Marking World Refugee Day, June 20, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, is calling on host communities to show more sympathy and love for those fleeing crises in their home country and who are now threatened by COVID-19. The UNHCR says Cameroon is home to close to half a million refugees, mostly from Nigeria and the Central African Republic.
Portraits of famous refugees adorn the walls of the annex building of the United Nations Refugee Agency in Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé. Among the most famous is Somali-American supermodel Iman, who became a refugee in 1972, Jamaican singer Bob Marley and Hong Kong-born film actor Jackie Chan.
UNHCR says the exhibition is designed to encourage refugees who have given up hope. The U.N. agency says people displaced from their countries by conflict can succeed in life if they work hard.
The refugee agency says Cameroon, with a population of around 25 million, is now home for close to 2 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced Cameroonians seeking refuge.
Among the 2 million are about half a million refugees, 322,000 of whom are fleeing violence in the neighboring Central African Republic and 117,000 are Nigerians escaping Boko Haram terrorism. Others are from Niger and Chad.
Olivier Guillaume Beer is the UNHCR representative in Cameroon. He said his agency is encouraging Cameroon and the refugees to live in peace.
"This is a day where we would like to have people understand that behind these figures, you have women, you have children. Each of them with his or her own story of violence, of persecution. People lost everything. Children lost their school, they lost their friends, parents lost their jobs and they need to restart a new life in a very difficult context. On World Refugee Day, we show empathy, solidarity to these people," said Beer.
Beer said when Cameroon reported its first cases of COVID-19 in March of last year, the UNHCR made protecting refugees a priority. He spoke on Cameroon state radio, CRTV, on World Refugee Day.
"In remote centers where they [refugees] are, we did not have isolation centers, we did not have tents, we did not have masks. So, the first thing that the UNHCR did was to support the government, support the regional health directorate to make sure that if refugees and host communities are tested positive, they can find a way to be treated," he said.
Cameroon said it deployed mobile health workers to test the refugees for COVID-19 in remote areas.
Lawrence Diyen Jam is the highest-ranking Cameroonian government official in Garoua Boulay, an administrative unit on Cameroon’s border with the C.A.R. He said his office receives many reports of confrontations between host communities and refugees.
He said last week, many people were wounded in conflicts between Cameroonian farmers and ranchers who fled the C.A.R. with their cattle. He said Cameroonians are not happy when cattle from the C.A.R. destroy their crops, causing hunger in local communities. He said there is regular fighting between refugees and their host communities over water resources.
Twenty-seven-year-old Yussuf Abdoulaye is a C.A.R. refugee. He said in spite of the challenges, Cameroon is still more peaceful than his country. He said he is not thinking of returning to the C.A.R. soon.
Abdoulaye said he and 16 other civilians fleeing post-election violence in the C.A.R. were warmly received by Cameroonian authorities and the UNHCR in Cameroon’s eastern town of Garoua Boulay. He said the community freely offered farmland to grow corn and beans. He said he is very happy because there is peace in Cameroon. He said he is encouraging refugees to respect the country’s laws.
Ten years ago, Cameroon had fewer than 250,000 refugees.
This year, Cameroon said it offered food and mattresses to C.A.R. refugees on its eastern border and Nigerian refugees in the Minawao camp on its northern border.
UNHCR Cameroon says it has received only 23% of the $100 million it needs to take care of the growing needs of refugees in the central African state. This year's Refugee Day theme is together we heal, learn and shine.