In January 2009, five young men from Burkina Faso crossed the Nigerian border and entered Cameroon via the Bakassi Peninsula. They were arrested and detained by law enforcement officials for ‘attempting to seek asylum in Cameroon’. After nine days, they were brought before a Common law Court where they faced charges of illegal immigration.
In Cameroon, the UN Refugee Agency(UNHCR) adjudicates almost entirely, the process of granting refugee status – better known as the refugee status determination (RSD) process-to migrants. The purport is to determine whether the asylum seeker falls within the criteria for international refugee protection. The foundation of this process rests upon the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which under Article 31, specifically prohibits the return by Signatory Countries like Cameroon, of a migrant to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is also known as the principle of ‘non-refoulement’. Against the back drop of this illustration, Cameroon’s violation of these migrants’ rights becomes much more pronounced.
The Judgment that inspired a 10-year long mission
Fortunately, the Judge who over saw the trial of the young men from Burkina Faso above , is a long time reader in international law and a researcher in global migration trends. He applied article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention as ‘customary international law’, and dropped all the charges against the young migrants. He ordered the State of Cameroon, to conduct the young migrants to the Office of the UN Refugee Agency in Yaoundé for their request for asylum. After 10 days, the young migrants were free to enjoy their liberty and to pursue their asylum claim since there was no appeal against the Judge’s decision.
Sadly enough, the reality for the over 200,000 asylum seekers in Cameroon from 26 countries including Chad, Nigeria, the Central African Republic(CAR), Niger, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo(DRC) and Libya remains disturbing than the one experienced by the young men from Burkina Faso. Statistics from the UN Refugee Agency shows that as at the 31st of December 2018, less than 1% of them moves on through the status determination (RSD) process.
Refugee Welfare Association Cameroon (REWAC) is the result of concerted efforts led by legal minds including the Judge who adjudicated over the case of the young migrants from Burkina Faso, to end the systematic violations of the rights of vulnerable migrants and to promote, defend and enforce international humanitarian law. The trial (supra) was therefore the impetus behind the indigenous initiative to compliment efforts made by the UN Refugee Agency, the Cameroon government and other international development partners in addressing these challenges.