By Francis Tazoacha & Noella Ngunyam (Download pdf version)
State of Statelessness: Anglophone Cameroonians Born in Refugee Camps in Nigeria and the Identity Crisis.
The sense of belonging is very primordial in human existence. For many people, the issue of citizenship only really matters when we travel out of the country, or when we vote in national elections. We do not think about our nationality on a daily basis. As far as other people are concerned, citizenship is a ubiquitous issue, and often a hindrance. Due to the fact that the recognition of nationality serves as a key to a host of other rights such as education, health care, employment, and equality before the law, people without nationality are some of the most vulnerable in the world.
According to Reuters an estimated 10 to 15 million people are not documented as nationals by any country, often depriving them of basic rights most of the world takes for granted such as education, healthcare, housing and jobs (1). Different socio-economic, ethno-religious and political reasons may cause a person to become stateless. These include and in most cases; racial and/or gender bias, discrimination on the basis of one’s religion, conflict of laws in a country, political crisis or civil strife but also, as a result of being a refugee or a descendant of one amongst many other causes (2).
On May 20th, 1972, West Cameroon and East Cameroun, which had prior reunited in 1961 under the name Federal Republic of Cameroon, decided through an unconstitutional referendum to become the United Republic of Cameroon (3). This name was later changed in 1984 to what is known today as the Republic of Cameroon. Despite the seeming harmony that existed in the country since then, reference has been made, multiple times in history, to an underlying Anglophone problem which stemmed from the marginalization of the minority Anglophones by the Francophone majority (4).
Before, the Anglophone problem was not considered a threat to Cameroon’s unity until 2016, when teachers and lawyers trade unions protest movements outgrew expectations, eventually leading to today’s Anglophone crisis. More than 4,000 lives have been lost in the course of the crisis till date and more than 750,000 people have been displaced internally with over 60,000 others fleeing to neighbouring Nigeria (5).
The Situation of Anglophone Refugees in Nigeria
Thousands of Anglophones Cameroonians, including men, women and children, from the crisis-hit North West and South West regions of Cameroon are refugees in Nigeria. According to UNHCR Nigeria, the UN refugee agency in Nigeria, as of June 2021, a total number of 66,899 Cameroonian refugees were registered in Nigeria. Of this number, 50.5 percent are children and 28.7 percent are women. While there, they live in resettlement camps spread across the states of Akwa Ibom, Benue, Cross River and Taraba, where most of them struggle to meet their basic needs such as food, water, healthcare and education amongst others. (6). The humanitarian crisis emanating from the Anglophone war of separation is only coming to add to the already growing identity crisis, likely to befall Anglophone Cameroon refugees in Nigeria.
The Concept of Nationality.
Nationality is the legal bond between a State and an individual where the individual is a member of the state. Nationality is acquired or lost according to rules set by each State. It can be acquired in one of three ways; by birth on a state’s territory (jus soli), by descent from a State’s national (jus sanguinis) or by naturalization (7)
The problem of statelessness has quite evolved over time and a definition has also emerged: a stateless person is a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law. This definition can be found explicitly in Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, one of the two major international instruments that deal specifically with the issue of statelessness. In simple terms, this means a stateless person does not have a nationality as they are not recognized to belong to any state (8). Therefore, children born of the Cameroonian parents in the refugee camps in other neighbouring countries whose births are not declared risk not having an identity. The determination of whether a person is stateless or not depends entirely on the nationality laws implemented by the State.
In Nigeria, for example, citizenship is based upon the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, dated 1989. There are three ways in which citizenship is acquired in Nigeria; by birth; by registration and by naturalisation. It is important to note that it is impossible for a person to claim Nigerian citizenship by birth if none of their parents or grandparents were born in Nigeria. You must have blood ties in order to be a Nigerian citizen by birth (9).
Taking the case of Cameroon, under the terms of law N ° 68-LF-3 of 11 June 1968, there are five ways to acquire Cameroonian nationality, through; attribution at birth based on descent, attribution based on birth in Cameroonian territory, acquisition of nationality by declaration, acquisition based on marriage and finally, acquisition by decision of the public authority (10).
In any one of these two cases, where people have difficulties providing proof that they meet the requirements set by law for acquisition of nationality either in Cameroon or Nigeria, they are at risk of not being considered nationals by any of the two countries. Such proof may result from civil registries (notably birth certificates), witness testimony or national identity documents (indicating that the person was considered a national at the time of issuance). People and/or their descendants who have difficulties providing these proofs are at risk of statelessness.
The following categories of persons may be at particular risk of statelessness when they have difficulties establishing or providing documented proof of their nationality: migrant populations where difficulties to prove identity and nationality affect two or more generations, the most vulnerable being children; persons living in border areas; minority populations; nomadic or semi-nomadic populations; and persons who have been victims of trafficking or smuggling.
Unfortunately, Anglophone Cameroon refugees in Nigeria fall into one of these categories. Most of them while fleeing the conflict in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon lost their identification documents, not to talk of those who even before then, had no identification evidence even while in Cameroon. For children born of Cameroon parents, especially, who had no birth certificates prior to escaping to Nigeria, the situation might even be worse. Given that Nigerian citizenship attributed by birth can only be acquired if there exist blood ties between the child and one of his/her parent or grand-parent and that Cameroonian citizenship acquired at birth – ius sanguinis – can only be legally proven by a civil registry – in this case, a birth certificate – there is a high probability for Anglophone Cameroon refugees in Nigeria to become stateless. Nevertheless, there is still a possibility for them to acquire Nigerian citizenship through registration if they are still in Nigeria when they attain 18 years (majority). But then, for how long will they have to wait? Supposedly, just too many. The other option would be to return to Cameroon but this will depend on the peaceful resolution of the Anglophone crisis.
The situation of Anglophone refugee children born in Nigeria refugee camps is becoming a prime concern not only due to the humanitarian crisis arising from their deplorable living conditions but also, the growing identity crisis and risk of statelessness faced by some of them, especially children born of Cameroonian parents without identification papers.