People with disabilities in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon are caught in the violence and struggle to flee to safety when their communities come under attack. They also face difficulties in getting necessary assistance.
“People with disabilities are among the most marginalized and at-risk population in any crisis-affected country, and Cameroon is no exception,” said Emina Ćerimović, senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The woefully underfunded United Nations humanitarian response exacerbates their risks, as many people with disabilities aren’t getting even their basic needs met.”
Over the past three years, Cameroon’s Anglophone regions have been embroiled in a cycle of deadly violence that has claimed an estimated 2,000 lives and uprooted almost half a million people from their homes. People with disabilities have faced attack and abuse by belligerents, often because they are unable to flee.
On May 13, the UN Security Council discussed the humanitarian situation in Cameroon during an informal meeting. This gave momentum to international efforts to address the crisis and an opportunity to consider practical steps for an effective humanitarian response, particularly for the most at-risk people. The Security Council should formally add Cameroon to its agenda as a stand-alone item so it can regularly address the crisis and spotlight the dire humanitarian situation in the country, as well as the grave human rights abuses by all sides.
The crisis in the Anglophone regions began in late 2016, when teachers, lawyers, and activists, who had long complained of their regions’ perceived marginalization by the central government, took to the streets to demand more recognition of their political, social, and cultural rights. The ruthless response of the government forces, who killed peaceful protesters, arrested leaders, and banned civil society groups, escalated the crisis. Since then, numerous separatist groups have emerged calling for the independence of the Anglophone regions and embracing the armed struggle. Government forces and armed separatists have both been responsible for serious human rights abuses.
Between January and May 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 48 people with disabilities living in the Anglophone regions, their family members, representatives of UN agencies, and national and international humanitarian organizations to investigate how the crisis in the North-West and South-West regions has disproportionately affected people with disabilities.
People with disabilities and older people have been among those killed, violently assaulted, or kidnapped by government forces and armed separatists. Soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion killed a 43-year-old man with hearing and intellectual disabilities in the village of Ntamru, North-West region, on May 5, when he did not answer their questions. “He was shot in the head and the chest,” a witness told Human Rights Watch.
Destruction of homes and property has an increased effect on people with disabilities. Throughout the crisis, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of people with disabilities whose homes were burned by the security forces, leaving them without accessible home environments, shelter, and assistive devices, and forcibly displacing them.
A 41-year-old man with a physical disability said he lost his wheelchair after soldiers burned his home in Kumbo, North-West region, on December 3, 2018: “My house was razed. I was lucky I could escape thanks to a friend who carried me. But I lost everything, including my wheelchair, and now I have no means to move myself around independently.”
During some attacks, people with mobility difficulties could not flee with their families. A 27-year-old woman, with paralysis in her left leg as a result of childhood polio, said she remained alone in her village, Esu, North-West region, in March 2018: “Following three days of clashes and non-stop gunfire, my parents fled and left me home alone. I sought refuge in a nearby house, but the neighbors left too. My family thought it was safer for me to remain and hide, instead [of] to carry me and run. But I felt really scared.”
People with disabilities who have managed to flee the violence struggled to get basic humanitarian assistance in the areas to which they are displaced. More than a quarter of Cameroonians who require humanitarian assistance live in the Anglophone regions, including over half a million people who remain internally displaced. The 2019 UN humanitarian response plan for Cameroon is only 21 percent funded.
The UN secretary-general said in this year’s report on the protection of civilians that the Security Council should ensure effective protection and assistance for people with disabilities. And on June 20, the Security Council adopted a resolution, calling on UN member states and parties to armed conflict to protect people with disabilities in conflict situations and to ensure they have access to justice, basic services, and unimpeded and inclusive humanitarian assistance.
Over 4 million people have been affected by the crisis in the Anglophone North-West and South-West regions, but there is limited data on the needs of people with disabilities. This data is essential to guide humanitarian efforts reflecting the realities of all civilians.
“The UN and its member states should deliver on their commitments to prevent violence against all civilians, including those with disabilities, and to ensure an inclusive and accessible humanitarian response,” Ćerimović said. “Meaningful consultation with, and participation of, people with disabilities is essential to understanding the risks and improving protection.”
Picture :Members of the Coordination Unit for people living with disabilities in the South West Region (source: Human Rights Watch, April 2019)
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