Rape, stigma, poverty: The lot of urban refugees in Cameroon

Eleven-year-old Christian* and 13-year-old Pauline* stare down blankly at the health cards grasped tightly in their hands at the Red Cross medical centre in Cameroon’s capital.

Both fled conflict in Central African Republic (CAR) in June 2013 and resettled as refugees in Yaoundé. Both have since been the victims of sexual assault and rape. Both are struggling to survive on their own in a large, foreign city. 

Christian, his head still partly covered in medical tape, recalled what happened on 7 July when the two were returning home from the house of Mama Florence, a local Cameroonian woman who offers them food from time to time.

“Four thugs came out of an abandoned house, knife and screwdriver in hand,” he told IRIN. “It was like a horror movie. We were forcibly taken inside [and raped].”

Pauline had already been attacked and raped once before in Yaoundé, in late 2014.

“In [CAR], I used to wish to die,” she told IRIN. “I fled to escape that violence, but I still suffer. Maybe I should have died there, because here we are the prey of paedophiles.”

No safety net in the city

There are no official figures, but many teenage refugees who end up scraping by in major cities across the globe are subjected to violence and sexual exploitation.

In rural areas, refugees are often welcomed in and cared for by host populations, whereas in cities they are not only on their own when it comes to finding food, shelter and other necessities, they are also often stigmatised and taken advantage of. Without the same support system, they are generally a lot more vulnerable. 

“We are aware of the phenomenon of sexual abuse against refugees, particularly in Yaoundé,” said Damien Noma, executive director of local NGO Respect Cameroon.

”The problem extends beyond refugees, of course, but most abusers are nationals who are aware of the status of their targets, and these aggressors tell them: ‘you cannot complain because you are not at home.’”

Many urban refugees don’t know their rights, or, if they do, they’re too afraid to exercise them.

Christian and Pauline, for example, told IRIN they didn’t initially report their rapes because they were too frightened of the Cameroonian authorities.

“Most suffer more because there is a lack of knowledge of the laws and regulations and international conventions meant to protect them,” said Noma. “The refugee just doesn’t know that his rights go beyond the sole consideration of basic needs.”

The stigma facing refugees here is considerable. They are often accused of being unruly, disrespectful, dirty, or of carrying disease. Others face frequent harassment by the police, including beatings, intimidation, illegal detention and corruption, according to Cameroon’s Association of Human Rights. 

Many female refugees end up becoming involved in prostitution or human trafficking. 

“Last month, my girlfriend and I were rounded up and kept overnight, under the pretext that we were prostitutes,” said Genevieve Anaki, an Ivoirian refugee in Yaoundé. “The policemen robbed us and demanded sexual favours before our release.”

Gerard Tsamo, a lawyer in Yaoundé, told IRIN: “They [urban refugees] are in constant danger, especially when it comes to violation, detention, deportation or sexual exploitation.”

Is anyone helping?

In a country with high levels of joblessness – at least 6.3 million of Cameroon’s overall population of 22 million were either unemployed or underemployed last year – extreme poverty is pervasive among urban refugees.

“Before the attack, I would shine shoes, wash cars, and sometimes stole just to survive,” Pauline said.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says that in 2014 it offered humanitarian assistance and protection to some 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers residing in urban areas in Cameroon, in conjunction with the government.

Activities included documenting urban refugees so that they receive aid, improving community relations between local citizens and refugees, and ensuring that livelihood needs are met.

The police say they too are working to protect refugees – not to take advantage of them. 

“It’s wrong what you are told [about refugees being detained and beaten],” Paul Ella, a police officer in Yaoundé, told IRIN. “The police here are responsible and we are well trained to respect human rights, even those of refugees.”

Urban refugees here share the challenges of those living in the poorest neighbourhoods of Yaoundé, such as extreme poverty and limited access to basic services, but they also face additional barriers because of their uncertain legal status and lack of proper documentation.

“Access to rights… would build them up, inform them and engage them,” Linda Oyongo, who works with Cameroon’s Association of Human Rights, told IRIN.

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*Names have been changed to protect identities