YAOUNDE, CAMEROON - Humanitarian organizations in Cameroon have launched a program to reunite with their families the increasing numbers of children who have fled the Boko Haram conflict and the separatist crisis in the English-speaking regions. The groups say the effort was launched after the number of such children jumped from about 10,000 to 25,000 in major cities within three months. Among the children who are ready to return to their families are teenagers who fled economic hardships caused by the spread of COVID-19.
Three police officers lead 10 representatives of humanitarian organizations to where children separated from their families are living in Cameron’s capital, Yaoundé. Eleven-year-old Alain is one of 15 children who have agreed to leave the streets.
Alain says hunger and mistreatment by his father were unbearable, and in July, he and his brother escaped from their home in Batouri, on Cameroon’s eastern border with the Central African Republic to Yaoundé. Alain says he will return to the family home when he is sure he will be given food and education.
Cameroon's minister of women's empowerment and the family, Marie Theres Abena Ondoua, says Alain is one of several thousand children who fled their homes because of the economic hardship caused by COVID-19.
She says many parents lost their jobs, became poorer and could not provide for their families as a result of the economic nosedive after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Cameroon on March 5. Ondoua says many children who had to stay home under government measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 fled to towns in search of food and better living conditions.
Ondoua said the children living on the streets as a result of COVID-19 are in addition to those escaping Boko Haram terrorism on Cameroon’s northern border with Nigeria. Other children on the street have fled separatist crisis in the western English-speaking regions of the French-majority bilingual country.
Fourteen-year-old Erasmus says he escaped from the English-speaking northwestern town of Jakiri in September. He says fighters attacked his family for violating separatist instructions that no one should go to school.
"My uncle died before I found my way outside [out of Jakiri]," Erasmus said. "I am telling my mother that I will be back and that I am still alive. I am not dead. Maybe she will be thinking that I am dead, but I am not dead. I am still alive."
Cameroon began rounding up street children in April. The country found 10,000 street children in Yaoundé and the economic hub, Douala.
Cameroon says the number of street children has increased to 25,000 in the past three months. Fighters have increased attacks on English schools that defied separatist instructions and opened their doors when the 2020-2021 school year started in September and COVID-19 has made an unknown number of people either close their businesses or become jobless.
August Ewudu of the Cameroon Red Cross program to restore family links says they want to reunite at least 10,000 children with their families before the end of the year.
He says he is asking communities to direct all children who have fled crises to any Red Cross staff member or Red Cross office. He says people in search of family members displaced by the crises Cameroon is facing should contact their local Red Cross offices.
Ewudu said lists of children who cannot trace their parents are available at Red Cross offices.
Cameroon’s government and humanitarian organizations are also pleading with concerned cirizens to take care of children in need should it be impossible to trace their family members.
The government says it will be giving either education or job training to the children who refuse to be reunited with their families.