Cameroon is forcing thousands of Nigerian refugees uprooted by the jihadist group Boko Haram to go home against their will, despite a recent agreement between the countries to prevent forced returns, the United Nations said on Tuesday. Cameroonian soldiers have so far this year sent home more than 2,600 refugees against their wishes to villages in northeast Nigeria, where insecurity persists and access to basic services remains limited, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said.
The two countries and the UNHCR at the start of March signed an agreement stating that refugees residing in Cameroon who do not want to return to Nigeria will not be forced to do so. “But … the reality is forced returns have continued to happen,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told a news briefing in Geneva, adding that some refugees in Cameroon had been forcefully returned to Nigeria as recently as last Friday.
Baloch said the returns were being carried out by the Cameroonian army, and that the UNHCR had expressed its concern to the government about a lack of control over the military. Cameroonian government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Boko Haram has killed some 15,000 people and forced more than two million to flee their homes during its seven-year campaign to carve out an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria. More than 85,000 Nigerian refugees reside in neighbouring Cameroon’s Far North region, where the Islamist militants also launch attacks, often using female suicide bombers and children.
Young children and pregnant women are among the refugees who have been forcibly sent back to Nigeria by the Cameroonian army, with some families having being separated and mothers forced to leave their children behind in Cameroon, UNHCR said.
Most of the returnees are unable to go back to their homes due to the threat of Boko Haram, and are instead taken to Nigerian camps for the internally displaced, the agency said. A regional drive by the armies of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria has recaptured much of the territory Boko Haram once held, but the militants have stepped up attacks in the Lake Chad region since the end of the rainy season in late 2016.