U.S. dream pulls African migrants in record numbers across Latin America

FILE PHOTO: A migrant from Cameroon holds his baby while trying to enter the Siglo XXI immigrant detention center to request humanitarian visas, issued by the Mexican government, to cross the country towards the United States, in Tapachula, Mexico June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Torres/File Photo

By Daina Beth Solomon

TAPACHULA, Mexico (Reuters) – Marilyne Tatang, 23, crossed nine borders in two months to reach Mexico from the West African nation of Cameroon, fleeing political violence after police torched her house, she said.

She plans to soon take a bus north for four days and then cross a tenth border, into the United States. She is not alone – a record number of fellow Africans are flying to South America and then traversing thousands of miles of highway and a treacherous tropical rainforest to reach the United States.

Tatang, who is eight months pregnant, took a raft across a river into Mexico on June 8, a day after Mexico struck a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump to do more to control the biggest flows of migrants heading north to the U.S. border in more than a decade.

The migrants vying for entry at the U.S. southern border are mainly Central Americans. But growing numbers from a handful of African countries are joining them, prompting calls from Trump and Mexico for other countries in Latin America to do their part to slow the overall flood of migrants.

As more Africans learn from relatives and friends who have made the trip that crossing Latin America to the United States is tough but not impossible, more are making the journey, and in turn are helping others follow in their footsteps, migration experts say.

Trump’s threats to clamp down on migrants have ricocheted around the globe, paradoxically spurring some to exploit what they see as a narrowing window of opportunity, said Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director for the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“This message is being heard not just in Central America, but in other parts of the world,” she said.

Data from Mexico’s interior ministry suggests that migration from Africa this year will break records.

The number of Africans registered by Mexican authorities tripled in the first four months of 2019 compared with the same period a year ago, reaching about 1,900 people, mostly from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which remains deeply unstable years after the end of a bloody regional conflict with its neighbors that led to the deaths of millions of people.

‘THEY WOULD HAVE KILLED ME’

Tatang, a grade school teacher, said she left northwest Cameroon due to worsening violence in the English-speaking region, where separatists are battling the mostly French-speaking government for autonomy.

“It was so bad that they burned the house where I was living … they would have killed me,” she said, referring to government forces who tried to capture her.

At first, Tatang planned only to cross the border into Nigeria. Then she heard that some people had made it to the United States.

“Someone would say, ‘You can do this,'” she said. ‘So I asked if it was possible for someone like me too, because I’m pregnant. They said, ‘Do this, do that.'”

Tatang begged her family for money for the journey, which she said so far has cost $5,000.

She said her route began with a flight to Ecuador, where Cameroonians don’t need visas. Tatang went by bus and on foot through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala until reaching Mexico.

She was still deciding what to do once she got to Mexico’s northern border city of Tijuana, she said, cradling her belly while seated on a concrete bench outside migration offices in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula.

“I will just ask,” she said. “I can’t say, ‘When I get there, I will do this.’ I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”

Reuters spoke recently with five migrants in Tapachula who were from Cameroon, DRC and Angola. Several said they traveled to Brazil as a jumping-off point.

They were a small sampling of the hundreds of people – including Haitians, Cubans, Indians and Bangladeshis – clustered outside migration offices.

Political volatility in Cameroon and the DRC in recent years has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

People from the DRC made up the third largest group of new refugees globally last year with about 123,000 people, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, while Cameroon’s internally displaced population grew by 447,000 people.

The number of undocumented African migrants found by authorities in Mexico quadrupled compared to five years ago, reaching nearly 3,000 people in 2018.

Most obtain a visa that allows them free passage through Mexico for 20 days, after which they cross into the United States and ask for asylum.

Few choose to seek asylum in Mexico, in part because they don’t speak Spanish. Tatang said the language barrier was especially frustrating because she speaks only English, making communication difficult both with Mexican migration officials and even other Africans, such as migrants from DRC who speak primarily French.

Those who reach the United States often send advice back home, helping make the journey easier for others, said Florence Kim, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in West and Central Africa.

Like their Central American migrant counterparts, some Africans are also showing up with families hoping for easier entries than as individuals, said Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute.

U.S. data shows a huge spike in the number of families from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras at the U.S. southern border. Between last October and May 16,000 members of families were registered, up from 1,000 for the whole of 2018, according to an analysis by the MPI.

REGIONAL APPROACH

The grueling Latin America trek forces migrants to spend at least a week trudging across swampland and hiking through mountainous rainforests in the lawless Darien Gap that is the only link between Panama and Colombia.

Still, the route has a key advantage: Countries in the region typically do not deport migrants from other continents due in part to the steep costs and lack of repatriation agreements with their home countries.

That relaxed attitude could change, however.

Under a deal struck with United States last month, Mexico may start a process later this month to become a safe third country, making asylum seekers apply for refuge in Mexico and not the United States.

To lessen the load on Mexico, Mexico and the United States plan to put pressure on Central American nations to do more to prevent asylum seekers, including African migrants, from moving north.

For the moment, however, more Africans can be expected to attempt the journey, said IOM’s Kim.

“They want to do something with their life. They feel they lack a future in their country,” she said.

(The story adds dropped word “they” in final paragraph.)

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Additional reporting by Paul Vieira; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

At least 43,000 Cameroonian refugees flee to Nigeria: local aid officials

A still image taken from a video shot on December 9, 2017 shows Cameroonian refugees standing outside a center in Agbokim Waterfalls village, which borders on Cameroon, Nigeria.

By Anamesere Igboeroteonwu

ONITSHA, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 43,000 Cameroonians have fled as refugees to Nigeria to escape a crackdown by the government on Anglophone separatists, local aid officials said on Thursday.

The figure is almost three times as high as that given by the United Nations and Nigerian officials two weeks ago.

Cameroon is a majority French-speaking country but two southwestern regions bordering Nigeria are Anglophone. Last October, separatists declared independence for a state they want to create called Ambazonia, sparking a military crackdown by the government of President Paul Biya.

In Nigeria’s Cross River state, which borders southwest Cameroon, more than 33,000 Cameroonians have taken refuge from violence, John Inaku, director general of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), told Reuters by phone.

In neighboring Benue state, there are 10,216 refugees, said Emmanuel Shior, director general of the regional SEMA.

Earlier this month, the UN refugee agency had said more than 8,000 refugees were in Cross River state.

Explaining the disparity, Inaku told Reuters the UN agency was only registering people in Cross River coming in through conventional routes.

“This is a war situation and refugees are trooping in by the minute through the bush paths, rivers and every other unconventional routes open to them,” he said.

“During our advocacy to our border communities we told them to allow the refugees in and not be hostile to them so our communities have been receiving them warmly and accommodating them. These are very remote areas, hard to reach without good roads,” Inaku said.

Inaku said community facilities were becoming overstretched and so people were getting hostile toward the refugees, who were in “deplorable condition”, hungry and in need of medicine.

The Benue SEMA director general said the agency had also had difficulty counting refugees because they were in remote areas.

Early on Thursday, gunmen crossed from Nigeria to attack a border post in Cameroon’s southwest, security force witnesses said, with the incident likely to further damage relations between the neighbors.

The separatists pose the biggest challenge yet to the 35-year rule of Biya, who will seek re-election this year. The conflict is also fuelling tensions between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Cameroonian military officials and pro-government media accuse Nigeria of sheltering the insurgents, who since last year have waged a guerrilla campaign to establish an independent homeland for Cameroon’s English-speaking minority.

(Reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Girl strapped with bomb kills five in Cameroon mosque

By Josiane Kouagheu

YAOUNDE (Reuters) – A girl with a bomb strapped to her walked into a mosque in northern Cameroon where it exploded, killing five worshippers in an attack bearing the hallmarks of Islamist militant group Boko Haram, authorities said.

The girl of 12 or 13 years old arrived at the Sanda-Wadjiri mosque in remote Kolofata at the first call to prayer at between five and six a.m., the governor of Cameroon’s Far North region Midjiyawa Bakary told Reuters by telephone.

“The men were bowed in prayer when she came,” Bakary said. “Five of the worshippers were killed and the bomber also.”

He did not name any suspects, but Boko Haram has repeatedly used suicide bombers as well as strapping children with explosives to strike at civilian and military targets.

The Nigerian jihadist group, which is now split into at least two factions, has been fighting for almost a decade to revive a medieval Islamic caliphate in the Lake Chad region, where Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad meet.

Allied forces from the four countries have routed it in much of the territory it once controlled, but the group has responded by scattering and stepping up attacks on civilians.

Amnesty International said last week that Boko Haram had killed 381 civilians in Nigeria and Cameroon since the beginning of April, more than double that for the preceding five months.

Of those, 158 of the deaths were in Cameroon, which the rights group linked to a rise in suicide bombings, the deadliest of which killed 16 people in Waza in July.

(Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Armyworm hits northern Cameroon, worsening food crisis

YAOUNDE (Reuters) – Crop-eating fall armyworms have attacked nearly 37,000 hectares of maize in northern Cameroon, officials said on Wednesday, accentuating an already dire humanitarian crisis provoked by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram’s cross-border insurgency.

More than two dozen African nations have reported outbreaks of the invasive Central American variety of the pest, which is harder to detect and eradicate than its African counterpart.

They have now spread to all of Cameroon’s 10 administrative regions, though maize crops in the Extreme North region have only been heavily affected since July, Deputy Agriculture Minister Clementine Ananga Messina told Reuters.

“The armyworm attack endangers the entire maize sector and is creating serious risks of food insecurity, because it’s the most commonly grown cereal in Cameroon,” she said.

The Extreme North region bordering Chad and Nigeria has been hit hard by Boko Haram, whose campaign of violence and cross-border attacks has sent more than 93,000 Nigerians fleeing into Cameroon where some 235,000 people have also been displaced.

Across the Lake Chad region around 1.5 million people are confronting a food crisis, according to the United Nations.

Cameroonian authorities have launched an action plan to fight against the infestation, but so far pesticides have failed to contain it.

“There are no effective means to fight armyworm currently existing in Cameroon,” said Agriculture Ministry expert Andre Marie Elombat Assoua. “The chemical products now being used by farmers are ineffective and too expensive.”

Around 12 million Cameroonians, more than half of the national population, regularly consume maize. It is also an important ingredient for the central African nation’s breweries and in the production of feed for livestock.

Though the fall armyworm prefers maize, it also attacked sorghum and millet, two of Cameroon’s other staple crops, earlier this year.

(Reporting by Anne-Mireille Nzouankeu; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.N. agency worried about forced return of Nigerian refugees from Cameroon

ABUJA (Reuters) – The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday it is concerned about Cameroon forcing thousands of refugees to return to northeast Nigeria, an area struggling with insurgency and facing a potential famine.

UNHCR teams in Nigeria have heard and documented accounts of Cameroonian troops returning refugees against their will, despite an agreement between the two countries that any such returns should be voluntary.

Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesman, told a press briefing the agency was “particularly concerned” that more than 2,600 refugees, many of whom had fled militant group Boko Haram, had been sent back to Nigerian border villages since the start of the year.

“UNHCR calls on the government of Cameroon to honor its obligations under international and regional refugee protection instruments, as well as Cameroonian law,” he said.

Issa Tchiroma Bakary, Cameroon government spokesman, told Reuters the allegations were not true. “I formally deny this rumor that Cameroon forced Nigerian refugees to return to Nigeria,” he said.

Jihadist group Boko Haram has displaced over 2 million people in Nigeria since 2009, conducting an insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in the northeast of Africa’s most populous nation.

Partly due to the conflict, the U.N. warned last month that aid agencies must get food to nearly 3 million people by July to avert a famine in the Lake Chad region – shared between Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and Chad – caused by drought, chronic poverty and Boko Haram.

Cameroon says it has stuck to the terms of an agreement signed on March 2 with Nigeria and the UNHCR for “the voluntary return of Nigerian refugees when conditions were conducive”.

“Cameroon is respecting its engagements,” Bakary said.

(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram in Abuja and Sylvain Andzongo in Yaounde; Edited by Vin Shahrestani)

Yemen city on the brink of famine, U.N. agency warns

Residents of one Yemen city are on the brink of famine, a United Nations agency warned Monday, as violent conflicts have prevented humanitarian workers from supplying food.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said it delivered food to Al Qahira, a besieged area of the Taiz governorate, on Saturday, bringing enough food to last 18,000 people for one month. But it said Taiz remains at an “emergency” level on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale, one step below famine, and workers must be allowed to continue to deliver aid there.

The WFP said it has been delivering food to some parts of Taiz since December, though fighting between Houthi militants and government forces has complicated the agency’s efforts to move the supplies to the people in need. In a news release, it said about 20 percent of households in Taiz don’t have enough food, and many are facing “life-threatening rates of acute malnutrition.”

Taiz is far from the only Yemen city affected by fighting.

The UN says about 21.2 million of the country’s 26 million residents need some humanitarian aid, a 33 percent increase since violence erupted last March. The WFP says approximately 7.6 million Yemen residents are now “severely food insecure,” which requires urgent assistance.

Other countries are also in need of aid.

On Tuesday, the WFP said it was planning to deliver food this month to 35,000 people who have been affected by Boko Haram’s violent insurgency in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. In a statement, the agency said it recently supplied food to 5,000 people in Chad for the first time.

“We were told that people have been really struggling to survive. Some said that they have been surviving only on maize for weeks,” Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the WFP’s Country Director for Chad, said in a statement announcing the increased humanitarian efforts. “We have started distributions at five sites where the needs are most critical and we are working to reach others.”

The WFP said some 5.6 million people are facing hunger as a result of Boko Haram’s violence, which has prompted 2.8 million people to flee their homes — 400,000 since December alone.

Last week, the WFP issued warnings about the food situations in South Sudan and Haiti, saying that about 6 million people in those countries were facing food insecurity. That included 40,000 residents of war-torn South Sudan that UN agencies said were “on the brink of catastrophe.”

Suicide bomb attack kills 28, wounds dozens in Cameroon

DOUALA, Cameroon (Reuters) – Suicide bombers targeting a town in northern Cameroon killed 28 people and wounded 65 on Monday, one of the worst attacks yet in the Central African nation as it struggles to contain an overflow of violence blamed on Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

State-owned radio and local officials said four explosions struck a busy market and entrances to the town of Bodo, which borders the Islamist insurgency’s strongholds in northeastern Nigeria.

“The new toll is 28 dead and 65 wounded. Currently the situation is stable. Our security forces are in place,” said one official, who asked not to be named.

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, northern Cameroon has become the scene of increasingly frequent suicide attacks as Boko Haram has stepped up cross-border violence that has also spread into Chad and Niger.

Twelve people were killed in an attack on Jan. 13 at a mosque in the town of Kouyape.

Bodo, separated from Nigeria by only a small border river, was previously targeted at the end of December when two female suicide bombers blew themselves up at the town entrance.

Boko Haram has killed thousands of people and driven more than 2 million people from their homes during its six-year insurgency in one of the world’s poorest regions.

Regional armies mounted an offensive against the insurgents last year that ousted them from many positions in northern Nigeria.

In the wake of that operation, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin pledged to set up a 8,700-strong regional force tasked with wiping out Boko Haram. The United States has also sent troops to supply intelligence and other assistance.

The establishment of the force has been plagued by delays, however, and joint operations have yet to begin, leaving it up to national armies to tackle Boko Haram individually.

In the absence of effective coordination, security sources have warned this can often mean that soldiers just drive the militants across each other’s borders.

(Reporting by Josiane Kouagheu; Writing by Makini Brice and Joe Bavier; Editing by Edward McAllister and Mark Heinrich)

Violent Conflicts Force 1 Million African Children Out of School

Violent conflicts in Africa, fueled by the Boko Haram insurgency, have forced more than 1 million children out of school, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported Tuesday.

The organization, commonly known as UNICEF, reported that the children have been forced out of class in northeastern Nigeria and the neighboring nations of Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

UNICEF said that total doesn’t include the 11 million kids in those four countries who were already out of school before Boko Haram began its insurgency six years ago. According to the Global Terrorism Index, the Islamic extremist group killed more people last year (6,644) than any other terrorist organization — including the Islamic State, to which it has pledged allegiance.

But Boko Haram is only partly responsible for the violence in Nigeria.

Fulani militants, who use often violent tactics to control grazing land for their livestock, killed 1,229 people last year, according to the Global Terrorism Index. Because Nigeria houses two of the world’s five deadliest terrorist groups, the country had 7,512 terrorism-related deaths last year. That was more than any other country but Iraq, which established a record with 9,929.

According to UNICEF, more than 2,000 schools are closed in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The organization says hundreds of them have been set ablaze, looted or otherwise attacked, and that some of the closures have stretched on for more than a year. In Cameroon, for example, UNICEF reported that 135 schools closed in 2014 and only one of them has reopened.

Part of the reason for the lengthy closures is that there’s a fear of future terrorist attacks. UNICEF reported that 600 Nigerian teachers have died during the Boko Haram insurgency.

Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s regional director in West and Central Africa, said in a statement that many children are now at risk of dropping out of school entirely as a result of the violence.

“The challenge we face is to keep children safe without interrupting their schooling,” Fontaine said in a statement. “Schools have been targets of attack, so children are scared to go back to the classroom; yet the longer they stay out of school, the greater the risks of being abused, abducted and recruited by armed groups.”

UNICEF said it’s taken some steps to help educate children in the region, like establishing some temporary learning spaces and expanding some schools, but they’ve reached less than 200,000 kids. Security issues and funding shortages have complicated the group’s outreach efforts.

UNICEF said it will need about $23 million to educate children in the four countries next year.

U.S. Deploys Troops in Cameroon to Fight Boko Haram

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced that 300 U.S. troops have been deployed in Cameroon to fight against the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram.

Obama wrote a letter to Congress stating that the soldiers would provide “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” in the region and work with West African soldiers. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, stated that the troops will be armed for self defense purposes and will not engage in combat.

On Monday, an advance force of 90 troops were sent to Cameroon, a country that borders Nigeria. Officials said that the troops will also have unarmed Predator drones that will aid the multinational task force made up of soldiers from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Benin, and Nigeria.

Until now, the U.S. has been giving Nigerian forces equipment and providing training for their soldiers as an effort to help defeat Boko Haram. The Islamic terrorist group has destroyed many villages in Niger, Chad, Nigeria, and Cameroon. The violence by Boko Haram has left 17,000 people dead since 2009 when the attacks began, according to Amnesty International. UNICEF also reported that 1.4 million children have been displaced by Boko Haram in Nigeria and neighboring countries.

Boko Haram claims to be a part of the Islamic State, but it is unclear if the two groups have coordinated their attacks.

Boko Haram Proclaims 20,000 Square Mile Caliphate

The extremist group Boko Haram has announced they are mimicking ISIS in declaring their own Islamic caliphate.  The group aims to claim parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

Dr. David Curry of Open Doors USA said during an event sponsored by the Family Research Council that people are underestimating the brutality of the terror group.

Curry said that in Nigeria alone, over 2,200 Christians were killed by the group in 2014 just for their faith in Christ.  He also said the estimate is low because there are many other deaths at the hands of Boko Haram they have not been able to verify as being motivated by the Christian faith of the victim.

He said that Boko Haram already controls a part of Nigeria the size of Belgium.

“Nigeria has been experiencing attacks much like the Iraqis were facing just a few years ago,” Curry explained. “You have Boko Haram, which has a very similar Al-Qaeda, Islamic State ideology, they have been making attacks, bombings, like you have seen on churches. Now all of a sudden they are beginning to take territory.

“There is a common-path pattern here,” Curry added. “First, individual attacks, then bombings, then the conquering of territory and attacking of civilian sites like army bases and these sorts of things.”

The governments of Chad and Cameroon said Wednesday they have been actively using their military powers against Boko Haram and have killed 250 terrorists this week.