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Refugees Need More Than Progressive Policy: Lessons from Cameroon

While Uganda has been touted as Africa’s model for refugee policy, Cameroon also has forward-thinking laws for the displaced. But, as researcher Veronique Barbelet writes, economic underdevelopment and security concerns means people on the ground are failing to benefit.

Written by Veronique Barbelet Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A man from a local humanitarian association registers refugees from Central Africa waiting in Cameroon's Garoua-Boulai border town.Veronique Barbelet

Progressive refugee policies are one of the most important determinants of whether refugees can fulfill their aspirations. Cameroon has moved to implement this kind of forward-thinking legislation – but they have not delivered in ways that allow refugees to actually sustain themselves.

In 2005, Cameroon adopted an open-door policy and ratified the major legal instruments for refugee protection. In practical terms, this means that refugees can settle where they want and move freely. They can work, start businesses and access land. Refugees can also access basic services such as healthcare and education on the same basis as the local population. Moreover, the law allows refugees to become Cameroonian citizens.

And yet, research undertaken by the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute found that in Cameroon, poor implementation of the policy alongside economic underdevelopment has stymied refugees’ ability to sustain themselves and achieve their aspirations.

Cameroon’s refugee policy is in theory progressive. However, interviews with refugees from the Central African Republic now living in eastern Cameroon paint a different picture. While refugees praised Cameroon for its open-door policy, they reported increasing obstacles to their freedom of movement.

One Central African refugee, who had been in Cameroon for two years and settled in a village to manage a small shop, talked about relying on other traders in his community to go to the town’s market on his behalf. Traveling between his village and the town had become increasingly difficult due to police harassment and pressure to pay up bribes.

Interviews with local authorities, village chiefs and local police revealed a subtle change in attitudes towards refugees that contradicted official policy. Control rather than freedom of movement is increasingly considered necessary given Cameroon’s current security situation, which has been affected by the spillover of the Central African conflict in the east and the Nigerian conflict with Boko Haram in the north.

Local authorities felt it would be easier if refugees settled in camps rather than among the community, which would allow them to differentiate between refugees and local residents. According to local authorities, this would enable them to better take care of refugees’ specific needs. As a way to control where refugees settle, local authorities are increasingly restricting where humanitarian organizations can deliver assistance and services to those refugees settled in towns.

These shifts in attitudes are a stark reminder that the success of policy should be judged through the lived realities of refugees, not by its mere existence. A progressive refugee policy only works in reality if it translates into better opportunities and outcomes for refugees. However, in the case of Cameroon, implementing this liberal policy has been proven challenging given the country’s chronic economic underdevelopment, which limits opportunities for refugees.

The focus on the national refugee framework fails to recognize how important the economic and development context is within which refugees pursue their livelihoods. In eastern Cameroon, the lack of economic opportunity and chronic underdevelopment undermines the ability of Central African refugees to make ends meet. The eastern region has long suffered underdevelopment: a shortage of health and education services; limited economic opportunities beyond traditional pastoralist and agricultural livelihoods, and weak public infrastructure.

Many Central African refugees are facing the same livelihood challenges as Cameroonians. The region has not benefited from the economic growth experienced by the rest of the country, due to its ethnic makeup and lack of political will from central government. Allowing refugees to work only brings about limited results if underlying structural obstacles to economic well-being are not addressed. Without development, refugees have few opportunities.

The humanitarian response has further contributed to the lack of development focus and engagement in the region. The continued state of emergency brought about by the arrival of high numbers of refugees into Cameroon over the years has prompted short-term humanitarian interventions. Humanitarian organizations substitute for the lack of services by supporting local health centers and schools, and short-term agricultural projects. But longer-term development plans that could better address the chronic underdevelopment challenges have been neglected.

What if the presence of refugees and support afforded to them could become an opportunity and a catalyst for further development in eastern Cameroon instead? Cameroon’s refugee policy is only as good as its implementation and the local economic and development context in which this takes place. Yet both continue to be obstacles for refugees. Could development financing and expertise be a game changer for Cameroon?

In 2016, the World Bank announced the creation of a global concessional loan financing facility for middle-income countries like Cameroon that host a large number of refugees. It would encourage a more developmental approach to supporting refugees, locals and the host country and bring in the expertise often lacking in refugee organizations. The World Bank’s ability to inform and influence macro-level policy has the potential to complement the work that humanitarian and refugee organizations are already conducting in Cameroon. Plans are in place to do so in partnership with the government of Cameroon, UNHCR and other development actors.

Not only could the World Bank – and other development partners – support Cameroon in addressing development challenges in the eastern areas, it could also incentivize the implementation of Cameroon’s progressive refugee policy by adding conditions and consistent monitoring of its implementation.

What we need is the right level of financial investment to drive effective action on the ground and a long-term approach to supporting refugees. With the right incentives, this investment would not only safeguard the effective implementation of Cameroon’s national refugee policy, it would also address the development challenges that are preventing refugees from sustaining themselves.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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