylum-seekers and assign them a number for their place in line.
While at the Tijuana border-crossing last month, I saw hundreds of Cameroonians gathered around the port-of-entry to San Diego every day, despite knowing they wouldn’t be called for weeks or even months. They’re desperate for any information they can get on the next steps in the difficult process.
Asylum-seekers wait three to six months before they’re called to the border for their “credible fear” interviews. This process used to be overseen by asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it is now increasingly overseen by armed Custom and Border Patrol agents who are not trained on how to conduct interviews about traumatic events.
Moreover, immigration lawyers say the United States is refusing Cameroonians’ asylum requests for reasons as insignificant as not having official translations of French-language documents into English. For this, they’re being deported back to Cameroon, where many are immediately detained upon their return. There have even been reports of torture.
The United States cannot have it both ways. It cannot both condemn widespread human rights abuses faced by civilians in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions and tell asylum-seekers fleeing these abuses that their claims are not valid.
Even with greater U.S. support for humanitarian assistance for Cameroon, which is essential, Cameroonians are likely to continue to flee their country. Having recognized and criticized serious abuses of human rights in Cameroon, the U.S. government must now provide asylum to those who would face certain danger if forced to return home. And our government would also do well to remember that ignoring far-away humanitarian crisis means you may be compelled — politically and ethically — to address them closer to home.
Alexandra Lamarche is an advocate for sub-Saharan Africa at Refugees International, where her work focuses on conflict, displacement crises, and peacekeeping. Follow her on Twitter @AlyLamb. Alanna Fox is the special assistant to the president at Refugees International.