African migrants deported in Trump era suffered abuse on return, report finds


Cameroonian asylum-seekers deported by the Trump administration suffered imprisonment, torture and rape on their return, and many were forced in to hiding or fleeing the country once more, according to a new report.

In the last months of the Trump administration, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agency stepped up its deportations of African migrants, especially Cameroonians. Over 80 of them were flown to Cameroon in October and November 2020 alone, amid allegations of abuse, in which Ice detainees said they had been forced to sign or fingerprint documents believed to be waivers agreeing to their deportation.

The deportations took place despite warnings from lawyers and human rights groups that those being sent back would be in danger. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published on Thursday found that almost all of those deported in 2019 and 2020 faced reprisals of some sort on their return to Cameroon, from rape and beatings to detention and extortion or simply having their identity cards confiscated.

West Cameroon is still in the grip of a conflict between the government and armed anglophone separatists, with frequent reports of arbitrary killings and military patrols in the streets. Anyone without an identity card faces the risk of detention.

The 149-page HRW report, “‘How Can You Throw Us Back?’: Asylum Seekers Abused in the US and Deported to Harm in Cameroon,” says that between 2019 and 2021, Cameroonian security forces detained or imprisoned at least 39 people who had been sent back by the Trump administration. Many of those were held without due process and in inhumane conditions, some in solitary confinement.

HRW found 14 cases of physical abuse, 13 by Cameroonian security forces and one by armed separatists. Three women were raped in custody by “state agents”, and other detainees were severely beaten during interrogation.

The deportees had all fled Cameroon to escape the conflict, in particular the government’s brutal treatment of those suspected of involvement in the separatist movement. On being forcibly returned to Cameroon, they were additionally accused of having harmed the country’s reputation by seeking asylum.

The HRW report found that Ice had failed “to protect confidential asylum documents during deportations, leading to document confiscation and apparent retribution by Cameroonian authorities”.

One woman who was deported in October 2020 said she was tortured and raped by government soldiers over six weeks in detention in Bamenda, northwestern Cameroon.

“Every two days … they were using ropes, [rubber] tubes, their boots, military belts … They hit me all over my body,” she told HRW. “They said that I’ve destroyed the image of Cameroon … so I had to pay for it.”

After initially being allowed home, another returnee was summoned to a police station two weeks later, supposedly to pick up his documents, but he was detained instead.

“They said ‘you are the guys who go out there spoiling the name of the country’. That is when my second nightmare began,” he told the Guardian. He was held for five months until his family paid a CFA franc 2m ($3500) fine for his release. He has since fled the country and is hiding elsewhere in West Africa.

Many of the returnees went into hiding to avoid arrest. In the case of seven of them, according to the report, the police or army targeted family members to try to force them to reveal their whereabouts. One returnee’s sister is alleged to have been shot and killed, another’s mother was severely beaten, and the 11-year-old son of another returnee was abducted and questioned by security agents.

One of the deportees, known by the pseudonym Cornelius in the report, said he and others were interrogated on arrival in 2020.

“Army officers were asking us why we had sought asylum, what we had told American immigration,” Cornelius told the Guardian. Some of the returnees on the same plane were arrested and taken away and Cornelius did not see them again (HRW has not been able to trace some of the deported Cameroonians). Cornelius and others were held in a detention facility for a few days and then released, but without their personal papers.

“They took our documents, our ID cards, passports and everything,” he said. “They never told us a reason, but a police officer later on told me that we may think we are safe but they can arrest us at any time. So since then, we were all scared.”

Cornelius went into hiding, staying indoors for the next ten months, until he managed to get a receipt for his ID card from the police.

He had been held in Ice detention centers for 18 months, mostly in Louisiana and Mississippi. He was placed in solitary confinement for a month, and saw other Cameroonian detainees being pepper sprayed, put in stress positions and doused in water. In Mississippi, he said he was threatened with the same treatment if he did not sign papers agreeing to his deportation.

“I was so so so down. I was demoralized. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. In the end the guards grabbed his hand and pressed his fingerprint on to a document. He was put on a plane back to Cameroon soon after, on 14 October 2020.

“This was not the America we were watching on the movies or hearing about on the news. I thought this is not the America they were talking about,” he said.

In February 2021, the Biden administration stopped an Africa-bound Ice deportation plane from taking off, and several of the Cameroonians on board were questioned in what officials said was an investigation into allegations of Ice abuse.

No results of any investigation have been made public, and in October 2021, several more Cameroonians (HRW estimates three or four) were deported. he Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to the HRW report on abuse of returnees in Cameroon, a state department spokesperson said: “Actions of this nature, such as those in these allegations, are abhorrent to our values. The United States promotes respect for human rights and condemns abuse of any kind.”

“As we are learning of these allegations, we will take appropriate steps,” the spokesperson said.

“The Biden administration will probably try to pass it off on the Trump administration because some of these egregious abuses occurred while Trump was in office,” Lauren Seibert, a HRW refugee and migrant rights researcher and author of the report, said. “But I don’t think the systemic issues that really led to what happened to these people have been resolved at all within the US immigration and asylum system.”

“The Cameroon and US governments need to remedy these abuses, and US authorities should provide opportunities for wrongly deported Cameroonians to return and reapply for asylum,” Seibert said.