The Guardian | Move by the Trump administration comes despite reports that other deportees have gone missing since being repatriated
The US is expected to fly Cameroonian asylum seekers back to their home country on Tuesday despite fears that their lives will be at risk and reports that deportees repatriated last month are now missing.
Some of the deportees are activists from the country’s anglophone minority, who face arrest warrants for their political activities from government forces with a well documented record of extrajudicial killings. They and their lawyers refer to Tuesday’s flight as the “death plane”.
Lawyers, human rights groups and Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen have appealed to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to halt deportation flights to Cameroon while political violence is still widespread there and while at least some of the detainees have cases pending or motions to reopen cases before the Board of Immigration Appeals.
They expressed concern that the deportations were being rushed to clear African asylum-seekers out of the country by the end of the Trump presidency, as part of a scorched earth policy in the administration’s final weeks.
There are also reports of systematic abuse by agents of the DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), often to force the asylum seekers to sign their own deportation orders, and waive their right to pending immigration hearings. In one case, detainees were allegedly put under showers and then tasered by ICE agents, leaving some in need of hospital care.
The deportations are taking place despite a finding last year by the US government that the Cameroon government “engages in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”. The state department deferred questions about the upcoming deportations to ICE, which did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend.
About 32 men and four women are scheduled to be on Tuesday’s flight, mostly Cameroonian, but also some Congolese and Angolan asylum seekers. In recent days they have been moved from prisons across the south to Prairieland Detention Centre in Alvarado, Texas, in preparation for a charter flight out of Fort Worth.
‘I will be killed’
One of those due to be deported, Daniel, said his brother had been shot in 2019 by Cameroonian security services searching for him, and his father had been crippled by torture in prison. His other siblings are missing
“I will be killed by the Cameroon government,” Daniel told the Guardian by telephone from Prairieland.
He was a member of a separatist group called the Southern Cameroon National Council. It describes itself as a non-violent group but he said many of his fellow members had been killed or imprisoned, in the counter-insurgency the government is waging against anglophone separatists. He said he was sent a photograph of his brother’s body while he was in detention.
Daniel said he was detained and tortured in 2014, and then arrested again in 2017, but he bribed his way out of prison and fled the country, eventually finding his way, after a transatlantic flight and a gruelling, dangerous trek across South and Central America to the US-Mexican border. He has been in US detention ever since.
“For us you have always been a country of freedom, who looked after vulnerable people,” Daniel said, referring to the US. “There is an active war happening in Cameroon, and I don’t think it is American values just to send people back to be killed”.
Van Hollen, Democratic senator for Maryland, wrote to the acting DHS director Chad Wolf, on 6 November pointing out that violence in Cameroon is escalating.
“It’s obviously alarming that they would schedule these flights given the violence in Cameroon, and the very high risk that anybody deported to Cameroon would become the victim of violence,” he told the Guardian.
“We are bringing this to their [DHS’s] attention so they are not going to be able to plead ignorance.”
The senator said his letter to the DHS director that many of the 57 Cameroonians deported on a ICE flight on 13 October, “now live in hiding for fear for their lives, or have not been heard of since leaving the US.”
According to a news report from Cameroon, the returnees were detained by government security forces after their flight arrived in Douala and their whereabouts are now unknown. Lawyers and family members told the Guardian that at least two deportees had bribed their way out of detention and had gone into hiding.
Human rights organisations say that in ICE prisons, some of the detainees were tortured into signing, or putting their fingerprint on, their detention orders.
A complaint from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Freedom for Immigrants advocacy group cited six cases of alleged abuse at the Jackson Parish Correctional Facility in Louisiana against Cameroonian detainees scheduled to be on the Tuesday deportation flight, including an inmate identified by the initials BN, who said he was stripped while his fingerprint was taken by force.
“During that time, the women officers were holding my feet. My genitals were completely naked and exposed. I was naked in front of many people – there were over 10 people there, including the women,” BN said. “I felt ashamed.”
In separate complaints, the Immigrants Rights Clinic at the Texas A&M School of Law, cited abuses at the Adams County Correctional Centre in Mississippi. A Cameroonian inmate identified as AC, also due to be on the Tuesday flight, said his fingerprint was taken by force and he witnessed the torture of other detainees at the prison’s solitary facility, the security housing unit (SHU).
“During his time there, he saw ICE bring African detainees to the SHU, put them in the shower, get them soaking wet, and then they use the ‘electric pistols’ (tasers) on them until they passed out,” the complaint says. “He was terrified that they would do this to him, which is why he eventually gave in when he was being physically abused and signed and gave his fingerprints.”
“We know that many of the people who are at risk of deportation have been abused in ICE custody, particularly in the jurisdiction of the New Orleans field office,” Fatma Marouf, the director of the clinic, said, adding the deportees were terrified of what awaited them after Tuesday’s flight.
“I think the risk to the Cameroonians is very serious,” Marouf said. “Many of them were beaten by the military before as they were part of separatist movements. Some of them were leaders in their communities. I think they really do fear for their lives going back.”
Immigrant rights organisations say there has been a rush in recent weeks to deport African asylum seekers in particular.
“This is consistent with the way the Trump administration is trying to rush many decisions in these closing weeks of the administration,” Van Hollen said, pointing to eleventh-hour steps to erase environmental regulations, and politicise the civil service. “What we’re seeing from the Trump administration in their dining hours is a rush to do as much damage as possible.”