When 37-year-old Cameroonian asylum-seeker Nebane Abienwi died after hospital workers pulled him off life support against his family’s wishes at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center outside San Diego, he became the first black person, and the ninth person in a year, to die in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Like many other Africans who have crossed South and Central America to seek asylum in the U.S. and Canada, by the time Abienwi arrived at the border and had the hypertensive incident that reportedly lead to his hospitalization, he had already dealt with racist discrimination and physical threats to his safety across eight Latin American countries.
But Abienwi’s reason for fleeing Cameroon is just as wrapped up in U.S. policy as his death. He fled his hometown of Bafut in the Anglophone Northwest Province when it was attacked multiple times by the Rapid Intervention Battalion, known by its French acronym BIR, according to family members. The best-equipped and most thoroughly trained unit of Cameroon’s military, the BIR is an elite group of soldiers that the U.S. has instructed and worked closely with since at least 2010. In 2015, President Barack Obama sent 300 Green Berets to Cameroon to train and assist the BIR in the fight against Boko Haram.
Cameroon is divided between two primarily Anglophone provinces to the west, bordering Nigeria, and the rest of the country, which is Francophone. This division began after World War I when Britain and France split territory that was at that point occupied by German colonizers, creating separate Anglophone and Francophone colonies. Those entities would vote to join a union upon independence, which was secured in the Francophone region in 1960 and in the Anglophone region one year later.
The union has been shaky at times. In 2016, peaceful protests began forming in the Anglophone regions against the appointment of Francophone judges and the encroachment of the French language in regional administration, which would threaten their regional autonomy. Cameroonian authorities violently repressed those protests, and a year later the armed separatist group Ambazonia Defence Forces attacked Cameroonian military positions, setting off an active armed conflict that has displaced at least half a million people and caused tens of thousands to seek refuge in other countries.
In Tapachula, Mexico, Cameroonians form the vast majority of African asylum-seekers.
Some 10,000 Cameroonians have fled to ask for asylum in the U.S. since 2016, according to Sylvie Bello, CEO of the Cameroon American Council, and Cameroonian American immigration lawyer Pryde Ndingwan. Some of them have been held in ICE’s Otay Mesa detention facility outside San Diego, where Abienwi was before he died. Over 2,000 miles south, in Tapachula, Mexico, where thousands have had their movement north constrained by Mexican authorities at the insistence of the United States, Cameroonians form “the vast majority of African asylum-seekers,” said Elise Keppler, associate director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, who was recently in Tapachula for a research trip.
Since the outbreak of the conflict, the Cameroonian government under Paul Biya, a repressive dictatorship that has endured for 37 years, has regularly deployed the BIR to the Anglophone regions. There, they have repeatedly engaged in horrific human rights abuses, including burning down homes and entire villages, arbitrary detention, torture, indiscriminate killings of civilians, and more, according to local and international human rights groups. In 2017, The Intercept and Forensic Architecture revealed, based on research from Amnesty International, that BIR soldiers fighting Boko Haram “tortured prisoners at a remote military base that is also used by U.S. personnel and private contractors.” Separatist Anglophone rebels have also been accused of similarly grave abuses, and regular citizens find themselves terrorized by both sides.
A 2018 human rights report done by the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé noted that “increasingly in the Anglophone regions, responsibility for security in the rural areas is left to another security force, the BIR,” signifying that the embassy was well aware that the soldiers it trained and supplied were among the ones responsible for rights abuses in the Anglophone regions.
Paul, whose name has been changed over safety concerns, left his Anglophone town earlier this year after his uncle, a prominent businessman, was kidnapped by unknown gunmen. Paul’s uncle urgently needed medication and managed to negotiate with his kidnappers to have Paul deliver it to him. Paul met the kidnappers and traveled blindfolded with them to bring the medication to his uncle.
When his uncle was freed, he called Paul to warn him that “maybe the military or the police” might come to him for information about the kidnappers. His uncle, he said, feared that “I can be intimidated and forced to say something that I don’t know.” Paul’s uncle gave him money to flee Cameroon, and he left that night to see his wife and children in a different city.
After consulting with his wife and children, Paul took a bus to Nigeria and then boarded a flight to Ecuador, as thousands of Africans seeking asylum in the U.S. have done over the past few years. In the first seven months of 2019 alone, 4,779 Africans were apprehended by local authorities while traveling through Mexico to seek asylum or otherwise enter the U.S., according to the Los Angeles Times. In addition to the physical dangers they face while traveling through the Amazon and the notorious Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, African migrants face racist discrimination from governments and citizens of Latin American countries. Women, transgender, and nonbinary Africans face even more challenges.
“I’ve been carrying somebody like me in my backpack for more than five months now.”
In Ecuador, Paul met up with other Cameroonians who had made the journey, and they headed north together. While hiking through a section of Colombia, one of the men he was with had a heart attack and died. “He died in my arms,” Paul said via WhatsApp call from Mexico. He and other Cameroonians buried the man where he died.
“As the African tradition holds, when somebody dies, if you cannot transfer the corpse back home. What you do is that when you bury the person, you have to take soil from the person’s grave and send it back to his family,” he said. Postal services in Costa Rica and Mexico were unwilling to send the soil back to Cameroon, so Paul has kept it with him. “The soil will help him. I’ve been carrying somebody like me in my backpack for more than five months now.”
Today, Paul is stuck in Tapachula, a Mexican town along the border with Guatemala that has become an open-air prison for migrants coming from all over Latin America, but especially for Africans and Haitians. Mexico began detaining people who crossed the southern border with Guatemala en masse in May, after President Donald Trump threatened Mexico with tariffs. Whereas it used to grant people visas that allowed them to travel to the American border, Mexico has rescinded that policy and encouraged people to apply for asylum in Mexico. Most Africans have resisted doing so because they don’t want to stay in Mexico, where they experience heightened racism and have few job opportunities. Applying for asylum in Mexico also significantly reduces their chance of receiving it in the U.S.
African asylum-seekers have staged protests on multiple occasions to demand better treatment from Mexico and permission to travel north. As it stands now, people looking to leave Tapachula are stopped at the city limits and brought back to the detention center.
Those who can afford it stay in hotels, but according to Keppler of Human Rights Watch, hundreds of people are living in tents on the street.
“It’s really hot. There’s very little shade. There’s a lot of rain as well, and there’s no place to go to the bathroom, there’s no organized bathroom situation. There’s no organized shower situation. There’s no food made available. People have developed skin rashes, urinary tract infections, intestinal infections, respiratory infections,” said Keppler.
In October, a group of Cameroonians tried to leave Tapachula by boat along Mexico’s Pacific coast and capsized, killing at least two people and drawing comparisons to the deadly boat journeys that Africans have taken across the Mediterranean Sea. One reason that more African migrants are attempting to reach the U.S. via Latin America is the European Union’s clampdown on migrants trying to reach Europe by sea.
Keppler’s colleague at Human Rights Watch, Ariana Sawyer, said that a number of Cameroonians she spoke to were scared that Mexico was sharing their information with Cameroonian government officials in the U.S., which would put them and their families back home in danger. Francophone men who identified themselves as a delegation sent from the Cameroonian Embassy in Washington, D.C., had reportedly visited Tapachula and discussed the situation there with Mexican officials. “Anglophone asylum-seekers were really very alarmed because those Francophone Cameroonian delegates already knew all of their information. They were bringing up their names, their villages,” Sawyer said.
Those who do make it past Tapachula now face new U.S. policies that make it much harder to cross the southern border and apply for asylum. Most African asylum-seekers are subject to a corrupt “metering” system limiting access to U.S. ports of entry, according to Nicole Ramos, who heads the Border Rights Project of the nonprofit Al Otro Lado. The document requirements are always shifting, she said, and many people are pushed to pay bribes to Mexican officials to move their cases forward. A more recent change requires asylum-seekers to apply in the first country they passed through before trying their luck in the U.S. — effectively eliminating the option for anyone who arrives via Mexico.
In response to the numerous abuse allegations against the BIR and other Cameroonian security forces, in February, the U.S. suspended some military aid to the country. This drawback of support was conducted “in order to limit the chance that U.S. assistance would indirectly support military operations in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, and in response to a failure of the Cameroonian government to cooperate with us on human rights concerns,” a State Department official told The Intercept. But some cooperation continues.
“If you go to the different military academies in America, you are still going to find Cameroonian military officials.”
Bello, head of the Cameroon American Council, argued that besides granting asylum to those in need and treating them with dignity and respect, the U.S. government should completely stop its support for the Cameroonian military. “They still have equipment, they still have trainings. If you go to West Point, if you go to the War College at Carlisle, [Pennsylvania], if you go to the different military academies in America, you are still going to find Cameroonian military officials. If you’re really going to [solve the issue], kick them out of those programs,” Bello said.
Bello is also involved in lobbying members of Congress to help Abienwi’s family to retrieve his body, which has been blocked by ICE. “ICE doesn’t have a process for next of kin who are not based in America,” Bello explained. “The family and the community has no physical access. We’ve not been given the opportunity to physically identify his body. We’ve not been given the opportunity for several weeks to perform all the cultural and traditional rites that go with the dead and burials,” she said.
In late November, California Rep. Karen Bass led a Congressional Black Caucus trip to the border to investigate Abienwi’s death and the conditions of other black asylum-seekers. In the meantime, the Anglophone conflict rages on. It has “been going on now for three to four years. That is what has really pushed a whole lot of Cameroonians to migrate out of the country and head for the United States,” said Ndingwan, the immigration lawyer.
Like others forced from his country, Paul is now praying that his situation will change. “I have said to myself, if not that it is God who brought me here, I have prayed that I should go back home. There are so many people who have said no, home is better, but they don’t have a choice. Because at this juncture now, if they should get home, it’s death.”
At the same time, Paul has marched against the Mexican government’s discriminatory policies in Tapachula, while other Cameroonians have done the same in Tijuana, calling on their experience fighting for their rights back home to form, in the words of Ramos, “the most organized” community of asylum-seekers at the border.
Update, December 3, 2019:
This story has been updated to include Amnesty International’s role in the investigation into torture by BIR at a base also used by the U.S. military.