BANKI, Nigeria — The soldiers arrived in the middle of the night, tearing through the village of Nigerian refugees, barging into stick huts where families slept in knots on the floor.
For years, those refugees had been on the run from Boko Haram insurgents, finally escaping across a dried riverbed that served as the border with Cameroon. They had settled in the village of Majina, where they farmed beans and millet. “A peaceful place,” the men said. And then, in March, the Cameroonian soldiers arrived.
The troops rounded up the refugees haphazardly and pushed them into military trucks, often separating parents from their children, according to witnesses. The refugees soon realized where they were headed: back to one of the most dangerous corners of Nigeria. Today, they are living in a displacement camp in Banki, a city racked by one of the world's biggest hunger crises.
The United Nations would eventually put a label on what happened that night and many others to follow — “forced return.” Over the past few months, at least 5,000 Nigerian refugees were rounded up in Cameroonian villages and refugee camps and expelled to a region under frequent attack by insurgents, according to U.N. officials. Some aid officials think the actual number of those forcibly returned is over 10,000, including people evicted in sporadic operations since 2013. The Cameroonian government has denied driving out the Nigerians.
As the number of refugees around the world soars — topping 20 million — they are facing growing hostility from host countries and shrinking protection from the international legal framework put in place decades ago to defend such vulnerable people. A forced return like the one reported in Cameroon emblematizes the most extreme and unforgiving reaction to those searching for a haven.
Many countries are taking less-drastic steps that have still alarmed refugee advocates. Over the past three years, Pakistan has pressured hundreds of thousands of long-term war refugees from Afghanistan to return home, despite the dire poverty and violent insurgency in their homeland. In Kenya, a court blocked the government from sending more than 200,000 inhabitants of the Dadaab refugee camp, mostly Somalis, back to a nation beset by war and a hunger crisis. But human rights groups say many of the residents are being pressured to leave anyway.
International human rights groups last year accused Turkey of expelling thousands of Syrian refugees, a charge the government denied.
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, ratified by 145 countries — including Cameroon — victims of war or persecution should not be returned to nations where they will face serious threats. But that edict is being ignored, according to human rights groups.
“Poorer countries hosting huge numbers of refugees for many years, such as Kenya, Pakistan and Turkey, have recently pushed back hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Gerry Simpson, a migration expert at Human Rights Watch. “They seem to be taking their lead from richer countries, such as Australia, the E.U. and the U.S., who are pulling out all the stops to limit refugee arrivals.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has sought to reach agreements with countries that are sending refugees home, to ensure that only voluntary repatriations occur.
But the agency’s assistance came too late for thousands of Nigerians in Cameroon.
Aid groups are still unsure what prompted what they call a mass eviction. Some U.N. officials say the refugees were probably forced out in advance of a large military operation. Other aid groups say that Cameroon, one of the world’s poorest nations, has simply grown tired of hosting Nigerians. Cameroon has been inundated by refugees in recent years, with more than 300,000 people fleeing wars in the Central African Republic and Nigeria.
Cameroon’s government has rejected the UNHCR statements on the forced returns. “I’m telling you there were no forced expulsions,” Richard Etoundi, head of the protocol unit in the Ministry of External Relations, said in a phone interview.
In addition to the thousands who were reported forced from Cameroon, many more were persuaded to go back to northeastern Nigeria after being lied to about the conditions there, according to refugees and aid officials. Arriving home, the refugees are finding a lack of housing, severe overcrowding and a scarcity of food and water. This month, the head of UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, said he was “extremely worried” about the flood of Nigerian refugees returning from Cameroon to “a situation dangerously unprepared to receive them.”
The Cameroonian military acted so hastily in removing the refugees that it inadvertently swept up a group of Cameroonian women and children in a raid in the village of Keraoua. They now sleep on the floor of an unfinished building in a bombed-out side street in Banki.
Abba Goni, 76, fled Banki nearly three years ago on a green bicycle with “China” stamped on the frame, riding on the packed sand from village to village, an old man much faster on two wheels than on his two gnarled feet.
Goni was born and raised in Banki, once a city of 150,000 surrounded by fertile farmland, just over a mile from the Cameroonian border. In September 2014, the Islamist extremists known as Boko Haram surged into town on trucks and motorcycles, shooting wildly and burning buildings. Goni’s first escape on the green bicycle was in the dead of night. His two wives and nine children followed.
For a few weeks, they lived outdoors, subsisting on whatever fruits they could find. When Boko Haram caught up with them, Goni got back on his bicycle, heading toward Cameroon.
Since Goni was a boy, members of his Kanuri ethnic group had moved back and forth between Cameroon and Nigeria without any documents. Boko Haram, too, had crossed the border with impunity. But the group’s stronghold remained in Nigeria, and Goni knew that if he headed deep enough into Cameroon, he would most likely be safe. In 2015, he and his family arrived in Majina, where some local men allowed him to cultivate a small patch of farmland.
“It was a decent life,” he said.
Parts of Nigeria were meanwhile inching closer to famine. When the aid group Doctors Without Borders finally got access to Banki last summer, after the military drove out Boko Haram, aid workers found a hunger crisis, with more than 10 percent of children suffering from severe malnutrition and people dying of preventable diseases. For Goni and his family, their hamlet in Cameroon wasn’t just an escape from Boko Haram, but also a refuge from starvation.
The government of Cameroon, though, was struggling to provide for so many refugees. Residents of northern Cameroon blamed food shortages on refugees. In some cases, the two populations clashed.
Experts see that frustration reflected in other countries where refugees have been pressured to leave.
“I think host governments are getting sort of fed up that a very large proportion of the burden is falling on them, without enough international assistance,” said Kathleen Newland, co-founder
of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based research organization.
In Majina, Goni never experienced that antagonism. On that March day, when he heard the sounds of trucks and men shouting, Goni first assumed Boko Haram had arrived. Then he looked outside and saw the men in uniform.
“Who is Nigerian?” the soldiers shouted, Goni recalled.
Goni asked if he could at least collect his clothes, blankets, food and his bicycle. The soldiers refused. Everything happened quickly. When he looked around, in the back of the speeding military truck, he found only one of his wives and two of his children. The rest had been left behind.
The following morning, Goni got his first look at what was left of Banki. Entire blocks had been flattened, most likely by military airstrikes. Displaced people were living in abandoned houses.
Although aid groups had begun to distribute food and open rudimentary clinics, the Nigerian military still controlled access, posting checkpoints and barring residents from leaving town.
That meant no farming in nearby fields, no collecting of firewood and no possibility of leaving Banki again.
After being interrogated by Nigerian soldiers, Goni was directed to an abandoned building. UNHCR gave him a mat and a blanket. And he had a new home: one room with 18 people sleeping on the floor.
A month into his time in Banki, he and many of the other deportees were eating only one meal a day.
A few blocks away, in another gray, unfinished building, 32 Cameroonian women and children waved their documents — Cameroonian birth certificates and voter registration cards — when they spotted a visiting journalist.
“We kept telling the soldiers, ‘We are from Cameroon,’ but they brought us here anyway,” said Fati Kadi, 40. Her two children had been left behind during the raid, she said.
Faruk Ibrahim, a program manager with UNHCR, said the agency had expected that the Cameroonians would be taken home. “But it’s been over two months now.”
Stories of other forced returns emerged throughout March and April. More than 2 million people had already been displaced internally in Nigeria’s war with Boko Haram. With the flow of repatriated refugees from Cameroon, that number was rising.
Two hundred miles from Banki, in the city of Ngala, the border superintendent watched one day in April as the Cameroonians deposited hundreds of Nigerians on a bridge that connects the two nations.
“They just wanted to get the Nigerians out,” Mohammed Gadam, the border chief, said in an interview.
Many others in Ngala had chosen to return after they were convinced by Cameroonian and visiting Nigerian soldiers that life was much better in Nigeria, with free-flowing aid and much-improved security.
When Falta Ali, 23, arrived back in Ngala in March, two years after she fled, she saw that the city was in ruins. Aid groups set up tents, but not enough. The international community was running out of money for food aid.
Ali’s 6-month-old, Yagana Buhama, quickly developed whooping cough.
“It’s a product of the environment here,” said a doctor, Beauty Nwuba, standing over Buhama’s bed in a tented clinic. “There’s so much overcrowding.”
In March, UNHCR reached an agreement with the Nigerian and Cameroonian governments, mandating that refugees return to Nigeria only voluntarily. The number of forced returns appears to have dropped off recently, according to UNHCR.
“There is now a framework for voluntary returns,” said Cesar Tshilombo, head of UNHCR’s sub-office in northeastern Nigeria.
But other relief workers say people are still being pressured to go back to a dangerous, desperate place.
“They are threatened by Cameroonian authorities until they agree to return,” said a relief worker in Banki who interviewed refugees last month. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly about the issue.
Other countries also have been accused of compelling refugees to move home to precarious places. In a February report, Human Rights Watch said that in Pakistan, Afghan refugees have been subject to police harassment, arbitrary detention and deportation threats. More than 350,000 registered refugees had gone back to Afghanistan
in the previous six months, “making it the world’s largest mass forced return of refugees in recent years,” the group wrote. It added that the United Nations was abetting the exodus by providing subsidies of $400 per refugee.
The United Nations rejected the charge and said it offered support to refugees to decide their futures “based on a well-informed consideration of best options.”
The Pakistani government denied the allegations of coercion.
For now, the thousands of refugees, like Goni, who have been forced back to Nigeria have pragmatic questions. When will they be reunited with their families? How will they get their belongings in Cameroon? Will they ever be free to return?
“They keep us here like prisoners,” he said. “We weren’t ready to come back.”