As Crises in Cameroon Deepen, Protecting Refugee Rights is Paramount

Alexandra Lamarche
Mukete Tahle
September 06, 2022

Cameroon, once lauded for its relative stability in a restive region, faces multiple complex and deepening crises today. These include the presence of armed groups—including Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa—in the Far North region; an Anglophone separatist movement that crosses Cameroon’s western border with Nigeria; and turmoil along its porous border with the Central African Republic (CAR) and Chad. The government of Cameroon has done little to respond to these crises, and there are growing concerns for the country’s refugees caught up in the world’s most neglected displacement crisis.

Cameroon has long welcomed people fleeing crisis, and today hosts a diverse population of more than 460,000 refugees, asylum-seekers, and one million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Under the leadership of Paul Biya—the “second-longest-ruling head of state in the world who isn’t a monarch”—Cameroon has received international support to both host refugees and respond to armed groups. Biya’s growing absence from the public eye over the last 10 years (amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic) and credible evidence of state-led atrocities have empowered new political opposition to vie for power.

Under these conditions of political uncertainty and mounting instability, the international community must ensure refugees in Cameroon are protected and supported to become self-reliant; reduce the barriers they face in accessing the labor market, education, and health systems; and ease tensions with host communities.

What rights do refugees in Cameroon have?

Cameroon is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, requiring the country to grant refugees the freedom to work, of movement, and access public services. More recently, Cameroon adopted national laws granting refugees certain rights, including Act No. 2005/006, and Decree 2011/389 on Refugee Management Structures.

These laws represent important steps forward; legal progress is critical to access rights. On the sidelines of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly, Biya reiterated Cameroon’s promise to maintain services to refugees and expand protection efforts. However, practical steps called for in Cameroon’s legislation, such as expanding the issuance of identity documents and promoting refugee access to bank accounts, have been slow to materialize.

Let’s take these identity documents as an example. The government manages rural and urban refugee populations through different entities and manages identity documents through a separate directorate that reports directly to the president. Impressively, the government agreed to issue birth certificates for children born in Cameroon to refugee parents and strengthen the secretariat responsible for registration and decision-making. The government also agreed to issue biometric identity cards; a pilot phase, issuing 6,000 cards to refugees from CAR, was started a few weeks ago.

Still, refugees struggle to acquire official identity documents or have academic or professional degrees officially recognized, limiting their self-reliance and access to financial services. They are also regularly denied formal work authorization, are relegated to jobs that do not match their skills, or to labor in informal sectors with few protections. Registration in the Far North has typically been restricted to refugees in camp settings.

International organizations including UNHCR have taken a development-led approach to integrate similar initiatives. In 2018, Cameroon received World Bank funding through the 18th International Development Association (IDA) Refugee Sub-Window to strengthen health and education systems, both of which refugees have the legal right to access. While the World Bank coordinated closely with the Ministry of Economics and Planning to do so, the intended results were not achieved due to (among other things) administrative bottlenecks, corruption, and the noninvolvement of the target population in the process.

UN agencies and international organizations, as well as indigenous organizations such as the Refugee Welfare Association, provide information to refugees on their work rights, job placement, and availability of legal aid in Cameroon. Certainly, most refugees come from the CAR and Nigeria, and therefore share cultural and linguistic similarities with the primarily French-speaking population, easing their integration into society and the state. Yet, bureaucratic limitations and increasing numbers of refugees have stymied project implementation and transparency.

Responding to multiple crises

Figure 1. A map of Cameroon

Responding to multiple crises: Figure 1. A map of Cameroon

Source: UNHCR. Last updated February 8, 2022

Armed groups

The Cameroonian government officially declared war on the insurgent group Boko Haram in 2016. Since then, the group has intensified its attacks against civilians on both sides of the Cameroon / Nigeria border. Other groups, such as the Islamic State in West Africa, have since risen to prominence, threatening the safety of civilians and continuing to forcibly displace populations in both Cameroon and Nigeria. According to UNHCR, nearly 70,000 Nigerian refugees live mainly in the Minawao camp and among rural villages in the Far North. These refugees are perceived as a security threat and, consequently, the Cameroonian government has engaged in, or at least tolerated, the refoulement of Nigerians.

Compounding the instability, since December 2021, 85,000 Cameroonians in the Far North have fled their homes to Chad in clashes between herders, fishing, and farming communities over scarce water resources that are diminishing due to the effects of climate change.

Anglophone crisis

The Cameroonian government’s response to a separatist movement in its western regions has further impacted the situation in the Far North. Since 2018, the government has moved United States-provided weapons from the Boko Haram front into separatist capitals, weakening its ability to respond to Boko Haram attacks and further destabilizing the Anglophone regions. Given widespread allegations of Cameroonian authorities and security forces committing atrocities against civilian populations in these regions and restricting access to basic services, the US, has, in turn, rolled back its security assistance.

Anglophone separatist groups, increasingly marginalized since a period of federalism ended in 1972, have long fought with state security forces. In the last few years, protests against the government’s imposition of Francophone teachers and lawyers resulted in clashes and other violent confrontations. As a result, 66,000 Cameroonians have fled the internal conflict to Nigeria. The government has since agreed to grant the Anglophone regions special status, though many Anglophone groups remain unsatisfied as the government still has the power to appoint governors.

The Anglophone crisis has become “internationalized”; it is funded by the diaspora, and separatists are cooperating with the Biafra movement in Nigeria’s adjacent southeast region. Attempts to find a political solution through peace talks have failed to yield progress in the face of gross human rights violations and atrocities.

Instability in the Central African Republic

Sustained political conflict in CAR has displaced 632,000 refugees in recent years, more than half of whom now live in Cameroon, living largely peacefully among host communities. The Cameroonian government granted access to government services and land use to refugees, but host communities have grown impatient with what they perceive as special treatment for refugees. Customary landowners have since taken over land used by refugees.

ODI found tensions between refugees and host communities stemmed from a lack of recognition from nongovernmental organizations and UNHCR of the contributions of host populations. Although some organizations have targeted aid to include host community members, community members have expressed concern that refugees enjoy free access to an overly burdened and underdeveloped health infrastructure.

The way forward

Although it took years, the international community has finally begun to react to the dangerous actions of the Biya administration, no longer taking its promises or signed agreements at face value. The US has revoked trade privileges and applied sanctions over the Cameroonian government’s human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch has pushed for government accountability for its inadequate response to Boko Haram.

Cameroon’s refugees must remain a priority focus as overlapping crises continue to evolve over the coming years. The actions of the past few years have shown that prioritizing security assistance has failed to promote stability. Incorporating refugees into the formal labor market ensures they have the best chance to become self-reliant and would encourage social cohesion, thereby promoting stability and security.

The international community must find ways to invest in health and educational infrastructure to diminish tensions over resource-sharing between host communities and refugees. Biya’s government is likely to transition in the coming years, regardless of who is deemed the “winner” of the next election (scheduled for 2025). The international community must navigate access challenges to promote durable solutions for refugees in line with Cameroon’s legal obligations. This is our collective challenge.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.