Cameroon, Nigeria and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR have signed a tripartite agreement on the voluntary return of Nigerian refugees living in Cameroon
The agreement, signed in Yaounde on March 2 protects the rights of more than 85, 000 Nigerians who fled Boko Haram terrorism and found refuge in Cameroon.
It was signed by Rene Emmanuel Sadi, Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation on behalf of Cameroon, Lt. General Abdulrahman Bello Dambazau, Nigeria’s Interior Minister and Kouassi Lazare Etien, UNHCR representative in Cameroon. It sets down the conditions for repatriation of Nigerian refugees living in Cameroon, with emphasis on the respect for international humanitarian law.
Kouassi thanked the governments of both countries on behalf of Filippo Grandi, UNHCR High Commissioner for the deliberations that led to the drafting of the agreement.
He told observers at the signing ceremony that included government officials from Nigeria and Cameroon as well as representatives of diplomatic missions accredited to Cameroon, that the agreement requires both countries to ensure that all refugees conserve the right to decide whether or not they want to return to Nigeria. They also have the right to choose the time of return without any political or administrative pressure.
The agreement, according to the UNHCR representative, protects refugees’ right to asylum- a right which he stressed, is necessary for the preservation of people’s lives, physical integrity and liberties. “The signing of this agreement does not mean that all Nigerian refugees must return to their country because some of them expressed the willingness to do so”.
To ensure that the rights of refugees are respected, the agreement has provisions for investigations into cases of individuals returning to Nigeria. The investigations would be made to ascertain whether the refugee’s decision to return was taken freely and voluntarily. Nigerians who, for one reason or the other, feel that they are not ready to return, will have the right to retain their refugee status and benefit from the protection of Cameroonian authorities.
The UNHCR would, according to the agreement, provide Nigerian refugees with up-to-date information at all times to enable them take the right decisions with regards to returning to their country of origin.
War against Boko Haram almost over
Rene E Sadi, Cameroon’s territorial administration minister said the signing of the agreement is an indication that the war against Boko Haram is almost over. He however expressed concerns about poverty and underdevelopment in some of the refugees and IDPs’ localities of origin. “Together we are winning the war against Boko Haram and I hope that together we will win the battle against poverty and underdevelopment.
Minister Sadi, promised that “The government of Cameroon will continue to ensure the protection of Nigerian refugees on its territory and will spare no effort to help those who wish to return to Nigeria, with accordance with international agreements”. He also stressed the need for development in the frontiers between Cameroon and Nigeria, noting that the borders are notorious for all sorts of trafficking and insecurity.
Retired Lt. Gen Bello Dambazau, said the agreement highlights the importance of working together. “The agreement is a feat in fulfilling the decisions taken by Presidents Muhammad Buhari and Paul Biya (of Nigeria and Cameroon, respectively). It is a demonstration of African unity; demonstration of regional solidarity and we greatly appreciate the hospitality of the Cameroonian government and people.”
The Nigerian Interior Minister said his country’s acting president asked him to express his gratitude to Cameroon and the UNHCR. “The agreement is a beginning of a process that will culminate in the resettlement of the refugees.
The governor of Borno state and the speaker of the Borno state house of assembly were part of the Nigerian delegation to Cameroon. Most of the Nigerian refugees in and out of the Minawao camp in Cameroon’s Far North region are from Borno state. Lt. Gen. Bello said many hospitals, schools and other infrastructure in Borno state were destroyed by Boko Haram.
A study the UNHCR carried out between April and September 2016 revealed that 71 percent of Nigerian refugees in the Minawao Camp would like to go back to their country whenever it is conducive. Many of those who are unwilling to return, according to the study, come from localities that lack basic social amenities.