Just months ago, Cameroonian migrant Wilfred Christopher had a home and stable job as a pastry chef in Abu Dhabi.
Now, the 26-year-old fears for his life after authorities in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) deported him to Cameroon – where his home region is mired in conflict.
"Sometimes there's fighting, there are stray bullets. Now they said if you go out [after curfew], they might shoot you," Christopher said by phone from the town of Tiko in Cameroon's South West region, referring to fighting between Anglophone separatists and government forces.
Christopher was one of hundreds of African migrant workers – from Cameroon, Nigeria, and Uganda – who were arrested in late June in the UAE, and deported en masse in recent weeks.
On 3 September, the UAE's interior ministry said it had deported most of the 376 people detained for offences related to human trafficking, assault, and extortion, charges which human rights groups have decried as bogus.
The ministry said the detentions and deportations took place "in accordance with legal procedures" and in coordination with the embassies of the workers' home countries.
While campaigners have long criticised the UAE for its treatment of migrants and routine deportations, the forced returns of Cameroonians this summer to a country beset by violence could amount to a violation of international law, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Since 2016, secessionists have been battling government soldiers in Cameroon's North West and South West regions, leaving thousands dead and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee.
It is unknown how many of the 376 deportees were from Cameroon, but the Cameroonian consul-general in Dubai estimated the number to be about 30.
In interviews with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, six deported Cameroonians said they were repeatedly denied access to lawyers or information about the charges against them following their arrest, and that their concerns about the ongoing violence back home were dismissed.
When Emirati authorities this month informed Ngang Rene he would be sent back to Cameroon after two months in prison, he told them that the country's North West region was too dangerous.
"I told them: 'you want me to die?' and they said: 'just go back to your country'," added Rene, who began working as a car polisher in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Rene said he had not been allowed to retrieve his savings or any documents, including his birth certificate, before being deported.
Flown to Douala airport – which lies in the French-speaking part of Cameroon – Rene and his wife fled to neighbouring Nigeria, trekking day and night to reach relative safety.
"I'm like a beggar in the street," he said from Ibeno in southern Nigeria. "But I cannot stay where my life is not safe."
'Nowhere to run'
The UAE is home to nearly ten million people – more than 80 per ent of whom are expatriates who send remittances home to their families – the United Nations says. Workers from developing countries often live in shared residencies in Abu Dhabi with separate wings for different nationalities.
African and Asian workers have highlighted stigma and racism in the past, and the UAE regularly faces criticism from human rights groups for abuses including forced deportations. Yet the scale of the mass arrests in June and recent deportations were unprecedented, the non-profit Euro-Med Monitor – which co-authored a report on the issue – said this month.
Although the UAE has not signed international conventions on refugees, all countries are obliged to abide by a human rights principle known as "non-refoulement," which prohibits nations from forcibly returning anyone to a country where they risk threats to their life or liberty.
HRW said the Emirati government had committed refoulement by forcibly returning people to Cameroon without assessing their safety.
"The risks were clear. Cameroonians told Emirati authorities they feared for their lives if deported, and human rights abuses in Cameroon are widespread and well-documented, including torture and ill-treatment," said Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW.
The UAE's foreign ministry and Al-Wathba prison, where deported workers said they were held, both refused to comment on alleged human rights violations during the arrests and deportations.
Cameroon's Consul-General in Dubai, Donancier Mebouogue, said he had received "no official information" from the UAE's foreign ministry on the arrests and deportations, despite three written requests. In early August, Mebouogue tried to visit Al-Wathba prison, where guards confirmed that Cameroonians were being detained but prevented him from seeing them, he said.
Cameroonian nurse Victoria Edem, who was three months pregnant when she and her husband were arrested, said she had no access to her anemia medication during the two-month detention and saw her weight fall by seven kilogrammes. After being deported, the couple went to see Edem's mother in Nigeria, which is home to about 67,000 Cameroonian refugees, according to the United Nations.
"My family thought I was dead," the 33-year-old said from Ikom in southern Nigeria. "When my mum found out about the ugly incident, she got sick – so I had to rush and see her first."
While Nigeria has proved a sanctuary for some of the Cameroonians, not all are so fortunate.
"I travelled [to Abu Dhabi] because the war was getting too tough," former pastry chef Christopher said. "Now I'm back [in Cameroon], with nowhere to turn to – nowhere to run."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.