Cameroonian RefugeesBetween November 2022 and January 2023, hundreds of asylum seekers arrived on the shores of Antigua, a small island and alluring holiday destination in the West Indies. The refugees had traveled from Cameroon expecting to arrive in the United States. With poverty in Antigua affecting a fifth of the population, the arrival of more than 900 migrants in the country was unexpected. Three months later, the fate of the remaining 637 Cameroonian refugees in Antigua is still undetermined.

The Flight from Cameroon

Several thousand miles away from Antigua, across the Atlantic, a bloody six-year civil war is happening in Cameroon. At the end of last year, 900 Anglophone Cameroonians bought flight tickets from Nigeria to Antigua to escape the conflict. Many have paid human traffickers as much as $6,000 in return for safe passage to the United States and assistance with their visa applications. Instead, the traffickers abandoned refugees in Antigua.

The debacle followed an attempt by the government of Antigua and Bermuda to establish an air route between Central Africa and the twin island nation. After four charter planes and 900 unexpected refugees in Antigua, the government decided to suspend all incoming charter flights from Central Africa and announced its intention to repatriate those who had already come. It has since reversed its repatriation plan citing humanitarian reasons.

The Economic Situation in Antigua

The people of Antigua are more accustomed to welcoming tourists rather than asylum claimants. It is unclear how the presence of hundreds of Cameroonian refugees in Antigua, most of whose funds have been spent on charter flights, affects the communities with limited resources.

The overall rate of poverty in Antigua and Barbuda is high but it is 5% lower than the regional average of 23%. The rate is even higher among the young: 24% of children aged 0–17 and 25% of adolescents aged 10–19. Severe poverty is projected to increase in the Eastern Caribbean nation amid the continued fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Irma, which devastated the nation in 2017. According to figures gathered by UNICEF, the rate of severe poverty in Antigua’s overall population is due to rise sixfold up to 24%. For children, the projected figure is even higher at 29%.

Refugee Reception in Antigua

Local reports say that residents have shown hospitality to the Cameroonians despite the high poverty rate in the country. Governor General Sir Rodney Williams has stated that the government will look after the African refugees in Antigua. He said that Antigua was “committed to protecting all residents from exploitation and harsh treatment” and that “no foreign national, except for criminals, should fear deportation.”

Antigua’s Information Minister has promised a skills audit to “determine the benefits” of permitting the refugees in Antigua to stay. Melford Nicholas announced that “as the economy continues to expand, we’re going to need additional skills.” He also said that Antigua would provide the asylum seekers with accommodation and “find a way to give them legal status here.” He also expressed the hope that Antiguans would “embrace and have an open heart” to the Cameroonians. The government played down speculation of plans to offer passports to the arrivals after opposition parties voiced alarm. The United Nations (U.N.) is also planning an analysis of the situation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to determine the number of refugees in Antigua who wish to remain permanently.

What is Next?

With poverty as a serious and increasing problem in the Caribbean island, no one could have expected the arrival of 900 Cameroonian refugees in Antigua. While many of the refugees move on, some could end up settling in the country. It is expected that once the government’s skills audit is complete, the remaining Cameroonians will be free to contribute their skills to Antigua and improve its economy.

– Samuel Chambers
Photo: Pixabay

According to UNHCR, about 20 people become displaced with each passing minute of each day, fleeing “persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.” At least 84% of these people flee to underdeveloped countries that already struggle with limited resources. In 2019, a rough estimate of 2 million people fled from their homes due to conflict in Nigeria. In just two months, 55,000 people became displaced with no place to call home. Many of these people sought refuge in Cameroon’s Minawao camp. Poverty and hunger disproportionately impact displaced persons and refugees, calling for solutions to assist these vulnerable people.

Minawao Camp

Minawao camp is a refugee settlement located in Cameroon, Africa. Since 2013, Minawao has been home to refugees fleeing the violence of their home country, Nigeria. By 2019, the camp became home to more than 60,000 Nigerian refugees. The violence in Nigeria largely stems from the activities of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. The violence of the group ranges from terrorist attacks on the military to brutalities against civilians. Millions of Nigerians fear for themselves and their families, still traumatized by the memory of Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls in 2014, some of whom are still missing.

Minawao camp initially emerged with the purpose of holding a maximum of 15,000 refugees. With many refugees continuously flowing in, the camp struggles to provide for thousands in an area where desertification is prevalent and water, food and resources are already scarce. Additionally, the land suffers from deforestation due to the fact that people in the area use the trees for firewood.

Cameroon, in general, grapples with its own struggles. In some parts of Cameroon, people suffer the impacts of “years of successive natural disasters and below average harvests.” In 2015, the United Nations Children’s Fund oversaw a survey that reported an increased rate of malnutrition based on past data from 2013 and 2014.

Making Minawao Green Again

Despite Minawao’s past struggles, organizations are making efforts to secure a future for the inhabitants of the camp. A reforestation project beginning in 2017 aims to “make Minawao green again” by planting thousands of trees. The greenery will provide benefits such as access to cleaner energy, food, enriched soil, water, reforestation, jobs and more.

The Lutheran World Federation sponsored the reforestation project, with support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Nationale Postcode Loterij. Since launching the project, the community has planted 50,000 trees with the intention of planting 5,000 more trees each year. The trees will provide shaded areas to make life more comfortable for residents, considering the extreme heat in Cameroon.

As far as shelter, the program provides a better alternative to living conditions such as brick homes. The brick homes are more sustainable than the average tent. As many as 4,670 households now have eco-friendly stoves. Instead of burning wood, briquettes made from peanut shells, wheat husks and other agricultural waste are substitutes. The program has established “three tree nurseries” as well as “12 new nature clubs” for adults and children to “learn new skills” and understand the value of protecting the environment. The program has led to the creation of 175 employment opportunities, empowering people in the camp with incomes to improve their quality of life.

Slowly but surely, these efforts are paving the way for a bright future for people within the Minawao camp.

– Destiny Jackson
Photo: Flickr