FOTOKOL, CAMEROON - A two-day-old baby boy cries as his parents take seats in a Cameroonian military truck in the border town of Fotokol. They were being transported home to the Nigerian village of Gamboru Ngala.
In northern Cameroon, the military says some 7,000 Nigerian refugees have gone back to their towns and villages in the past month as part of a voluntary repatriation program. However, Cameroon continues to face accusations that refugees have also been forcibly removed.
Many refugees fled their homes in that area two years ago as Boko Haram attacked villages, looting, kidnapping and killing locals.
Returnee Fadi Naji, 23, says when she arrived in Cameroon, she did not dream of returning home one day because all of her five sisters and brothers had been killed. She says she is returning now with the hope of starting a new life.
Ismaila Ali, a Cameroon military official who was escorting the refugees, says most of those repatriated are originally from the villages of Banki, Gulumba, Gamboru as well as Bama town.
He says, since last month, Cameroon has repatriated 6,695 refugees to the Nigerian border town of Mobi in Adamawa state. He says the refugees are fed, given drinkable water and treated if they fall ill during the journey.
Over the past two years, an offensive by Nigerian, Cameroonian and other regional troops has dislodged Boko Haram from most of the territory it controlled in northeast Nigeria, although the Islamist radical group continues to carry out suicide bombings.
Voluntary repatriation agreement
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says it conducted a survey in September of last year in Minawao, where about 80,000 Nigerian refugees lived at the time. That survey indicated that 71 percent of the refugees wanted to return home when the security situation allowed.
In May, the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria together with UNHCR signed a voluntary repatriation agreement.
Cameroon's minister of territorial administration and decentralization, Rene Emmanuel Sadi, says Cameroon is respecting the terms.
He says Cameroon has to ensure that the refugees’ return is safe while their dignity is respected. He says there is no question of forcing them but rather making sure that the families go back when peace and security has returned to their localities.
However, on Wednesday, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) issued a statement saying it has witnessed Cameroonian forces forcibly returning Nigerian refugees since 2016, even as fresh violence in Borno state continues to create more displacement.
MSF said these returning refugees have come home to border communities where food and other resources are already dangerously overstretched and access for aid organizations is extremely limited.
Cameroon's government spokesman rejected the accusations of forced repatriations, telling VOA they are "ungrounded."