Cameroonian Asylum-seekers Languish in Mexican Border Cities
People around the world are embarking on a journey of peril and uncertainty to reach the United States border and request asylum from a government ill-disposed to admitting refugees. Most asylum-seekers come with nearly nothing but the desire to be free from persecution and insecurity. Current trends in immigration policy are complicating matters for victims of persecution who with a genuine need to leave their homes and start their lives anew in an unfamiliar place. The plight of Cameroonians is so desperate that many journey for 5 months to over a year to reach a border just to risk being turned back. They are part of a diverse group of people from various countries that forms on the Mexican side of the border to wait to cross.
The Trump Administration instituted a paralyzing policy called ‘metering’ in order to stem the flow of migrants into the United States to compensate for the backlog of immigrants navigating the asylum process. Only a certain number of migrants are allowed to file an affirmative asylum application a day, after waiting months in a queue consisting of hundreds of people. Daniel, a Cameroonian who was formerly a schoolteacher, fled his country after security forces arbitrarily detained and tortured him. He has been immobilized in Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila for over four months. As many as thirty Cameroonians were also here living in a makeshift camp in a park adjacent to the Rio Grande when we visited him.
It all began in 1961. A referendum was held to determine whether the English-speaking British Cameroons would be annexed to Nigeria or Cameroon. The Southern British Cameroons voted to join the French-speaking Republic of Cameroon. A Constitution was written to form two states – one English-speaking and the other French-speaking. However in 1972, the federation was abolished and Cameroon became a unitary state. This was problematic because the Anglophone regions became increasingly marginalized from the Francophone regions where the capital Yaoundé lies. Development on each side has been disproportionate, despite the fact that the Anglophone region is replete with resources.
In 2017 teachers’ unions and lawyers formed a consortium to advocate the restoration of the common law system in the Anglophone regions. A Francophone magistrate had recently been appointed and French-speaking teachers were being sent there. The consortium staged demonstrations to demand to preserve the use of English in schools and courts in the Anglophone region and combat the intensifying marginalization of the Anglophone minority.
It was just a peaceful protest advocating for a better system of education and a better legal system. But it escalated to something different because of the negligence of the government to solve it at that moment. The Cameroon government has always used two methods to suppress the desire of the people: either they use money to bribe those at the helm of it or they use force. So this time around they used money – it didn’t work. Then they used force – it didn’t work.
Daniel who was a teacher took part in these peaceful protests and confronted the brunt of the Cameroonian military when its troops arrived to quell it.
“In Cameroon, there is no such thing as a peaceful protest. As long as you are protesting against the government it is not peaceful. The military had come over. We heard gunshots. People were running to the forest. The military started running after me. Two men were following me and I got exhausted and fell. When they caught me they drug me into the mud. Then one of them called [my name]. He unmasked himself and I looked at him. He had been my classmate in high school,” Daniel said.
Daniel’s former classmate pleaded with the other soldiers to leave Daniel alone which likely spared his life.
The crackdown, during which government forces lethally shot demonstrators turned into an armed conflict then a civil war. Separatist demands for an independent state grew and some symbolically proclaimed the independence of a new state called Ambazonia. A guerilla army declared war on the Cameroonian government and began to wrest control of the Anglophone Region. Since then, atrocities by the military and separatists have been reported, including the burning of villages, killings, tortures and mutilations and kidnappings.
To put pressure on the government, the Ambazonian separatists called for a boycott on schools and even burned down many. Daniel lost his job as a teacher. Schools have not been effective in the Anglophone region since 2016. He was placed in a treacherous position because both sides considered him an enemy.
“I got threats from the separatists for being a teacher. I was tortured, beaten all because I went to school, all because I was going to teach. They saw some didactic materials in my bag, they tortured, beat[en], molested me. So on both sides I’m not safe. The separatists look at me as a teacher. I am a threat to them. Also I’m a threat to government because they see me as a separatist, which I’m not. How can a separatist be going to school to teach as well? So when I tried to explain that the moment I was caught, they couldn’t listen. Because some of them – the military men – they understand French they don’t understand English. So they tried to talk, they don’t want to hear you. They have their guns, they have their belts, they have to use it on you,” Daniel said.
The government security forces have also been accused of extra-judicial killings. People are being killed merely because they are suspected of being separatists.
“They just hijack you, without any question, tie your eyes with a piece of cloth, carry you to another place, and kill you there. They can stand from a distance and shoot you. You just need to be suspected…. The military intervenes with live bullets. Killing human beings is like killing a cockroach to them.”
“The house I used to stay in in the village of Kumba with my cousin was burned down. He’s dead. He was caught with his friends. The military wanted to know if he’s one of the separatists. Because the separatists use diabolical power so when you shoot them it doesn’t penetrate them. So for them to confirm if you’re one of them, they (military) have to shoot you in your leg. So they shot one of his friends on the leg and it went through so they let him go,” he said.
The separatists also tortured anyone whom they suspected of collaborating with government.
“They cut off your hands when they realize they are using information against them. There is a term called short sleeve and long sleeve.”
Daniel was well educated and worked in a micro-financing enterprise for a stint. Before the crisis he worked as a teacher and earned about $1,000 a month. He lived a comfortable life in Cameroon and had never planned to leave. However, leaving Cameroon soon became a matter of life-or-death. He was detained on suspicion of being a separatist in jail by the Cameroonian government. There he was interrogated and tortured daily along with his fellow prisoners. He was confined to a squalid cell where he and his cellmates were forced to defecate in a bucket. His torturers tied his hands and legs together, placed heavy objects on top of him and flogged him on his back and on the soles of his feet.
Daniel found out he was going to be transferred to a maximum-security prison in the nation’s capital, Yaoundé. According to him, his fate there would either be life imprisonment or death without trial. Fortunately he was able to bribe a guard to negotiate his release from jail before he could be transferred.
“Someone there told us that he can help us but it was not gonna be an official release. We had to give him some money. He asked for 1 million Francs [US$ 2,000]. By then I had no money because schools were not effective… My parents had to sell some assets, mobilize a fund, then give it to this man… They released me under the condition that I had to run,” he said.
After his unofficial release, he sought medical treatment.
“When I left I had to find myself in a small clinic. I had sores all over my leg. I had pain in my chest because I was beaten everywhere. I had a dislocation on my left arm… I didn’t want to go to a big hospital because the military goes to the hospitals around and takes out the boys from there.”
Daniel then abruptly had to end his treatment upon being notified he was wanted by the government.
“I got a call from him [a neighbor who worked at police station] saying that I had been issued an Avis de Recherche [search warrant]. When he told me that, I had to leave the hospital, I didn’t finish my medication. When I left back home then I had to leave straight into the forest I had a way out of Cameroon. I survived on wild food and some cash crops that grew in the forest.”
After traveling on foot, Daniel paid someone to drive him to a port, bribing police along the way to avoid revealing his identity. He then met with a captain of a cargo boat who transported him to Nigeria.
Of the over 430,000 Cameroonians displaced by the armed clashes, about 35,000 have taken refuge in Nigeria. However, as a former political prisoner, Daniel faced the constant threat of extradition to Cameroon. So after a month in Nigeria, he boarded a flight to Ecuador, a country for which Cameroonian nationals need only a tourist visa to visit. The expenses of this leg of the journey totaled $3,000.
I felt better because I just knew that they can never get me there. In Ecuador I realized that other Cameroonians and Africans are running from their country. We couldn’t cope with the life there so we had to keep moving. Then we realized all the countries along the road were Spanish-speaking countries so we found it difficult to stay there so we had to continue our journey until we could get a better place.
Daniel and his new companions’ greatest struggle on the road was communication. Without knowledge of Spanish, they lacked information and at some points went hungry. However, they followed the same paths thousands of other migrants were taking. African migrants who speak languages like Portuguese and Lingala were placed at a disadvantage relative to their counterparts who speak Spanish. African migrants also faced discrimination and segregation from the other migrants. Daniel’s group was told to vacate one section of a camp in Chiriquí, Panama to make room for some Cuban migrants who are generally given preference by authorities along the road.
“The soldiers knew that we were migrants so they were telling us what to do. If tell you have to take a bus to this place then you go. Sometimes we slept in the immigration office. Sometimes small motels, or the bus station.”
Daniel confronted a myriad of dangers along the way. One of his travel companions was killed by thieves while crossing the Darién Gap through Panama. There was gunfire inside a hotel in Honduras where he stayed and he witnessed tear gas being used on demonstrators outside.
He ultimately made it to Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico where he procured immigration papers allowing him to transit through Mexico to Ciudad Acuña. Upon his arrival, he was placed number #438 on the list to speak to an immigration officer. He has spent over four months waiting and is now number #38. On the day I visited him in Acuña, 8 migrants were allowed to cross the bridge.
When Daniel’s turn comes, he will have to convince the asylum office that he has a credible fear of being persecuted in his home state.
“I’m just gonna tell them the truth – tell them what I face. Then it is left for them to decide. I just have to try my best to convince them. Because to be sincere, I would rather stay in the U.S. detention camp for life then to go back to my country… At least over there I’ll have food and water. Ill have access to medical facilities. But over there [Cameroon] – life – you don’t have it. Because the moment I reach the airport [in Cameroon], I’m fucked. It’s just gonna be straight for life detention or I’m just gonna be killed. I do not know,” he said.
If Daniel is granted asylum, he will move to Houston, where his sister already resides, and finish studying to become a certified treasury professional. He does not see it as a viable option to stay permanently in Acuña. He tried getting a job but the language barrier made it impossible for him to continue. There are no Spanish classes available for English-speakers in the city. He lacks the documentation to leave the zone of Mexico near the border. At least in Acuña, there are frequent military patrols of the park where many migrants camp to ensure their safety. In cities like Nuevo Laredo, where I first met Daniel, migrants are kidnapped and held for ransom.
The main thing migrants need is food. The tents and cooking instruments in the Acuña camp were donated. However, nonprofits ceased coming over the bridge from Del Rio to feed the community camped out in the park. Many people around the world are coming to the United States with genuine claims for asylum and are forced to wait months after the border after an arduous, perilous journey. Some are now even being bussed from cities like Nuevo Laredo back to Monterrey or even Chiapas for security reasons. This year, President Trump set the cap of admissions for refugees at 30,000 and seems to be planning to decrease this number even further. If he does so, people like Daniel who are fleeing civil war and political persecution will not be able to come to the United States as a safe haven.
People like Daniel do not come to the United States for economic opportunity, but out of necessity.
“I really miss the peaceful Cameroon. Peace doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of war. I miss the Cameroon where the Anglophones were enduring.”