Yaounde — Cameroon is grappling with the influx of over a hundred thousand refugees from neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) and Nigeria, whose presence is causing tensions with the local population.
The refugees are hosted in some 300 sites in Cameroon's eastern and northern regions. Some 90, 000 of the 105,467 refugees are Central Africans, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR).
In September, hundreds of CAR refugees in Nandoungué, a locality in eastern Cameroon, abandoned their camp and marched into nearby villages, sparking a confrontation with the local population. A similar advance in Zembe Borongo area, also in eastern Cameroon, prompted the military to intervene to stop the refugees from going further into the villages and even to the regional capital Bertua. The refugees briefly occupied a primary school in Zembe Borongo.
"We are simply looking for a place where basic services are available. There is no water, housing, hospitals and schools in Nandoungué. In fact, the place was already saturated with refugees before our arrival so we had to look for a better place," Isaac Benduka, a CAR refugee, told IRIN.
"We have nothing left to depend on. We just hope for a better future in Cameroon. That is why I took my family away from hunger, assaults and hopelessness. Refugees go through very deplorable events just to arrive in Cameroon. We experience cases of sickness, hunger and deaths," Benduka said.
UNHCR's Deputy Representative in Cameroon Catherine Hamon said that the September incident was an isolated one. "We had explained to the refugees that they will be moved to sites where they can have education and other facilities, but a small group - mostly youth - said they don't want to stay in camps but want to go to Douala, Yaoundé, Bertua and abroad."
She added: "The new group of refugees finds it difficult to adapt to the life of living in camps. These populations are mostly urban dwellers from [CAR capital] Bangui who are used to city life with different socio-economic standards and expectations. About 70 percent of the new arrivals are youth and children who needed to go to school."
The Cameroonian government was forced in August to temporarily shut its border with CAR after a shoot-out with gunmen from Seleka, the Central African rebel coalition that overthrew President François Bozizé in March. A Cameroonian policeman was killed in the gunfire.
"The government is faced with the challenge of separating legitimate refugees and war-displaced people from combatants and criminals," said Cameroonian political analyst Anselm Sahngeh Mengnjo. "Another challenge will be avoiding cross-border fighting, which already took the life of a Cameroonian citizen, and also avoiding situations where refugee camps are used as bases to reorganize and strengthen rebellious movements."
Cameroonian authorities suspect that some Seleka rebels are disguising themselves as refugees in an attempt to spy on CAR soldiers who fled to Cameroon after Bozizé's ouster. Some 70 CAR soldiers recently refused to return home from Cameroon, saying they feared for their safety.
There are fears of similar spill-over insecurity in Cameroon's Far North Region, where authorities say there are 8,128 Nigerian refugees, but only 5,289 are registered by UNHCR. Deadly attacks by Boko Haram, and Nigeria's military crackdown on the Islamist gunmen, have displaced communities across northeastern Nigeria.
Many of the Nigerians who have fled into Cameroon prefer to stay with friends and family near the border areas.
"The refugee population fleeing from Boko Haram are scattered in very inaccessible localities in the north of Cameroon, and many who refuse to be registered and stay in camps are still at the mercy of the [Boko Haram] sect, and are seen as threat to local security," said UNHCR's Hamon.
Authorities fear the lack of registration could ease Boko Haram infiltration into the country.
"Initially the refugees were occupying schools, but since children had to go to schools, they were moved. These refugees are increasing in their numbers and we want to. move them to Minawao [camp]."
The agency has already moved 1,700 refugees to Minawao camp. The rest have settled in public buildings, and some with their Cameroonian families. But a large number has yet to be accounted for.
In September, authorities in the Far North Region warned Nigerians against refusing to be identified as refugees and refusing to stay in camps, but did not spell out consequences. The warning followed suspicions by the authorities that Boko Haram fighters were among the refugees.
A shooting incident broke out recently near the Nigeria-Cameroon border as Cameroonian forces escorted to the border some 100 Nigerians rounded up on suspicion of being Boko Haram members.
"Some [of the Nigerians] escaped, 15 were killed in the shooting and the rest [were] brought back to Cameroon and are still under custody. The UNHCR will seek access to the arrested people for identification," Hamon told IRIN.
Coping with the influx
Refuges numbers in Cameroon are relatively small compared to major hosting countries like Kenya, which hosts 565,000 refugees, Ethiopia, which has 376,000 refugees, and Chad, which hosts 374,000. Still, the country has difficulty adequately catering for its refugees, whose numbers are rising.
Most of the refugees live among local communities, where they can engage in small businesses and farming.
"The condition of refugees in Cameroon is stable, principally thanks to the openness of the local populations and the authorities. Instead of providing camp sites for all refugees, most of these refugees are settled in villages with other Cameroonians and are involved in livelihood activities like farming and trading," Hamon explained.
"The country needs a national body with. autonomy and [a] budget to address refugee issues in general. This body could address health, education, basic needs, and income generation and give legal assistance to refugees," she said.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]