Cameroonians deported by US had rights violated, watchdog reports

Asylum seekers experienced torture, rape and multiple forms of harassment on forced return

People look at amateur football in Yaounde, Cameroon: “The US government utterly failed Cameroonians with credible asylum claims by sending them back to harm in the country they fled,” says Human Rights Watch. Photograph: Charly Triballeau

Dozens of Cameroonian asylum seekers deported from the US between 2019 and 2021 experienced serious human rights violations on return, according to a report by campaign group Human Rights Watch.

These included torture, rape and other violence; arbitrary arrest and detention; extortion; unfair prosecutions; enforced disappearances; confiscation of their national IDs; abuses against their relatives; and other kinds of harassment, HRW said.

The 149-page report traced what had happened to more than 80 Cameroonians deported in October and November 2020, as well as others who left in the the years directly before and after.

“I was arrested and detained [by gendarmes] . . . I was raped,” said one deportee, who is identified as Esther in the report. “They said we are the people that have gone out and spoiled the name of the country . . . so I have to pay for it dearly.”


Prison beatings

A man, identified as Richard, said he was locked up in prison upon his return. “I was kept in a dark room, only given two slices of bread for the whole day,” he said. “[Officers] beat me . . . [with] batons . . . and a military belt . . . and their cutlasses . . . I was tortured for 14 days, every day, three times a day . . . They were making me feel that’s the end of my life.”

Nearly all of the interviewees fled Cameroon for reasons related to the ongoing insurgency and crisis in the West African country's Anglophone regions. It has been ongoing since 2017, when separatists proclaimed independence in the west, following the violent suppression of protests there, and the Cameroonian military retaliated.

Thousands of people have been killed and more than half a million have fled their homes.

HRW says that, by returning Cameroonians to face persecution, torture and other serious harm over the past few years, the US has violated the principle of non-refoulement, a cornerstone of international refugee and human rights law.

Washington’s failure

"The US government utterly failed Cameroonians with credible asylum claims by sending them back to harm in the country they fled, as well as mistreating already-traumatised people before and during deportation," said Lauren Seibert, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW. "The Cameroon and US governments need to remedy these abuses, and US authorities should provide opportunities for wrongly deported Cameroonians to return and reapply for asylum."

While most of the interviewees were deported under the administration of Donald Trump, Human Rights Watch said the Biden administration also deported several Cameroonians in October 2021 and has failed to designate the country with temporary protected status, which would mean people couldn't be returned there.

The report also makes allegations against the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), saying its officers failed to protect confidential asylum documents during deportations, leading to them being confiscated by Cameroonian authorities.

Nearly all deportees interviewed said they were mistreated while in US immigration detention, where they were detained an average of 1.5 years; while being transferred; or on the flights back to west Africa.

An Ice spokesperson said it takes seriously any allegations of inappropriate or unprofessional behaviour and is “committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement”.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa