This article attempts to highlight the plight of refugees, asylum seekers, and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS) in the Cameroon and to showcase the state of available protection mechanism at their disposal within existing legislation and in the light of international law. It ends with a strong recommendation for the better protection of refugees.
Cameroon is a relatively stable country situated along the Atlantic Coast between West and Central Africa. It has a population of about 18 million inhabitants. The country borders Gabon, Nigeria, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Central Africa Republic (CAR) and Congo Brazzaville.
Cameroon is referred to as ‘Africa in Miniature’, as the country has desert vegetation up North, the forest in the South and Savannah vegetation in the West. It has rich deposits of mineral resources and produces cocoa, timber, coffee, cotton and other export earning crops, yet with a GDP per capita income estimated at $1,140.
The Refugee Population
The deterioration of the security situation in neighboring Central Africa Republic (CAR) and the war in Chad are the immediate and constant push factors for refugees to enter Cameroon.
As of 31 December, 2009, the exact number of refugees in Cameroon is unknown. The population is a fluid one. However, according to a census carried out by the UN Refugee Agency between January and March 2008, Cameroon hosted a total of 97,400 refugees and asylum seekers within the last quarter of 2007 and early 2008.
Some other sources say the estimates may be 10 times as much. These include 49,300 from the Central Africa Republic (CAR), 41,600 from Chad and several thousand more from Nigeria, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and other countries. Most of them live in the urban centres of Douala, Kousseri, Yaounde, Garoua, Ngaoundere, and Bertoua.
The majority of these refugees are still seeking asylum on prolonged exile from their war torn countries and are living a precarious life in the cities. And of course, the worst affected are women who are victims of sexual abuse and neglect with no clear rules about their access to basic social services or protection in the Camerouns.
National Refugee law
In 2005, Cameroon adopted a national law relating to the status of Refugees (Law No. 2005/006 of the 27th of July 2005). It is not however fully implemented. For instance, it is the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Yaounde that hears claims and makes decisions on refugee’s status. Asylum seekers register through the same UNHCR officer in Yaounde. Applicants receive appointment slips for eligibility interviews and wait up to five months for such interviews. The law permits denied applicants to appeal within 30 days of notification but does not allow ordinary Courts to review decisions. Applicants submit their appeals to a UNHCR Officer and hearings are scheduled by the same UNHCR Office within three months. No known case a refugees receiving legal representation by a lawyer has been documented. In short, there is no legal aid for refugees in the Cameroon.
Cameroon is a Signatory or Party to the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, without reservation, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention Governing the specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.
The 2005 law (supra) applies the refuges definitions of both Conventions and prohibits ‘refoulement’ of refugees, and asylum seekers for reasons other than national security and public order, pursuant to a lawful order, and with 72 hour notice to the UNHCR.
Access to Justice
Cameroon does not punish asylum seekers for illegal entry, provided they report to local authorities immediately upon arrival from a country of threat. However, the 2005 Refugee law permits 24 hours of detention, renewable twice. UNHCR monitors the detention of refugees, and asylum seekers can challenge their detention before the ordinary Courts, but they have to hire a lawyer at their own expense.
In the year 2007, the government of Cameroon published a Decree authorizing the UNHCR to issue refugee identification cards, replacing the hitherto refugee certificates. Asylum seekers also benefit from certificates; these are issued six days after registration.
Freedom of Movement
Generally, there are no permanent refugee camps in Cameroon. Make shift camps do exist such as in Maltam, from the Madana transit site, 32kms from Kousseri and Cetic in the Northern part near Chad. There also exists a temporary settlement area, at Gbabio in the Eastern Region. The UNHCR has just opened a Regional Office in Bertoua, Capital of the Eastern Region.
Registered refugees and asylum seekers with identification documents are free to travel throughout the country and settle where they like. However, government requires asylum seekers to notify immigration authorities of any change of address.
Some NGOs are permitted by government to assist refugees in choosing their place of residence and to protect their right to move around freely.
Prima faciè refugees including those seeking asylum cannot work legally. However, the 2005 law grants registered refugees the right to work, to own and transfer property and to practice professions on par with nationals. One limitation however is that, no foreigner can work in the national civil service or state enterprise (e.g. parastatal). They have an equal rights and access to health care as nationals. They receive the same protection in labour, security and safety regulations.
Right to Education
The 2005 law grants refugees education and access to public health systems on par with nationals. Medical care is available for a fee to both refugees and nationals. Refugee students are eligible to receive educational funding provided by the government or civil society organizations. UNHCR offers scholarships covering tuition, fees and part of the cost of school supplies for urban refugees enrolled in the same primary schools as nationals.
Main Stake holders
In Cameroon, very few NGOs exist that cater for the rights of refugees. Many persons are ignorant about the rights and plight of refugees. They think it is a totally government affair. These include the National Human Rights League of Cameroon, the Women Poverty Eradication Centre (WOPEC), the Association of Refugees without Borders and the Refugees Welfare Association.
Amongst the international NGOs are the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), Care International, Caritas, Reseau Ouest et Centre Africain de Recherche en Education (ROCARE), Reseau Famille et scolarisation en Afrique (FASAF) and ReliefWeb. Most of the work is done by the UNHCR and other inter-governmental agencies like the FAO, WHO, UNICEF, WFP, UNFPA, the ICRC, the Inter-government Committee for Refugees (ICR) and of course, the government of Cameroon. Other organizations or structures may exist unknown to this author.
1. There is the need to train a team of volunteer lawyers in refugees laws;
2. National NGOs and trained lawyers must sign up to the 2007 Nairobi code;
3. Cameroon government should abide by the 1951 and 1969 Conventions, inter alia, to allow the local Courts adjudicate on cases for refugee status determination and appeals;
4. Legal Aid should be extended to refugees seeking asylum especially those detained by local authorities upon arrival;
5. NGOs should be authorized to represent refugees in litigation before the counts;
6. The SRLA Network should as a matter of urgency extend her services to Cameroon for the benefit of the thousands of refugees; and
7. The process of RSD should not be left in the hands of the UNHCR alone. The government of Cameroon and relevant NGOs should be part of the process.
* Justice Mukete Tahle Itoe is a practicing Judge in Cameroon and a Civil Society activist. He is the Secretary General of the Global Network for Good Governance (GNGG), a good governance and anti-corruption NGO based in Cameroon. He is also the founding Director/CEO of the Refugees Welfare Association (RWA), an indigenous non-profit organization that strives to foster the respect of the rights of refugees in Cameroon as enshrined in International law. He can be contacted by e-mail at: [email][email protected]