Refugees fleeing the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria have worried neighbouring Cameroon, which fears rebels are mingling with refugees and using Cameroon as a safe haven for new attacks
MAROUA, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Cameroonian gendarme Gaitan Atouba was stunned when the Nigerian military opened fire on more than 100 Nigerian refugees under his protection, killing 15 and seriously wounding seven in the northeast Nigerian border town of Banki earlier this month.
Atouba and his fellow officers had been ordered to round up refugees in the town of Amchide in Cameroon’s Far North region and hand them over to the Nigerian border authorities in Banki for questioning about their possible involvement with the rebel Islamist sect Boko Haram.
Around 8,300 Nigerians, fleeing both attacks by Boko Haram and the heavy-handed response of the security forces in northern Nigeria, have crossed into Cameroon’s Far North since Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck declared a state of emergency in June.
The Cameroon government believes Boko Haram members have infiltrated Cameroon posing as refugees, and are using it as a safe haven to launch attacks into Nigeria as part of their drive to establish an independent state based on sharia (Islamic law) in largely Muslim northeast Nigeria. Hundreds have been killed in Boko Haram attacks and fighting between the group and Nigerian security forces in recent months.
“The refugees had already been warned that if they didn't relocate to the official refugee camp in Minawao, they would be treated as illegal immigrants or combatants and handed over to the Nigerian authorities,” said Atouba. “In our search, we found evidence that connected them to Boko Haram, so we had to kick them out of the country.”
Shooting broke out when the Nigerians, under Cameroonian escort, reached the border on Oct. 5, Atouba said. “When we arrived in Banki, we heard gunshots. Nobody knew where they came from, but the refugees panicked and made a run for it. To my disbelief, the Nigerian military started firing to stop them getting away,” Atouba told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“There was no mercy, no respect for human life. Some died on the spot. We recovered the wounded and drove them back to Cameroon where they could get treatment. I never imagined they would shoot to kill unarmed people. They might have been Boko Haram, we'll never know, but nobody deserves that,” said Atouba, who declined to use his real name for security reasons.
The Banki shootings have drawn criticism from the U.N. refugee agency, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which in a press statement on Tuesday questioned the ethics of the Cameroonian security forces for sending people back into an area of known insecurity.
In a statement, the UNHCR said it had been alarmed by reports of the attempted forced return of 111 people from Cameroon to Nigeria. In light of the security situation in northeastern Nigeria, people fleeing are likely to meet the criteria for refugee status as outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, it said.
The UNHCR statement did not say the refugees had been killed by the Nigerian military, and Nigerian authorities have not commented on the incident.
“The UNHCR has got to understand that they are looking at things from a humanitarian perspective, but we have to look at things from a security perspective,” Augustine Fonka Awa, Governor of the Far North region, told a European Union Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) mission to Maroua last week.
“In the Amchide roundup, we found two semi-automatic rifles and over 80 rounds of ammunition, which suggests that they are Boko Haram, that they are combatants and not refugees,” said an angry Awa, banging his fist on the table.
COMBATANT OR REFUGEE?
Cameroon, lacking Nigeria’s military strength, has taken a number of unorthodox steps to try to separate refugees from combatants.
The Minawao refugee camp has been set up 120 km (75 miles) from the Nigerian border, more than twice the recommended 50 kms, as the government believes this will deter militants from using it and encourage only genuine refugees.
But Ndeye Ndour, the UNHCR representative to Cameroon, says the refugees do not want to move so far from the border.
“They have the same culture and speak the same language as the Cameroonian people, who have taken them in out of solidarity. They don’t want to leave that for the refugee camp lifestyle,” Ndour said. “It’s the rainy season too, so many of the refugees are cultivating their land in Nigeria during the day and running back to Cameroon to sleep at night.”
Of the estimated 8,300 refugees in Cameroon, the United Nations has managed to transfer only 1,800 to the Minawao refugee camp.
Other ways used to try to distinguish between Cameroonian locals and Nigerian immigrants, refugees or combatants have also raised eyebrows among the humanitarian community.
“Some of the Nigerians have stolen Cameroonian ID cards, so we check to see if they speak French and then we check for vaccination marks, because all Cameroonians have a mark on their forearm,” said Awa, rolling up his sleeve to show a dark dot just below the inner elbow crease.
But aid workers say this is not a valid test of nationality. “The Far North has a very low vaccination prevalence, so not everyone will have a mark. Also, vaccination campaigns tend to be uniform, so those vaccinated in Nigeria will have the same mark in the same place,” said Dr. Souleymane Kanon of UNICEF Cameroon.
"Differentiating between Nigerians and Cameroonians using these techniques will be very challenging,” Kanon said.
For Atouba, trying to distinguish between the two nationalities, this is disheartening. “They came to us as our brothers at a time of desperation, but there are a few among them who have sinister intentions, and in the end everyone suffers because we can’t tell the good ones from the bad,” he said.
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