Refugee relations turn sour in Cameroon

Food and water shortages, along with land disputes, have caused formerly friendly relations between the local population in eastern Cameroon and refugees from the Central African Republic to turn sour.

An estimated 250,000 people have fled to Cameroon amidst violence and political instability in the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2013, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The majority resettled in Cameroon’s East Region, where local communities initially welcomed them. 

“Upon their arrival, we took them in with open arms,” said Peter Ngoti, a primary school teacher in Timangolo, a village located 30 kilometres from the border that is home to one of six refugee camps in the region. “But then certain refugees began acting negatively. They would steal our crops. Others came with their livestock and destroyed our crops.”

More than 8,000 CAR refugees have now settled in Timangolo, which used to have a population of 13,000. The influx has placed serious strains on food stocks and available grazing land.

“The recurring brawls and clashes between local populations and the refugees are largely due to disputes over the theft of animals or of crops by the refugees,” claimed Louise Endong, president of a Timangolo community group called Women United for Development. 

Jules Birwe Habmo, president of Yaoundé-based NGO Freedom Migration/Migration for All, added: "In the east, the locals say that food has become difficult because of the ‘invasion’ of CAR refugees."

Grazing

The arrival of thousands of refugees with new livestock has also meant that the already limited plots of grazing land are increasingly fought over.

Refugees who have not been given plots for their animals end up “wandering” onto the land of locals, taking over the brush meant for local livestock and/or destroying crops. 

"This creates further tensions with host populations, who think they have already made many concessions for refugees by offering them space to settle,” Habmo said. 

The underlying causes of the current tension go deeper than squabbles over food and vegetation. 

“Conflicts between refugees and local populations are recurrent and do not date from just today,” Habmo told IRIN. “In host communities, local people often have the feeling of being invaded by refugees coming and taking their property, their land.”

For the authorities, the granting of land for a refugee camp is a temporary humanitarian measure. The locals, however, view it quite differently. 

“This land is our inalienable ancestral heritage,” Endong said. “Now, local populations are watching helplessly as refugees take over and profit from it.”

From her point of view, the refugees are receiving assistance not only from the host communities but also from UNHCR, the government as well as other NGOs. Locals, by comparison, seem like second-class citizens.

But Habmo said that while these are sometimes valid claims, the presence of refugees is often just an excuse for people to vent their anger or frustration at the region’s security challenges and deep-rooted poverty. 

Forbidden from obtaining land rights themselves, the refugees say they are equally frustrated at being unable to cultivate fields and provide for themselves. 

“I planted corn and manioc on a small plot just outside the camp,” said Mairamou Digba, a refugee in Timangolo. “But the locals took all my crops. They said it was their land.”

A search for solutions 

Camp authorities say such tensions could degenerate into perpetual conflict if nothing is done to alleviate the situation.  

Beyond providing more food aid, which is continually limited by funding constraints, UNHCR says it has been trying to strengthen the empowerment capacity of refugees, facilitate socio-economic integration and provide grants to help develop income-generating activities. 

“Whenever the opportunity arises, we remind refugees of their rights and obligations within the host communities,” Kassim Diagne, a UNHCR representative in Cameroon, told IRIN. 

Efforts are also being made to provide host populations with the same resources being offered to refugees, including potable water. 

“Frustrations arise because locals, believing that they have generously offered land to house the refugees, are not even able to enjoy normal drinking water like that distributed in the camps,” said Blaise Emvouna, a doctor at the district hospital in Bertoua, capital of East Region. “Such a situation will never allow for the coexistence of both communities.”

Cameroon’s government says it is working to create joint committees that will involve leaders from the host communities and refugee populations to help with conflict management and dispute resolutions. 

“We are interested in cohabitation between local populations and refugees, which not only finds peace together, but also fairness,” said Adalbert Chimi, coordinator of the local NGO SOS Peace.

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