As U.S. officials face continued criticism for the mistreatment and mass expulsions of Haitians who arrived at the U.S. southern border, with many given no chance to apply for asylum, the situation of another group of Black asylum seekers is now also in the spotlight. Dozens of Cameroonians who were denied asylum in the United States—many after especially problematic immigration court hearings—have experienced torture, persecution, and other harms following deportation to their central African country.
Cameroonians have been fleeing deadly violence by both government forces and armed separatist groups in the country’s two Anglophone regions since late 2016. Many of those deported by the United States between 2019 and 2021 have had credible persecution claims related to this crisis, which were rejected in often-unfair proceedings.
This represents a serious failure of the U.S. asylum system to protect those in dire need.
Among those rejected for asylum is a man who initially fled Cameroon in 2018 after authorities accused him of supporting the separatists—armed groups seeking independence for Cameroon’s Anglophone regions—and tortured him in detention for a week. An immigration judge in Louisiana denied the man asylum, calling his experience a “brief, isolated one-time incident that does not rise to the level of extreme conduct.” The man, who is not being named for his protection, was deported from the United States in October 2020 along with fifty-six other Cameroonians. Three months later, he was severely beaten in his home by Cameroonian soldiers.
This man’s experience in the U.S. immigration court system, as well as his return to harm, is not an isolated case. During a year-long Human Rights Watch investigation, I spoke to forty-one Cameroonians asylum seekers who were deported by U.S. authorities between 2019 and 2021, as well as their relatives, immigration lawyers, witnesses, and others. I also tracked down and analyzed their U.S. asylum documents and collected evidence from Cameroon.
What I found is damning. I documented problematic asylum case adjudications, mistreatment during U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, an abusive deportation process, and the post-deportation harm many experienced in Cameroon, including arbitrary detention, torture, and rape. Cameroonian authorities harmed or detained at least forty people deported by the United States, twenty of whom I interviewed; dozens of others faced abuses such as extortion, threats, and confiscation of identification documents.
While in the United States, many of these asylum seekers had no lawyers, as they are not entitled to one under the U.S. system. Nevertheless, they faced lawyers representing the government in adversarial hearings. Many struggled to acquire evidence to support their cases while held in prolonged ICE detention. Many Cameroonian Pidgin English speakers also faced language barriers, as some asylum officers and immigration judges failed to adequately assess their need for an interpreter.
Multiple deportees and immigration lawyers described—and I corroborated from hearing transcripts—how U.S. immigration judges aggressively interrogated Cameroonians, intimidated them or spoke harshly, interrupted and would not let them explain or respond to alleged issues, and cherry-picked small inconsistencies or omissions to find their accounts “not credible.” In doing so, judges also disregarded the impacts of trauma on asylum seekers.
Though human rights conditions in Cameroon have not improved in recent years, the grant rate of asylum or other relief to Cameroonians by U.S. immigration courts dropped from 79 percent in fiscal year 2019 to 59 percent in 2020.
Despite protests by scores of activists, lawyers, and members of Congress, the Trump Administration deported an estimated eighty to ninety Cameroonians in two flights in October and November 2020, and at least one other flight in January 2021. Nearly everyone on those flights had sought and was denied asylum.
In eight U.S. asylum cases I reviewed, immigration judges said the past harm Cameroonians experienced did not rise to the level of persecution necessary to have an asylum claim approved. But many of those whom judges claimed “did not suffer enough harm” had been arbitrarily detained by Cameroonian authorities, some for lengthy periods, and beaten or tortured repeatedly, before fleeing to the United States.
The hearing transcript of one man shows that he testified that military personnel in Cameroon had detained him due to his membership in a political group supporting independence for the Anglophone regions, and that they had repeatedly beaten him with belts and kicked him, causing “injuries all over my leg” and “internal pains.” In his asylum application, he stated that he suffered “severe pains for about forty-five days” afterward. Yet the judge found the harm not “enough,” stating: “Respondent’s detention appears to be lengthy in duration, but Respondent was not subjected to severe beatings . . . .”
One judge, in four separate cases I examined, ruled that Cameroonians had not established past persecution due to insufficient harm, even though they testified to serious abuse or arbitrary, prolonged detention. One of the asylum seekers had testified to, as the judge summarized, beatings during arrest (“the police beat him with a hard . . . object in the head and leg . . . an unknown number of times . . . his right leg was broken”) and detention (beaten with a machete “on the soles of his feet”). Yet, “although the respondent suffered a broken leg, it does not appear he was otherwise seriously injured,” the judge concluded.
In another case, a man testified that he had been detained for ten weeks, beaten repeatedly, and “shocked with a cable” by Cameroonian authorities, who accused him of supporting the separatists. During his immigration court hearing, the U.S. government lawyer stated in apparent seriousness, “I don’t believe that the respondent’s two-month detention with only five beatings on the bottom of his feet . . . rises to the level of past persecution.” The judge agreed.
Our research highlights serious concerns with the apparent lack of impartiality of multiple immigration judges who decided Cameroonians’ cases. The majority of deported people I interviewed had judges with disproportionately high asylum denial rates, from 80 to 99 percent, compared to the national average of 66.7 percent during fiscal years 2015 to 2020.
The hearing transcript of one asylum seeker, who had no lawyer, reveals that the government lawyer and the judge both interrogated him so harshly that it bordered on cruelty. They repeated questions he had already answered, interrupted him, and repeatedly demanded approximations (such as the number of people in crowds) when he said he had not counted. When the government lawyer unfairly accused him of lying, the judge did not intervene. After he was deported in 2020, the man was detained by Cameroonian authorities in abusive conditions for two weeks. Upon provisional release, a military court official told the man he was still under investigation.
In a different case, a U.S. immigration judge declared a man’s asylum claim “abandoned” because his lawyer had mailed his application slightly late. After the man was deported in 2020, the Cameroonian military detained him for months, subjecting him to forced labor and violence.
In all, I documented thirteen cases of torture, physical or sexual violence, and assault committed by Cameroonian police, military, or other government personnel against people the United States deported. State agents raped three women and punched, kicked, and beat men and women with batons, belts, machetes, guns, and whips, according to survivors’ accounts.
“They said, ‘You left and thought we wouldn’t get you . . . you will die in this jail,’ ” said a man who was imprisoned for a month after his 2020 deportation. “They beat me . . . for fourteen days, every day . . . . They were making me feel that’s the end of my life.”
Cameroonian government forces have detained deported people in jails, prisons, military camps, and other facilities for periods ranging from days to months. They held most without due process or in extremely abusive conditions, with poor sanitation and little to no food or medical care.
The act of seeking asylum in the United States was itself the basis of a court summons for one deported man, who was charged with “having, in the United States, spread false news . . . by declaring to be a victim of abuses by the Cameroonian Government.”
By returning Cameroonians to persecution and other harm, the United States has violated the principle of non-refoulement under international refugee and human rights law. Many deportees remain in hiding in Cameroon or have fled again. “[It’s] like it just happened yesterday. I feel like I still have that trauma, like I’m still locked up,” said a man deported in 2020, whom I spoke with in January. “The trauma has been too much.”
The experiences of these Cameroonians underscore the need for reform of the U.S. immigration and asylum systems to eliminate barriers to asylum, due process violations, unnecessary immigration detention, and misconduct among U.S. immigration and asylum personnel.
Most urgently, the U.S. government should grant Cameroonian asylum seekers deported in 2020 and 2021 humanitarian parole to return to the United States for fair reassessments of their asylum claims.