‘We were treated like slaves’: Agonies of Cameroon’s domestic workers in the Middle East

Get the remorseful tales of young Cameroonians whose dreams of seeking better opportunities outside their country torn by armed revolt, suddenly turned into nightmares

By Nalova AKUA

Anita might have been ‘to hell and back’ after her desire to move on to greener pastures in Lebanon ended abysmally; yet, this hasn’t discouraged her in any way from going abroad to better her lot, if such opportunities come up again.

“If I have the opportunity of flying out today again, I won’t hesitate,” said the 26-year-old indigene of Batibo in the North West Region of Cameroon, speaking under an assumed name to protect her dignity

“I still play the American Lottery every year,” she said.

“I love to work out of Cameroon because working standards out there are better than working standards in Cameroon.”

Anita left Cameroon for Lebanon after obtaining her GCE Advanced Level, in the hopes of getting a white-collar job.

“But when I arrived, I was told I would serve as a housemaid,” she said.

“I was treated like a slave. In Lebanon, housemaids work like slaves and are called slaves. You work round the clock. From 7a.m. to 7p.m. No resting days! You are forbidden from going out to stroll. It is as if you are in a prison. Prison is even better. You are supposed to be at the beck and call of your masters. Whether you are comfortable with the work conditions or not, you must finish your contract before leaving, failing which you will have to compensate them,” she said.

But there is more to Anita’s appetite for greener pastures than just job search. She belongs to the part of Cameroon’s English-speaking minority currently roiled by armed conflict. In 2016, English-speaking lawyers and teachers in Cameroon’s two Anglophone states took to the streets to protest the appointment of French-speaking teachers and magistrates in Anglophone schools and courts. The protests were met with a disproportionate use of force by government security forces and the arrest and detention of the leaders. Events then spiralled out of control and a separatist movement emerged, calling for the independence of the two Anglophone Cameroon regions of Northwest and Southwest which they call Ambazonia. The war has left more than 4,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands displaced internally, and at least 60,000 as refugees in neighboring Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands of children have been deprived of school and the local economy is in free fall owing to the war.

“We still have this situation where every Cameroonian feels that the grass is greener on the other side; I will not say they are wrong – because given the context in our country today – not everybody will want to live in Cameroon,” said Angelica Bih Mundi, Director, Social Protection of Persons Living with Disabilities and the Elderly, Ministry of Social Affairs.

“If you look at the situation in the North West and South West Regions, you realise that we have young people who have lost businesses, young Cameroonians who were involved in a lot of income-generating activities including farming,” she said.

“We have seen people who have even abandoned their jobs, hoping to find a better one out there.”

“People have risked their lives trekking over thousands of miles to get into countries like the United States of America. Some have even risked their lives at sea trying to cross over into Europe. When they finally don’t make it, sometimes, they come back now like refugees. They have this trauma of broken dreams,” she said.

Burden on receiving countries

Some 10,000 Cameroonians have tried to ask for asylum in the U.S. since 2016, many of them fleeing the unrest in the Anglophone regions of the country, according to Sylvie Bello, CEO of the Cameroon American Council, and Cameroonian American immigration lawyer Pryde Ndingwan. Some of them have been held in detention facilities for years.

The worsening humanitarian crisis resulting from the conflict in Cameroon pushed some U.S. lawmakers in July and October 2021 to petition the Department of Homeland Security to designate Cameroon for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which means Cameroonian migrants entering across the southern U.S. border can’t be refused entry.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, hundreds of Cameroonians who had fled their country to the United States between 2017 and 2020 due to the crisis “faced arbitrary arrest and detention; enforced disappearances; torture, rape, and other violence; extortion; unfair prosecutions; confiscation of their national IDs; harassment; and abuses against their relatives.” Many also reported experiencing excessive force, medical neglect, and other mistreatment in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in the US.

“The US government utterly failed Cameroonians with credible asylum claims by sending them back to harm in the country they fled, as well as mistreating already traumatized people before and during deportation,” said Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Cameroon and US governments need to remedy these abuses, and US authorities should provide opportunities for wrongly deported Cameroonians to return and reapply for asylum.”

“We put all our hope in the USA when we went to seek refuge,” a 37-year-old man who was deported to Cameroon in October 2020 told Human Rights Watch. “We did not imagine the US would return us like that.” He spent nearly three years in US immigration detention and was arbitrarily detained in Cameroon after his return. He remains in hiding.

In June 2021, at least 700 African migrant workers, among them Cameroonians, were rounded up by security officials of the United Arab Emirates as they were accused of “living and working in the UAE illegally.” In 2020, net migration rate for Cameroon was -0.19 migrants per thousand population.

Today, Anita is a mobile phone vendor in Cameroon’s political capital, Yaounde. A job she does for a retail company for which she receives a little percentage of the amount sold.

While she does this other task rain or shine, her past keeps haunting her.

“The fact that I didn’t lose my life gave me joy when I came back to Cameroon,” she said.

“Psychologically, I am okay, but I don’t want to go back to what happened,” she said. After pausing for about 30 seconds, she continued:

“For me, it is just a past, which should be buried. It is not a happy story to let people know because it will attract a lot of ridicule.”

Angelica Bih Mundi, Director, Ministry of Social Affairs: “Out of anger, some families do not even want to accommodate them again because some siblings feel that the migrants squandered the family property.”

“I was harassed sexually by both my employer and his children. They tried to rape me on several occasions. My employer’s son even threatened to kill me if I dared reveal his advances toward me. At one moment, I had to flee from the house to the immigration office. I was paid just FCFA 120,000(approximately USD 200) every month. Initially, I had to work for nine months, but given the circumstances, I left after six months,” she said.

The conflict in Cameroon stems from the country’s past, first as a German colony that was later split between France and Britain. The only two English speaking regions which make up about 20% of the total population are fighting for a change of a centralised governance system either through full independence or a return to a federal system of governance with equal status as was the case before the 1972 referendum. Over the years, persistent civil society calls and protest against the majority 80% French centralised government to stop all forms of marginalisation, were either ignored or met with repressive measures from state security forces. Today, critics continue to question the very essence of the five-year-long conflict which they believe could easily have been avoided.

“The Anglophone crisis is the first of its kind in the world to be a self-inflictive war given it stemmed from peaceful corporatists’ demands of teachers and lawyers which was later hijacked by separatists who deliberately turned these genuine demands into the madness of the so-called struggle of independence,” said Dr Elvis Mbwoge, political scientists, security & counterterrorism expert. Mbwoge is also lecturer in the Faculty of Laws & Political Science, University of Buea, in the crisis-hit South West Cameroon.

“Cameroonians have enjoyed relative peace than most countries in the world to the extent that they do not understand fully the concepts and the consequences of secession and war,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate our people’s inexperienced, brainwashed and politically premature minds underestimated the weight of war. I believe the government of Cameroon is aware of this reality the reason they too are reluctant to declare a full-scale war against armed secessionists. The government still believes these are misguided youths who deserve a second chance. That is why this crisis seems protracted this far.”

The Cameroon Anglophone conflict has deadlocked; while leaders of the Ambazonian struggle insist that there is no turning back – that what they want is independence and not even the erstwhile two-state federation; the government insists the form of state of Cameroon is non-negotiable.

“Right now, both parties are unable to back the current hard-line stands of winning in the battlefield,” according to David Otto, director of counterterrorism for the Geneva Centre of African Security and Strategic Studies.

“These armed groups consist of locals who have a mastery of the local terrain and enjoy protection, trust and support from the local communities – these factors render military strategies ineffective and often counter-productive – leading to multiple casualties,” he said.

“As expected over the years, the separatist groups have become more structured and experienced, improving the impact of attacks deploying Home Made Improvised Explosive Devices. In every internal conflict like the one in the English speaking regions in Cameroon, the state has the higher moral authority to promote a credible channel for sustainable peace through dialogue and negotiations not the separatist. The earlier both sides review the existing options for a peaceful settlement, the better for the stability of all stakeholders.”

Torn between crisis, human trafficking

Anita’s story is unfortunately not all too common to many Cameroonians fleeing the present conflict. Another returnee, 29-year-old Ruth (not her real name), still from the crisis-hit North West Region, share similarly painful experiences.

“My employer was an old lady aged 86,” Ruth said after spending slightly over two years in Kuwait.

“I was taking care of her alone,” she said.

“She was handicapped. I had to push her on a wheelchair every evening to the Mosque. I cooked for her, cleaned her,” she said, adding there was even worse she did for a FCFA 140,000 (approximately USD234) monthly pay.

Cameroonian migrants deported from the US arrived at the Yaounde International Airport on July 1, 2020

“Before leaving for Kuwait, the intermediary who facilitated my travel lied to me I was going to be a teacher of English. When I arrived, I was told that I was going to be a domestic servant instead.

“The old woman was very arrogant, insulting and hot-tempered. Some days, she won’t even allow me to sleep. She would want me to be massaging her while she was asleep. It was a difficult thing to do, but then I had no choice. At times, she will accuse me of stealing her money; tearing her dresses or soaking them; she was very nagging. There was a day she even locked me out for coming back late from an errand. She never trusted me. She would never allow me in her house if she went out to stroll for fear I will steal her dresses.”

Beatrice Titanji, CEO of Women’s Guild for Empowerment NGO in Cameroon attributes such ventures to the ignorance about human trafficking among many in Cameroon.

Beatrice Titanji, CEO Women’s Guild for Empowerment: “I have done a lot in seminars and workshops to empower survivors of human trafficking”

“The first victim we had was in a plane, with a passport and a visa going to Kuwait and didn’t even know where Kuwait was found,” Titanji, who has chronicled the struggles of Cameroonian returnees in her book: “Curbing the tide of human trafficking and slavery” said.

“When I meet most of them, I just give them pen and paper and ask them: “write! Tell this story. Write down all what happened to you”. And when they do that, it is part of the trauma-healing,” she said.

“The problem is not just for the poverty, but also the lack of jobs. They are running away from the crisis. Talking about the crisis and human trafficking, it becomes very complex because you go into a community and you have survivors of human trafficking who are now internally displaced persons (IDPs) themselves.

“The reason why girls are on the higher level is because they talk. The boys get very shy and their ego doesn’t let them talk about what they have gone through. They feel like failures. They don’t talk even to their family members especially in situations where their family members financed their trip. In some cases, some parents ask them to refund the money they spent despite knowing that they came back empty-handed. There is a lot of blame game in our society: Why did they go? People keep asking them. As we speak, if you go to Douala or Yaounde, you will find girls at midday boarding Ethiopian Airlines but they won’t be able to tell you where exactly they are going.”

Bih Mundi of the Cameroon social affairs ministry agrees, and discloses that “a lot of feuds within family settings have been reported” as a result of these abortive journeys.

“We first work with families that have to receive them like prodigal sons; but also, we encourage the migrants to go back to their families though with a lot of remorse, but not self-crucifixion,” she said.

“When these people come back, they lose self-esteem. They don’t even feel like their children should call them daddy or mummy anymore because they really feel like they are worthless. Bringing back this self-esteem takes some time.”

Ruth spent FCFA 400,000 (approximately USD668) to travel to Kuwait. She was able to save FCFA 1.2 million (approximately USD2,000) at the moment she returned, despite using part of it to cater for herself, contrary to what her contract stated. She has vowed never to try such ventures again.

“We created a whatsApp group: ‘Cameroonians in Kuwait’,” she said.

“Many were revealing their trauma and need for help in the group. Some were crying for help, others complained about maltreatment from their employers; how they were being harassed or raped by their employers; some were forced to sleep with pets in the same room, but there was nothing we could do to help them.”

Before leaving Kuwait, Ruth’s replacement – yet another Cameroonian – had already been brought in.

“But the girl was blindfolded,” she recalls.

“They didn’t want us to have any eye contact. I don’t know if they feared I was going to tell her the nightmare that awaited her.”

One thought on “‘We were treated like slaves’: Agonies of Cameroon’s domestic workers in the Middle East

  • March 11, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    Good job Nalova.


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