Mayara fled his hometown in northeast Nigeria one year ago, and sought refuge from the slaughter of Boko Haram and military reprisals in Kolofata, in Cameroon’s Far North region.
But three weeks ago, Cameroon soldiers bundled him across the border without explanation, even though the violence and insecurity in northeast Nigeria that forced him and his family out is far from over.
Mayara is among thousands of Nigerian refugees the army has evicted from the Far North in recent months, says Medecin sans Frontiers (MSF), a medical charity treating refugees and displaced people in northeast Nigeria and northern Cameroon.
Cameroon may be violating international law if the reports are true. Authorities have denied previous reports of unilateral and involuntary repatriation of refugees from Cameroon.
More than 87,000 Nigerian refugees live in the Far North, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). The majority are at the Minawao camp and about 27,000 live offsite, according to last year’s estimates.
In May 2016, UNHCR said more than three in four residents of Minawao had indicated the willingness to return home but were still concerned about the violence and insecurity they were likely to return to.
MSF says it witnessed the return of Nigerian refugees accompanied by Cameroon soldiers “on several occasions” in 2016 and 2017, particularly in the town of Banki, on the other side of the border from Amchide.
Returnees say they were neither warned about the repatriations nor given the choice of staying. Most appear to be those living in border towns like Kolofata and out of the UNHCR-run Minawao camp located deeper inside Cameroon territory.
The forced repatriations are complicating life for refugees: breaking up families and putting them in harm’s way, according to MSF in a statement and the testimonies of several affected people.
Mayara says he left behind a pregnant wife already in labour and six children when he was forced out of the country.
“I wanted to go see my wife to know how she was doing but there was no way I could do that because we were gathered by Cameroonian soldiers and were not allowed to leave,” Mayara says in a testimony provided to us by MSF.
Zara, another Nigerian refugee who was returned to Banki last month with two children, had been separated from her husband for one year. He too had been evicted from Kolofata in earlier military campaigns.
Returning to harm’s way
Security conditions in northeast Nigeria where Boko Haram fighters have been conducting a campaign of terror since 2009 have not improved in spite of recent advances by Nigerian and sub-regional armies.
Recurrent Boko Haram attacks and military reprisals continue pushing multitudes out of their hometowns into remote villages and towards the Cameroonian border where they hope to find safety.
Since January, more than 23,000 people have fled into the towns Rann, Dikwa and Pulka, according to MSF tallies. Pulka is located on the border with Cameroon.
“Large movements of populations continue almost daily, due to attacks by Boko Haram, military operations and people searching for food and basic services,” says Himedan Mohamed, head of mission for MSF in Nigeria.
The continuing wave of forced migration within Nigeria and across the border from Cameroon is worsening the humanitarian fallouts of the conflict: It is swelling the population of host communities, increasing pressure on already scarce and overstretched resources while people in need of assistance are increasingly moving out of the reach of humanitarian workers.
“They are vulnerable, often in a poor state of health, and almost entirely dependent on aid,” according to MSF. “They cannot sustain themselves because the movement restrictions enforced by the military make farming almost impossible.”
Most have “absolutely nothing” and live on only five litters of water a day. MSF warns that piling needs among affected populations could easily turn into a crisis.
“These people face growing needs for shelter, food and water. If this is not addressed and people continue to arrive, the situation will quickly deteriorate even further,” says Gabriel Sánchez, MSF’s operational manager for Nigeria.
Editor’s note: Mayara and Zara are not the real names of affected refugees. They have been changed to protect their identities. Their testimonies were provided by MSF.