A new report from Human Rights Watch documents the fate of dozens of Cameroonian asylum seekers deported to their country between 2019 and 2021. According to HRW, people deported to Cameroon "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." In addition, many also "reported experiencing excessive force, medical neglect, and other mistreatment in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in the U.S." Sadly, none of this is particularly surprising.

The portions of the report that I want to discuss here relate to asylum seeker confidentiality (or the lack thereof) and to the persecution of returnees because they sought asylum in the United States.

First, let's talk about confidentiality. The law is quite clear on this point: Asylum applications are confidential. With very limited exceptions, information about an asylum case may not be shared outside the U.S. government. The reasons for this are obvious, since disclosure of such information--including the fact that the applicant filed for asylum--could "subject the claimant to retaliatory measures by government authorities or nonstate actors in the event that the claimant is repatriated, or endanger the security of the claimant's family members who may still be residing in the country of origin."

For the most part, confidentiality is respected. But I have seen instances where the U.S. government inadvertently or negligently revealed information about the asylum claim to the home government. In the cases I've seen, this usually took place in the context of an overseas investigation, where U.S. embassy personnel revealed too much about the asylum applicant. In such cases, we can use the breach of confidentiality as an additional basis to claim asylum. I've also seen a couple examples where the U.S. embassy denied a visa application and explicitly informed the applicant that the visa was being denied because a relative in the United States filed for asylum (and the embassy was concerned that the applicant would also seek asylum). In addition, I know of one example where an ICE agent deliberately "outed" an asylum applicant, in that case, President Obama's aunt, probably for political purposes.

The HRW report details a number of instances where "Cameroonian authorities searched [deportees'] bags for incriminating documents, and in some cases discovered sensitive and confidential documents relating to their US asylum applications." "Eight people alleged that their documents fell into the hands of Cameroonian officials because US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials failed to protect or respect the confidentiality of their asylum documents." "Five of these eight people said that ICE or other officials had, prior to departure, either packed their bags for them or refused to allow them – despite pleas – to remove documents from their bags."

If this is all true--and it seems unlikely that eight independent witnesses would lie--ICE has pretty clearly violated 8 C.F.R. § 208.6, which provides--

Information contained in or pertaining to any application for refugee admission, asylum, withholding of removal under section 241(b)(3) of the Act, or protection under regulations issued pursuant to the Convention Against Torture's implementing legislation... shall not be disclosed without the written consent of the applicant, except as permitted by this section or at the discretion of the Secretary [none of these exceptions would even remotely apply here].

It was entirely foreseeable that the Cameroonian authorities would search the deportees' luggage, and so placing--or refusing to remove--sensitive documents in the luggage essentially guaranteed that their asylum applications would be discovered.

And these actions have serious consequences. I suppose it is not surprising that a government which commits severe human rights abuses would be angry when its citizens complain about those abuses. According to the HRW report, the government of Cameroon retaliated against a number of the deportees for "spread[ing] false news likely to harm public authorities or national cohesion" and for saying "a lot of bad things about the [Cameroonian] government."

Deportees were also subject to false charges of being "traitors," "supporting the rebels," and supporting "separation of the country." Others were threatened with charges under Cameroon's (overly broad) anti-terrorism law.

As a result of these various charges, deportees reported facing prison, abuse, and rape. Other deportees have disappeared and are presumably detained (or worse). Still others avoided detention by paying bribes to officials.

In short, the HRW report provides strong evidence that U.S. authorities--specifically ICE--failed to protect the denied asylum seekers' confidentiality, and that this resulted in persecution by the Cameroonian government.

As a remedy for this situation, HRW recommends that the U.S. government "Immediately offer all Cameroonian asylum seekers deported in 2020 and 2021 humanitarian parole to the United States, in order to enable de novo examination of their asylum claims, not only because of wrongful denial of their initial asylum claims, but also because they now have established sur place claims [new claims based on the improper disclosures to the Cameroonian government]." The report also recommends that DOJ, DHS, and Congress investigate the alleged abuses by ICE.

I certainly hope that the U.S. government will take the HRW report seriously and carefully investigate the allegations. Asylum seekers whose confidentiality was violated and who suffered persecution as a result, should be permitted to return to the United States. Also, I would hope that our government makes clear to the government of Cameroon that detaining and abusing people deported from the U.S. is not acceptable. Finally, at a minimum, ICE agents involved in removals should be trained in the appropriate procedures, and if they violate those procedures, they should face discipline.

Our government should also investigate whether these violations are limited to Cameroonian asylum seekers or (as I suspect) are more widespread. ICE operations rarely receive scrutiny. Nor do we have much data about what happens to failed asylum seekers after they are returned home. By shedding light on our country's failure to protect confidentiality, the HRW report is an excellent starting point for improving our asylum system--both for those applicants who are approved for protection, and for those who are ultimately deported.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.