Circular Security: Cameroon’s Return of Nigerian Refugees is Bad Law and Bad Policy

Mason Hill
Second-year student at the University of Michigan Law School

Over the last decade, the Nigerian government and Boko Haram have engaged in a lengthy civil war. International media attention sporadically highlights violence from this conflict, which has spread throughout the Lake Chad Basin.

Boko Haram has marshalled enormous resources to the fight, and many civilians throughout Northern Nigeria have justified anxieties about falling victim to Boko Haram violence.  As civilians flee to neighboring countries in the Lake Chad basin to escape the violence, the international refugee regime activates. Cameroon’s response to the influx—mass deportations without individual adjudication—clearly illustrates the important interplay between the procedural rights guaranteed in Article 32 and the right against refoulement guaranteed in Article 33 of the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Boko Haram leaders, in explicit allegiance with ISIS/ISIL in West Africa, have declared that they intend to create an Islamic State based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law in the Lake Chad Basin. Part of Boko Haram’s call for a theocratic state has been a call for violence against those whose lifestyles, religious beliefs, or cultural values are incompatible with this vison. Those who do not fit into Boko Haram’s vison for the future of the region have been subjected to violent terror attacks and targeted killings. The U.S. State Department has declared Boko Haram a terrorist group.

Despite the spread of Boko Haram, Nigeria remains the site of the most intense violence. Though the government of Nigeria has declared war on Boko Haram, and military and humanitarian aid has flowed in to combat Boko Haram, the group has managed to periodically control swaths of the country. As a result of the ensuing violence, over the last decade, 2.6 million people have fled Nigeria. According to UNHCR in November 2018 there were more than 90,000 Nigerian refugees in Cameroon.

Cameroon has come under scrutiny for its treatment of refugees. It has consistently conducted mass deportations of Nigerian refugees and has been condemned by UNHCR for violating the principle of non-refoulment. In addition to formal expulsions, Cameroon uses violence to force refugees to cross back into Nigeria. UNHCR had condemned these haphazard expulsions. Cameron responded that they view everyone who has been forcibly returned as a security threat, claiming that terrorists slipped into the country disguised as refugees.

Article 33 of the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees mandates that ratifying states uphold the principle of non-refoulment such that “no contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom are threatened because of his . . . religion.” As the Michigan Guidelines say, the purpose of the non-refoulment requirement in international refugee law is to provide a “back-up” source of protection in the event of persecution. Cameroon is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Therefore, treaty obligations prevent the wanton expulsion of Nigerian refugees without cause, and even then only after Cameroon has afforded procedural rights to give them a chance to defend their status.

The convention contemplates an exception to non-refoulment that could address Cameroon’s security concerns. Article 33 Section 2 reads:

The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee from whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the county in which he is or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.

In other words, states are under no obligation to let themselves be destabilized.

Given that the war against Boko Haram has spread to many neighboring countries, Cameroon has understandable concerns about the violence within its borders. However, inherent in mass deportations without status determination is the risk that at least several people are being wrongly returned to dangerous conditions.

The way to prevent these kinds of substantive violations is to respect the procedural rights that the international refugee convention guarantees. Article 32 of the Refugee Convention provides a right to process, and at the very least, a right to defend oneself. The lack of process in Cameroon is apparent in the aggregate manner of many of these forced returns, with hundreds of people being simultaneously and forcibly returned to Nigerian territory. That some refugees are returned only few days after arriving further indicates a lack of process. Without adjudication, these deportations to Nigeria violate Cameron’s  international commitments.

Good counter-terror strategy incorporates aspects of both law enforcement and more intentional cooperation with a country’s neighbors. The kinds of immigration controls that Cameroon has made use do not appear to be working. The repetitive nature of the expulsions betrays the futility of using them as a counter-terrorism tactic. It is important for the Cameroonian government to be precise in thinking about what does and does not demonstrate a serious security problem. Cameroon has struggled with Boko Haram operatives infiltrating the country. But Cameroon’s pattern of expelling refuges does nothing to ameliorate that problem; it only contributes to instability. Regardless of whether there is legal ambiguity, regional stability is best served by a cooperative rather than antagonistic approach on Cameroon’s part.

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