ICE detainee misses last-minute shot at Canadian interview

·3 min read

An asylum seeker from Cameroon remains detained in the US after a Hail-Mary attempt to get him to Canada, where he could be given refugee status.

The 29-year-old was on a plane ready to be deported back to Cameroon when he was removed and told he had an asylum interview in Canada.

But US immigration officials would not release him in time for his Friday morning interview at the border.

Now, his fate remains uncertain.

"Kenneth", which is a pseudonym to protect the identity of his family back home, had been involved in a peaceful demonstration to protest against the marginalisation of Anglophones in Cameroon, Megan Walker, one of his Canadian supporters, told the BBC.

He was subsequently arrested and tortured, she says. Fearing for his life, he attempted to claim refugee status in the US, in San Diego, in 2018.

Cameroon is in the midst of a bitter civil war between the Francophone majority and Anglophone minority separatists. Kenneth says he was not a separatist, but merely protesting for more rights for English-speakers like himself.

According to UN estimates, more than 700,000 Cameroonians from the country's two predominantly Anglophone regions have been displaced.

After being taken into custody by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), he passed an initial hearing, which found credible evidence that his life was in danger if he were to return to Cameroon.

But a judge later rejected his refugee claim and he was scheduled for deportation on 13 October.

His case has caught the attention of concerned citizens and politicians on both sides of the border.

Supporter Ms Walker learned about Kenneth's plight on 12 October, and reached out to her local member of parliament, Peter Fragiskatos, who helped secure him an asylum hearing with Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) in the 11th hour.

Kenneth was already on board the ICE "death plane" - so nicknamed because its passengers are heading back to their home countries - when officials boarded the plane and took him back to the Texas detention centre.

Mr Fragiskatos believed that ICE would release him in time for his interview on the morning of 30 October.

"There was a strong assumption, on my end, that when Kenneth was taken off the plane he was going to be allowed to attend the CBSA hearing," Mr Fragiskatos told the BBC.

But ICE did not release him in time for his interview.

"It's a very difficult story for us to hear - we are so close to having him come to live in Canada," Ms Walker said.

"He has the appointment, this gift, this carrot dangled in front of him, and he's not allowed to access it."

A local man walks thru a burnt-out restaurant on May 11, 2019 that was destroyed in fighting between armed Anglophone separatists and Cameroonian military forces in Buea,Cameroon
Many Cameroonians have lost their properties and livelihoods because of the conflict

The interview with CBSA is a very rare opportunity. Typically, asylum seekers who do not appear before the court are not given a second chance.

Canada and the US have signed The Safe Third Country Agreement, which means that if a refugee is rejected in one country they cannot claim asylum in another.

The agreement does make exceptions if the refugee faces the death penalty back home.

A Canadian court declared the agreement unconstitutional in July, and the Canadian government has appealed the decision.

Now, Kenneth's fate is unclear. CBSA would not comment on the case directly, but said if he can make it to the border, at any time, his claim could be processed.

ICE officials said the US is "coordinating with the Canadian government on this matter" and they could not comment.

Mr Fragiskatos said there is little the Canadian government can do, because Kenneth's case is entirely under US jurisdiction right now.

Kenneth's supporters say they have not given up hope, and are doing everything they can to keep him from being deported again.

"I have heard in his voice both the sadness of what he has been and continues to go through, as well as the hope that the invitation to come to Canada and be accepted as the refugee that he is will be realised as soon as possible," Ms Walker says.