Migration policy in Cameroon: Boko Haram and displacement in an oil-rich region

Cameroon is a powder keg. Its English-speaking provinces are demanding independence, internally displaced people are competing with Nigerian refugees in Far North and Boko Haram is operating in an area where oil is soon be extracted.

Refugees from Nigeria in Camp Minawao in Cameroon Foto: dpa

President Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982, is thought to be the highest-earning African head of state. According to online platform Africa Review, he is estimated to earn $610,000 a year, a sum 227 times higher than the average Cameroonian's wage. The country’s economy has been struggling since the 1980s. Poverty, economic crisis, a growing population, foreign debt, poorly planned inner cities and corruption are all issues Cameroon must contend with.

In 2009, ‚Vision 2035’ was set out which aimed to turn Cameroon into an industrialised country with a middle-income economy: a bold and ambitious vision for the nation’s future. The great economic boom never came even though Cameroon is an attractive destination for migrants in the region. Since the 1980s, the country’s frustrated youth have been pinning all their hopes on getting out.

Cameroon and neighbouring Nigeria have an agreement that grants their citizens visa-free travel. However, this does not include right to remain. Countless English-speaking Cameroonians thus try their luck in neighbouring Nigeria when the discrimination at home becomes unbearable. Many of Cameroon’s francophone citizens find work in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, two oil-rich countries. But migrants leaving Cameroon are soon replaced by immigrants from neighbouring Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria.

However, the emigration of skilled workers does have a negative impact on the economy: according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 42.3 percent of the 57,050 Cameroonians working in Europe are highly qualified. The Cameroon Medical Association estimates there are 4,200 doctors from Cameroon working abroad. Their remittances have latterly amounted to $167 million (World Bank, 2008), which equals just under one percent of Cameroon’s GDP.

The most recent report published by the IOM puts the number of Cameroonians living abroad at 170,363. Their destination of choice in Europe appears to be France (38,530 Cameroonians), followed by oil-exporter Gabon (30,216 migrants), Nigeria (16,980) and the United States (12,835). As of December 2015, there were 19,800 Cameroonians living in Germany. In the same year, 964 applications for asylum were made, although not a single one was successful. Around the globe, 6,545 Cameroonians have applied for asylum and the approval rate stands at 23.1 percent.

A leader in expulsion

Cameroon does not have a migration partnership with the EU; no readmission agreement is in place. At present, however, there are discussions on whether Cameroon should be added to the EU’s list of safe countries of origin. Belgium and France have carried out mass deportations to Cameroon in the past and the country has signed bilateral migration agreements with France (2009) and Switzerland (2014). It has signed a deal with Spain concerning police co-operation (2011), which also contains an expulsion clause. The migration and development agreement signed with France also includes arrangements concerning expulsion.

In Belgium, Cameroonians make up the third-largest ethnic minority after DRC Congolese and Moroccans. In 2010 Belgium began encouraging voluntary return via ERIN, the European reintegration initiative. Since 2007 Frontex has been carrying out joint returns operations to Cameroon. For its part, Cameroon has stipulated that it will only take three returnees per flight and charter flights will not be accepted. However, the association ‘No Borders’ is reporting a case involving the expulsion of a group of migrants from Madrid to Douala in March 2015, as well as other individual deportations.

A study carried out by the University of Amsterdam claims that at airports in Douala and Yaoundé a private security firm is checking the documents of passengers travelling to France, Belgium, Morocco and Turkey. The study goes on to say that the French government had put pressure on Cameroon to pass a law defining irregular departures as a criminal act; it states that returnees and those turned away at Douala Airport were being taken to the nearby New Bell Prison where charges were brought against them for illegal border crossing. In 2013, the register held at the court closest to Doula Airport listed 50 cases of prosecutions for attempts to emigrate illegally.

Under-resourced refugee camps in Far North

In 2015 Cameroon was sheltering almost half a million refugees from neighbouring countries. When Nigeria’s Islamic terror group Boko Haram attempted to take parts of Cameroon in 2014, the country then also had to find food and shelter for 200,000 internally displaced people.

Just under 100,000 Nigerian refugees have sought protection in the Far North province, which borders the Lake Chad Region and is an area affected by the war with Boko Haram. 60 to 70 percent of the inhabitants of the Minawao Camp located here are aged between eight and 17. Nigerians are frequently deported under the pretext that they are supporters of terrorist organisations. Amnesty International deplores such deportations which it claims are taking place in violation of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. This method was used to deport 2,600 people to Nigeria in 2015.

Cameroon announced deportations on an even broader scale for 2016: roughly 50,000 were to be removed. NEMA, Nigeria’s emergency management agency which is also in charge of supplying refugees in the north east, has reported seeing trucks each carrying 40 refugees, who are taken across the border and left in the Nigerian state of Adamawa. This approach was used to repatriate 12,000 Nigerians, predominantly women and children, within the space of only four days. In June 2016, the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, signed a trilateral agreement with Nigeria and Cameroon concerning the return of refugees. The deal will oversee the readmission of 80,000 Nigerians.

Moreover, there are at least 250,000 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) who are living in camps in Cameroon’s south-east and in villages close to its borders. Between December 2013 and October 2014, just under 200,000 people fled from the CAR into neighbouring countries. It is purported that, in total, 20 percent of the country’s population has either fled or been displaced. That equals roughly 850,000 people. The UNHCR are concerned that only 30 percent of the costs of running the refugee camps are being covered. In the camps themselves, biometric data is being collected from all refugees, such as iris scans, fingerprints and photos, with the UNHCR’s co-operation. This data is then used to provide them with a Cameroonian refugee ID card.

The Lake Chad Region

The vast majority of European support offered to Cameroon comes in the shape of humanitarian aid for the Far North Region. Here the impacts of climate change can be both seen and felt. In the 1960s, Lake Chad was still the fourth-largest lake in Africa; today it has shrunk to 1/20th of its original size, dropping from 25,000 to 1,350 square kilometres. Before the Boko Haram insurgency, there were 20 million people living in the Lake Chad basin, three million of whom have been displaced. In November 2016 a major famine threatened the region as farmers had been unable to tend to their fields for several years and aid organisations were incapable of providing support either financially or logistically.

Whilst Cameroon’s northern provinces border Nigeria’s south-east, the Far North sticks out on the country’s northern tip, sandwiched between Nigeria, Lake Chad and Chad. Beyond Lake Chad lies the Republic of Niger, a country that has also been subjected to attacks by Boko Haram. As Lake Chad is rapidly drying out, its disappearance means the local population are either struggling to support themselves, have emigrated or are fleeing Boko Haram.

The Republic of Chad, located to the lake’s east, discovered oil in the Lake Chad basin back in the late 1970s. In 2013 it was reported that 100,000 barrels were being produced annually. Nigeria, to the lake’s west, granted concessions to a Chinese company to investigate the deposits. In 2015, 23 oil reserves were discovered and there were plans to begin extraction at the end of 2016. Now the NNPC, Nigeria’s state-run oil company, has been regularly claiming that extraction is soon set to begin. Apparently, it has commissioned an as-yet undisclosed British company.

The Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which was set up following a migration summit held in Valletta, will now direct funds to the Far North: this includes humanitarian aid for the UNHCR and the refugee camps as well as funds to encourage employment opportunities for internally displaced persons and marginalised groups. The EU Trust Fund for Africa has earmarked €10 million for programmes run by the French development agency ADF and €7 million for its German counterpart GiZ, along with €20 million for a consortium of NGOs.

Protests in English-speaking Cameroon

Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s North-West Province, witnessed bloody clashes in 2016 when the military used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters. Since the previous spring, teachers and lawyers had organised a series of demonstrations to protest against discrimination by the government’s Francophone majority. In November 2016 a general strike was called in Bamenda.

During the colonial era, the north and south-west provinces belonged to English-speaking Nigeria and were granted autonomy when the nation gained independence in 1960. However, this was gradually undermined during the decades that followed. Cameroon’s francophone president Paul Biya, who has been in office since 1982, fears the country’s English-speaking population as they widely oppose Cameroon’s mainly Francophone political and business elite.

For years, helicopters have patrolled the skies and military checkpoints have been in place every few miles. Here vehicle owners have to get out and cross on foot. No one is allowed to travel to the next village without the right documents. When Boko Haram’s bloodshed spread to Cameroon in 2014, these checks were intensified. Sometimes travellers on board overland buses are forced to pass through in single file with their hands held aloft. Amnesty International has reported arbitrary detentions and disappearances as well as cases of prisoner mistreatment, sometimes resulting in the detainee’s death. The anti-terrorism law of 23 December 2014 restricts basic rights and civil liberties and also extended the list of crimes punishable by death.

European-Cameroonian co-operation

Despite the more stringent anti-terror laws and police repression, intense police co-operation between the German government, the EU and Cameroon exists. Interpol has set up an office in Yaoundé, the capital, and the police forces of President Biya take part in training sessions held in Germany. Cameroon is also participating in seminars organised as part of Europe’s New Training Initiative for Civilian Crisis Management (ENTRi) as well as in events organised by two police academies, CEPOL and EUPST, and by the European Gendarmerie Force EUROGENDFOR, Europe’s private police.

Alongside the European Development Fund (EDF) and the Trust Fund for Africa (created after the Valletta migration summit), the EU still has financial instruments at its disposal as part of foreign policy budgets. The main one is the EU’s Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), whose budget comprises €2.3 billion from 2014 to 2020 for the purposes of crisis prevention and management. Confidence-building measures between the local people and the government in Cameroon’s Far North is one named project and it is estimated to receive just under €4 million. A further €3 million from the IcSP budget is also being allocated to the Airport Communication Programme (AIRCOP). This initiative will set up anti-smuggling units in airports around the globe that are able to share relevant operational information.

Article III of the Stability and Peace Instrument outlines additional steps which Cameroon may also receive funding to implement, such as “unforeseen elections and associated confidence-building measures“, supporting peace and stabilisation missions in border regions, responding to the Ebola outbreak, supporting the fight against violent terrorism and boosting the resilience of affected communities as well as aiding the return of refugees. €200 million has been earmarked for these measures, but the list of potential recipient countries is long: Bosnia and Herzegovina; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; CAR; Chad; DRC; Guatemala; Guinea (Conakry); Iraq; Lebanon; Libya; Nigeria; Somalia; South Sudan; Sudan; Syria; Turkey; Ukraine; West Bank/Gaza; and Yemen.

The EU’s budget for external relations has also allocated funding for a consultancy and service company run by the French interior ministry. CIVI.POL was established in 2001 and offers services in the areas of homeland security, civil protection and governance. The company repertoire includes border security expertise, video surveillance, tackling organised crime, personal security as well as intelligence gathering. The company receives €1.7 million from the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace budget to provide regional support for analysis, programme development and on-the-ground activities to tackle radicalisation in the Sahel and Maghreb regions. This project sees CIVI.POL involvement not only in Cameroon but across the whole of the Sahel and Maghreb zone.

Military co-operation

In April 2016 the European Commission also decided to provide €50 million from the Africa Peace Facility (APF) to support regional forces in their fight against Boko Haram. The relevant contract was signed in October 2016. In February 2015 the governments of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Benin set up an 8,700-strong intervention force after being given the go-ahead by the African Union. In addition to the 7,500 soldiers approved by the AU, hundreds of police officers and civilians were also dispatched as part of this initiative to end the Boko Haram insurgency.

The troops serving in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) are supplied by Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. Since being established, the instrument financing the scheme, the APF, has received €2 billion from the EU. This assistance is taken from the European development budget. However, some of these funds (5 percent) have only been listed as Official Development Aid (ODA) since 2015.

Another instrument of the Africa Peace Facility is the Africa Standby Force (ASF), which, as of 2016, was also almost fully funded by the European Development Fund. Its logistic hub is located in the Cameroonian city of Douala and its political headquarters are housed within the AU building in Addis Ababa. Originally created for regional African peacekeeping, the African Standby Force is gradually turning into an anti-terror army tasked with battling Al-Qaeda in Somalia and now being deployed against Boko Haram.

The history behind regional conflict

Once a German colony (from 1884 to 1916), Cameroon is a bilingual country that was created through the joining of two separate states. In 1960 French Cameroon became independent and one year later the residents of British Cameroon, which was protected by a UN mandate at the time, voted in two referenda to join the nascent Republic of Cameroon. To this day, English-speaking schools and courts based on British Common Law exist for the Anglophones in the country’s west, who make up 20% of the population. In most parts of Cameroon French is the language spoken and the French Code Civil is used. Key ministerial posts always go to French-speaking Cameroonians. The opposition is thus de facto Anglophone.

Even 50 years after independence, the border demarcations as they stand still remain contentious. It was only in 2008 that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague officially ruled that the Bakassi Peninsula, situated on the border between Cameroon and Nigeria in the Gulf of Guinea, officially belonged to the state of Cameroon. This small piece of land is much sought after due to the presence of oil. The nonviolent, secessionist organisation Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) has also staked a claim in the peninsula. In 1999 the SCNC declared the Republic of Ambazonia, an area of land that effectively encompasses what was once British Cameroon.

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