U.S. immigration officials have reportedly tortured Cameroonian asylum seekers to force them to sign their own deportation orders, in what lawyers and activists describe as a brutal stampede to get African migrants out of the country to the approaching elections.
Many Cameroonian migrants in a Mississippi detention center refused to sign, fearing death at the hands of Cameroonian government forces responsible for widespread civilian killings, and because they had asylum hearings underway.
According to several accounts, the detainees were threatened, suffocated, beaten, sprayed with pepper and threatened with more violence to get them to sign. Several of them were handcuffed by immigration and customs officials (Ice), and their fingerprints were forcibly taken in place of a signature on documents called Stipulated Deportation Orders, by which asylum seekers waive their rights to new immigration hearings and agree to deportation.
Lawyers and human rights activists have said there has been a significant acceleration in deportations in recent weeks, a trend they see linked to the impending elections and the possibility that Ice will soon be under a new management.
“The abuses we are seeing, particularly right now against black immigrants, are not new, but they are escalating,” said Christina Fialho, executive director of an advocacy group, Freedom for Immigrants (FFI). “At the end of September, beginning of October of this year, we started receiving calls on our hotline from Cameroonian and Congolese immigrants held in ice prisons across the country. And they were subjected to threats of eviction, often accompanied by physical violence. “
“The reality is that Ice operates in the shadows. They thrive in secrecy, ”added Fialho. “We know the US government is expelling key witnesses in an attempt to silence survivors and exonerate Ice from legal liability.”
A plane carrying 60 Cameroonian and 28 Congolese asylum seekers was quietly evacuated from Fort Worth Alliance airport in Texas on October 13 to take them to their country of origin. The charter plane did not release a flight plan, but it was followed by immigration rights group Witness at the Border, which said it had stopped in Senegal, Cameroon , in the Democratic Republic of the Congo then in Kenya before returning to Texas.
The Cameroonian deportees belonged to the country’s English-speaking minority, which has been the target of widespread abuse, including extrajudicial killings, by government security forces seeking to crush a separatist movement. The Trump administration slashed the country’s trade privileges earlier this year due to the continued abuse.
Most of the deportees on the flight said they had been detained without charge and tortured at the hands of the Cameroonian army and had relatives killed. They were arrested for questioning on arrival in Douala, but some were released after their families paid bribes and have since gone into hiding.
As for the others, lawyer Evaristus Nkongchu said: “We don’t know what happened to those who were deported. We know they arrived, but we did not hear what happened after they arrived at the airport.
The Cameroonian embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Detainees and their lawyers have been told there will be another deportation flight in the next few days, possibly as early as Friday.
‘I kept telling her, “I can’t breathe” ”
Cameroonians are routinely denied asylum or parole in the US immigration court system, which is administered by the Department of Justice.
Victims, family members, lawyers and human rights activists described a series of coercive measures used by Ice on Cameroonian inmates at Adams County Correctional Center in Mississippi to get them to sign their own orders to ‘expulsion.
A complaint filed by the FFI and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites eight cases of forced signatures or fingerprints on stipulated removal orders.
One of those involved, identified by the initials BJ, said that on September 27, ice officers “sprayed pepper in my eyes and [one officer] almost strangled me to the point of death. I kept telling him, “I can’t breathe”. I almost died. “
“Due to the physical violence, they were able to forcibly obtain my fingerprint on the document,” BJ said.
Another inmate, known as DF, said he was ordered to sign his deportation order by an ice officer on September 28.
“I refused to sign. He pressed my neck to the ground. I said, ‘Please I can’t breathe.’ I have lost my blood circulation. Then they took me inside with my hands behind my back where there were no cameras, ”DF said. According to his account, he was then taken to a punitive wing in central Adams County, known as Zulu, and subjected to further assault.
“They brought me to my knees where they were torturing me and said they were going to kill me. They took my arm and twisted it. They put their feet on my neck. While in Zulu, they got my fingerprint on my deportation document and took my picture, ”he said. DF was one of the detainees on the October 13 flight to Douala. We don’t know what happened to him since.
A third inmate, CA, said he was forced to the ground, seated, handcuffed and sprayed with pepper. “I was crying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ because they were forcefully on top of me, pressing their weight on me. My eyes were so hot… I was dragged across the floor, ”he said. “The officers told me to open my eyes. I will not be able. My legs and hands were handcuffed. They forcefully opened my palm. Some of my fingers were broken. They forced my fingerprint on the paper.
CA was removed from the October 13 flight, but is still at risk of deportation.
A brief reprieve
Two Cameroonians were kidnapped from the deportation flight of October 13 at the last moment after the intervention of human rights defenders through the office of civil rights and civil liberties of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but ice officers told them that would not save them from deportation.
Patrick, an inmate who was told he was on the deportation list, said he couldn’t sleep knowing that ice officers could come and pick him up at any time, and that for him, deportation could well be a death sentence.
“I live in worry because I don’t know what to expect. I don’t even know what the next day will be like, and will I be taken home, ”Patrick (a pseudonym) told The Guardian on a call from a detention center. He did not want his name used due to the risk to surviving family members.
His lawyer, Ruth Hargrove, said: “He actually has a very good case for asylum, but the problem is he could die before he was heard because he was supposed to be on this plane that left last week, and his Officer Ice just guaranteed he’ll be on the next flight.
Ice spokesperson Sarah Loicano confirmed that a formal complaint for the use of force against Cameroonian detainees had been lodged with the DHS Inspector General.
Loicano added: “That said, in general, sensationalist unfounded allegations, especially those made anonymously and without any verifiable details, are irresponsible and should be treated with the utmost skepticism. “
“Ice is firmly committed to the safety and well-being of all in her care. Ice provides safe, humane and appropriate detention conditions for those detained, ”she said.
For those who have already been deported, any reform of Ice would be too late, and they are currently unable to attest to their treatment in the United States.
The sister of one of the deportees, based in Texas, who fled into hiding after the October 13 flight to Douala, told the Guardian: “My brother fled to America thinking you will be safe here in another culture. But they sent him back and at the moment he has no life. He is hiding in the bush. What can you do in the bush? “