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Airport Casualties: Non-Admission and Return Risks at Times of Internalized/Externalized Border Controls

Maybritt Jill Alpes
Migration Law Section, Faculty of Law, Free University Amsterdam, 1081HV Amsterdam, Netherlands
Soc. Sci. 2015, 4(3), 742-757;
Submission received: 29 May 2015 / Revised: 16 July 2015 / Accepted: 20 July 2015 / Published: 17 September 2015
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Cross-Border Movements and Subjectivities in a Globalized World)


This article analyzes what can happen to forced returnees upon arrival in their country of nationality. Subjective configurations of state agents in the Global South have created return risks, which in turn transform subjectivities of post-colonial citizens. The article contributes to this Special Issue by tracing repercussions of the externalization and internalization of border controls. In the case of Cameroon, these connections have resulted in the criminalization of emigration. Aspiring migrants are prosecuted if their departure projects fail to respect the entry requirements of countries in the Global North. The article is based on research conducted in Douala, Cameroon, in the form of discussions with control agents at the international airport, investigations at a prison, a review of related case law, police registers and interviews with Cameroonians returnees (November 2013–January 2014). Border controls and connected anti-fraud programs suppress family-based forms of solidarity and allow only for subjectivities rooted in state-managed forms of national identity. The article illustrates how efforts to combat fraud fuel corruption in returnees’ social networks, whereby, instead of receiving remittances, families in emigration countries have to mobilize financial resources in order to liberate returnees from police stations or prison complexes. Migration related detention of nationals in the Global South highlights the growing significance of exit controls in migration management.

1. Introduction

Nation states’ sovereign rights to control the entry and presence of third-country nationals in their territory have resulted in various types of forced returns. Third-country nationals can return involuntarily to their countries of nationality if they become subject to removal orders or are not admitted by police officers upon arrival at a European border. Airport and border officials refer to these individuals as “inadmissibles”. Having a visa in one’s passport does not guarantee entry into the territory of a nation state as border officials have discretionary powers to refuse permission to enter. Travel projects can thus end abruptly if border control officers claim that travelers have either not fully complied with entry regulations or are using fraudulent travel documents.
Despite transformations in sovereignty [1], states remain crucial organizers of flows and blockages in and between territorial spaces [2]. The free flow of capital and commodities is much celebrated in an age of supposed globalization, whereas the free circulation of people is often seen as a problem [3]. While cross-border movements can be an important means for families to meet care needs and provide protection from social risks, border policies are increasingly restrictive for citizens of the Global South [4]. Migration research to date has focused primarily on migrants and their families in immigration countries, without giving much consideration to the role and impact of policies in emigration countries [5].
Border policies are transforming the social position of individuals, social networks and state agents in the Global South. By exploring these transformations, this article seeks to respond to the call by Guild and Bigo to discuss the externalization of border controls not only in terms of remote control, but also with regard to deeper questions concerning the relationship between security, borders and subjectivities [6]. These authors point to a fundamental tension between supposedly Western values and the inequality perpetuated through borders. In their words, “The violence that Western societies project, or the freedom ‘we’ want to spread by measures of policing are often two faces of the same coin, i.e., the incapacity to have a cosmopolitan identity assumed through the values of freedom, equality and justice while living in a world where inequality is just next door” [6].
A focus on development and the well-being of family networks integrates questions of inequality into an analysis of the effects of border controls. As Williams puts it, “Migration has stretched people’s care commitments across the globe” [7]. Consequently, cross-border movements challenges the national basis of eligibility for benefits and pensions. As an integral instrument of the modernity projects of states [8], migration is at odds with the strategies of cross-border care that migrants and their families put in place themselves. These tensions between different conceptions of security give rise to fraud in emigration trajectories.
This article takes forced returns as an entry point for studying identity formations and subjectivities in a borderland context. In Collyer’s words, “Deportation involves the transfer of individuals from a state where they do not enjoy the benefits of citizenship to the state where they do” [9]. Yet what does the enjoyment of citizenship actually amount to in some emigration countries? Individuals should not automatically be assumed to have more safety and rights in their country of nationality. This article examines, therefore, what happens in the short, but important interstice in which returnees are no longer in the hands of European state agents, but have not yet been granted full access to the territory of their nation state.
The rich body of literature on deportation [10] generally focuses more attention on processes before and during rather than on dynamics after deportation [9,11,12,13]. As a consequence, the role of state agents in returnees’ countries of nationality has so far received little attention. The focus of this article is on air borders1, with scholars being invited to look for resonances with processes in other emigration countries, where exits are increasingly securitized. Forced returns are seen here as comprising non-admissions, readmissions and return programs2, specifically in respect of cross-border movements from the Global South to the Global North.
After a methodological and theoretical exploration of borders and subjectivities, the article moves on firstly to examine the dynamics driving the production of (legal) norms in an emigration country. It does so by analyzing the international and domestic factors that led to the emergence of the Cameroonian offense of attempting to emigrate illegally. Secondly, a series of forced return cases is used as the basis for exploring the vulnerability of Cameroon returnees. While certain risk patterns of return types can be discerned, it is primarily social characteristics that determine power relations with police officers and actual exposure to monetary extraction, detention and imprisonment. Thirdly, the article draws on the narratives of two non-admitted travelers to highlight the financial opportunities flowing from the anti-fraud agenda for state agents in the Global South. This article expounds the view that the externalization of border policies in the Global North warrants an examination of how state actors in the Global South internalize legal norms, while it also illustrates how efforts to combat fraud fuel opportunities for corruption. Today’s border controls and the related anti-fraud programs suppress family-based forms of solidarity and allow for subjectivities rooted only in state-managed forms of national identity. As a result, and instead of receiving remittances, families and social networks in emigration countries are called on to mobilize financial resources in order to liberate returnees from police stations or prison complexes.

2. Researching Globalized Borders

Border controls have historically been crucial catalysts for the development of state managed forms of identification [15]. As McKeown has furthermore illustrated how border controls and identity documentation are the product and continuation of 150 years of globalization. Adopting an emigration perspective on the study of globalized borders reveals the increasing importance of different form of exit controls. This article is based on data gathered predominantly between November 2013 and April 2014. The dataset includes observations from interviews with border agents at Douala and Yaoundé international airports, investigations at New Bell prison in Douala, a review of related case law from the Criminal Tribunal of the First Instance in Bonapriso (Douala) and border police registers at Douala airport. These datasets were complemented by twenty-three examples of voluntary return programs and three longitudinal case studies of Cameroonians (2007–2015) who involuntarily returned to their country of nationality3.
The analysis of this article is based on the working assumption that the externalization of migration control and the criminalization of emigration are connected [16,17]. Ethnographic research material on street-level agents involved in exit and entry controls at Douala international airport warrants putting forward this assumption for further investigation4. At a micro level, everyday interactions between French and Cameroonian state agents, such police and liaison officers, can diffuse regulatory norms, which ultimately lead to unforeseen practices. While talking to me at the Douala and Yaoundé airports, for example, Cameroonian police officers often gave accounts of opportunities to travel to France for workshops and fraud-detection training.
At a macro-level, ethnographic access is more difficult and intersections between immi- and emigration countries can be traced by identifying indicators of transnational policy making, such as temporal correlations. Although more in-depth research on co-operation in this policy domain is necessary, a certain temporal correlation between European agreements and the enacting of legislation that criminalizes emigration in other countries of origin and transit can be identified. Algeria’s criminalizing laws on emigration, for example, were enacted in 2008 and 2009 following the signing and entry into force of the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement (2005) and bilateral readmission agreements with Malta (2001), France (2003), Spain (2004), Germany (2006), Switzerland (2007), the UK (2007) and Italy (2000 and 2009). A second example is Morocco’s 2003 emigration legislation, which followed the signing of the 2000 Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement and most of the bilateral agreements signed with EU member states, notably with France in 2001 and Spain in 2003. In a similar vein, Tunisia amended its legislation in December 2003 and March 2004, shortly after signing the December 2003 police collaboration agreement with Italy5.

3. Europe’s Southern Borders: Externalized and Internalized

Andersen asks how one can study bordered identities without taking for granted the prevalence of national identity over other identities [18]. Tracing connections between the externalization and internalization of border controls enables us to understand the construction of subjectivities. Border controls mean this context is characterized by strong inequalities, both within and between the Global North and South.
In the current age of globalization, states are increasingly seeking to collaborate, including in the field of border controls. The European Union and its members states, for example, have worked together since the 1990s in two directions: firstly by externalizing migration controls through the imposition of carrier sanctions and the deployment of international liaison officers and readmission agreements [19] and secondly by seeking to involve emigration states in border management, often indirectly by collaborating with the police, arranging workshops on fraud detection for police officers in emigration countries and establishing funds for civil registry reforms in emigration countries.
In the wake of these developments, border controls over the past few decades have shifted geographically (i.e., to places of departures) and now involve a new set of actors (i.e., companies). Through carrier sanctions, for example, Europe now holds airlines responsible for transporting people who do not comply with the legal requirements for entering Schengen, while airlines in turn often outsource the requisite document checks to private security companies in travelers’ countries of origin. This privatization of border policing [20] further reinforces the idea that identity controls are merely a technicality and have no political significance.
Legal scholars have analyzed the serious challenges that the externalization of migration control poses for the responsibility and accountability of the EU [21], with political scientists even suggesting that these policy developments are attractive precisely because they short-circuit judicial constraints [22]. This externalization and the new forms of collaboration mean that legal norms spread easily between different spheres [23]. Training programs for identifying fraud, for example, allow international liaison officers in emigration countries to become very familiar with the security company employees responsible for checking documents for carriers. These liaison officers are thus directly able to pass on the latest instructions that police officers at Schengen borders receive from their respective ministries.
The effects of the externalization of border policies extend beyond questions of individuals’ access to geographic mobility and through it to dynamics of human development. The way in which individuals in the Global South balance different aspects of human development depends on how much they have internalized European border discourses. By the “internalization of European border discourses” I mean the dominance of the nation state as the primary source of identification and social protection, as well—more broadly—as the dominance of connected normative positions, such as the primacy of national development over community development, and the positive obligation of states to collaborate with immigration states so as to prevent citizens’ illegality abroad. Different social groups in the Global South stand to gain or lose in different ways from the internalizing of border and fraud discourses. Individuals from linguistic minorities, for example, stand to obtain less social protection from their nation state than individuals from privileged families or social networks with access or connections to state authorities and ruling parties.

4. Criminalization of Emigration: The Case of Cameroon

Anti-fraud discourses reinforce both the hegemony of state narratives of national identity [2] and the idea that nation states are communities of value [18]. Consequently, border controls are legitimated in terms of the values they are supposed to defend, regardless of whose development and well-being these values promote. In the wake of policy initiatives that externalize migration control, emigration states in the Global South have begun to adopt a more security-driven approach to migration, which disregards care needs and social risks [24]. In line with Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, Cameroon has seen the criminalization of emigration, manifest in the emergence of case law on a so-called offense of “attempting to emigrate illegally”.
As a traditional sending state in sub-Saharan Africa, Cameroon has had long-standing migration flows and connections with France as a receiving state. However, while emigrants’ remittances are important to Cameroon, they do not play the same role in its domestic economy as, for instance, in Ghana or Mali. The political regime in place in Cameroon since 1982 has long regarded emigrants in the diaspora as potential sources of opposition to the country’s internal domestic order. The only lawyer I found willing to openly criticize the crack-down by Cameroonian state agents on deportees in the 1990s, as well as current police practices vis-à-vis non-admitted nationals, was a human rights lawyer who was also a key figure in the opposition to President Paul Biya.
Cameroonian attitudes towards migration also vary according to ethnic origins. Francophone Cameroonians, for example, are more likely to see illegal migration as tarnishing the country’s national image than their Anglophone counterparts [25]. It is consequently easier for international funders to find partners for migration information campaigns seeking to prevent departure projects in Francophone Cameroon than in Anglophone areas.
Cameroon does not have special agreements with the EU in the framework of the Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM) or the European Neighborhood Policy6. Cameroon’s main policy connections in the field of migration are bilateral in nature. Cameroon signed a bilateral agreement on migration and development with France in 2009, a readmission agreement with Switzerland in 2014 and a bilateral agreement on police cooperation with Spain in 2011, encompassing a clause on readmission.
The 2009, bilateral agreement between Cameroon and France has provided a framework for coordinated management of migration flows and co-development between both countries and notably covers four domains7. Firstly it includes a non-implemented clause on the circulation of people between France and Cameroon, while secondly it sets out procedures for readmitting people with an irregular status, including a requirement for migrants to be supported by the French state (dispositif d’aide au retour). Thirdly, the agreement covers police co-operation between France and Cameroon8, with the fourth and final part of the agreement comprising a varied series of measures under the heading of co-development. These measures range from voluntary return programs for skilled Cameroonians in France to a heavily subsidized reform of the civil registry9 and the provision of much smaller amounts for facilitating migrants’ remittances from France to Cameroon10.
A closer look at this bilateral agreement on migration and co-development reveals a bias towards facilitating return and combating fraud. This agreement, police trainings and bilateral forms of police collaboration form part of a broader move towards transnational policy efforts to combat fraud and irregular migration. The focus on fraud in France’s engagement with Cameroon has been influential in producing the offense of “attempting to emigrate illegally” in Cameroon. This offense—which is based on national law defining how nationals and foreigners are legally permitted to exit and enter the country, as well as a definition of fraud in the Cameroonian Criminal Code—derives from case law rather than legislation. In conversation with me, a state council (Procureur) hinted at having received instructions from the Ministry of Justice to crack down on fraud and illegal migration.
The criminalization of emigration becomes most visible when Cameroonian state agents receive returnees back into the national territory. The Cameroonian border police at Douala international airport maintain a registry of cases of forced returns, including deportations, failed overland migrations, return programs, non-admissions and boarding refusals11. In the two years between June 2011 and May 2013, France was consistently the country sending back the highest numbers of deportees and non-admitted travelers, while other important source countries for forced returns are Spain, Cyprus, Belgium, the UK and Germany. On average, the Cameroonian police registered 220 cases of forced returns a year during that period12. The Cameroonian government only accepts a maximum of four returnees per commercial flight. They categorically refuse chartered flights for forced returnees. This poses a challenge to Spanish authorities that have a great concentration of Cameroonians whom they would like to return from Ceuta and Melilla.
Most of the forced returns recorded by the Cameroonian border police were deportations or failed overland migrations, which subsequently led to organized returns. Almost every third person involuntary returnee had become subject to a decision of non-admission. The Cameroonian border police registered 153 cases of non-admission between June 2011 and May 2013. For the European Union, Eurostat recorded a total of 490 cases of non-admission and 755 cases of deportations for Cameroonians in 2012.
The reason that the number of non-admissions is relatively low is because carrier sanctions oblige airlines to conduct exit controls in the form of document checks before any passenger can board an aircraft heading for Europe. On the ground, employees of private security companies, such as SICASS, are responsible for checking the travel documents, reasons for travel and family ties of any individual wanting to leave Cameroon by air. Cameroonian nationals have little scope to challenge these decisions on the spot as they would then be liable to accusations of fraud or a boarding refusal on other grounds. Boarding refusals end up in police files only in exceptional circumstances.
At Douala and Yaoundé airport, the private security company SICASS is the key actor in charge of document checks for flights to France, Belgium, Morocco and Turkey. Its staff estimated that each month they allow three individuals to leave Cameroon and travel by plane to destinations where police authorities judge them “non-admissible” upon arrival. As private security companies are charged by airline companies to avoid cases of non-admission, the very act of leaving one’s country of nationality becomes ever more difficult.
The police at Douala airport self-reported 142 cases of police hearings, eight cases of prolonged detention and five cases of criminal prosecution between June 2011 and May 2013. Except for two cases of boarding refusals, all police hearings, detentions and criminal prosecutions involved non-admitted travelers. In the event of suspected identity theft, Cameroonian police officers ask family members of the relevant person to verify and establish the individual’s “real” identity.
If the Cameroonian border police decide that a forced return requires criminal prosecution, the person is handed over to the judiciary police, who then transfer him or her to New Bell prison to await judgment. The criminal court located closest to the airport and prison is the Tribunal Penal de Première Instance of Bonanjo. The court’s register lists at least 50 cases of criminal prosecutions for attempts to emigrate illegally in 2013. The vast majority of these involved men, while only six specified additional charges such as identity theft, vagrancy, fraud or lack of identification.
While Rumford stresses that border controls are no longer the prime derogative of nation states (2007), the above statistics suggest that this point requires qualification. Externalization and outsourcing transform, but do not necessarily reduce state power. Police officers, prison guards and judges in Cameroon enforce European borders through criminal charges and judicial procedures. A criminal offense of attempting to emigrate illegally thus feeds into the proliferation of borders [26] and creates new powers for state agents in emigration countries.

5. Forced Returns and Risks in Countries of Origin

A focus on the actions of states and migrants in the Global South allows us to consider the impact of northern border controls on people in seemingly remote places. In theory, Cameroonian border officers primarily target fraud. In practice, however, failed migrants become suspect citizens. Power relations between police officers and returnees are shaped by failed migrants’ linguistic competences, ethnic origins, educational background and general social standing. In the following, I review return risks for a series of forced returns, including failed departure projects, deportations and voluntary return programs.
If intercepted by the police, migrants attempting to leave Cameroon without travel documents will be prosecuted for attempting to emigrate illegally. Hamidou and Bouba were both tried for the same offense at the same time after both had tried to emigrate from Cameroon by stowing away on a boat transporting wood to China. During his time in prison I was able to interview Hamidou.
Hamidou comes from a family of 11 children. At the age of 19, he left his village in the north of Cameroon to join an older brother in Douala, who worked in transporting and trading goods at the Nigerian border. Hamidou was the only person in his family who had not been able to save up enough money to get married. Having suffered from tuberculosis for two years, he was heavily in debt and decided that trying to travel was the only way out of his situation. He knew the risk of being thrown overboard by the boat’s crew, but preferred taking this chance. Attempting to emigrate in this way was an alternative to his social death; i.e., a suicidal mission, but one at least giving him a chance of being able to improve his situation.
After two days on board, Hamidou and Bouba came out of their hiding places. Each had sought refuge on the boat separately and discovered the other’s presence only when they came out of hiding. The crew first threatened to throw both men over board, but then decided to alert the Cameroonian police, who came to get them because they were still in Cameroonian waters. After a police hearing on the mainland, Hamidou and Bouba were sent to New Bell prison on 3 January 2014. On 14 February 2014, they were both charged with having attempted to emigrate illegally and with vagrancy and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment.
Here, fraud was not at stake in the emigration trajectory as Hamidou and Bouba had simply attempted to leave the country without a valid passport, identity card or visa. As they did not reach another country, they were dependent solely on their country of nationality for social protection. The Cameroonian prison system, however, is seriously underfunded, with detention being characterized by international organizations as inhumane and degrading [27].
Unlike non-admitted travelers and failed emigrants, such as Hamidou and Bouba, deportees have successfully crossed international borders. Indeed, many deportees may have lived in another state for several years. However volatile and temporal, these connections change the subjectivities and can serve as a source of protection, albeit minimal. In the 1990s, for example, imprisonment of deportees was standard practice in Cameroon. A British asylum NGO commissioned a Cameroonian human rights lawyer to report on these practices. The report produced was subsequently used in support of potential deportees’ asylum claims. Since 2007, imprisonment practices have become rare; however, the human rights lawyer suggested that this was because the UK put pressure on the Cameroonian government to end imprisonment practices so that deportations to Cameroon would be able to continue unchallenged.
Although imprisonment is no longer systematic, deportees may nonetheless face detention, monetary extractions and threats of imprisonment. In principle, deporting states first contact the consulate of the country to which they want to deport a person. By issuing a laissez-passer, deportee-receiving states confirm the nationality of and guarantee safe passage for persons to be deported. As repressive practices by the Cameroonian state are still alive in public memory, many Cameroonian deportees prefer to call family members before being deported. These family members are then charged with locating contacts at the airport (preferably in the police) who, in return for some financial recompense, will guarantee safe passage and avoid preventive detention and the threat of imprisonment. Even if deportees have a laissez-passer, police officers may still ask them to “regularize their situation” by paying CFA Franc 150,000, plus a further 50,000 for the costs of detention (approximately €300 in total). When faced with the threat of New Bell prison, many deportees understandably prefer to pay.
Miranda’s case clearly illustrates the informality of power relations between deportees and Cameroonian state agents. Miranda is Anglophone and was deported from Belgium in 2010 after being intercepted in Germany and found not to have a valid visa in her passport. She arrived at Douala airport on Friday evening and was held in police custody until Monday morning before being able to speak to the commissioner. Miranda explained her situation as follows: “When they catch you there with a problem, no matter whether small or big, they will just frighten you to send you to prison. There are some people that when you arrive at the airport, they allow them to go. They do not trouble them. But sometimes if they catch you, then you have to spend some money before you go.”
Miranda herself spent three days and nights in preventive detention at Douala airport upon arrival back in Cameroon. During this time she was only allowed to wash herself and change her clothes once. She was able to eat only because her sister brought her some food13 after a female police officer had agreed to lend Miranda her private phone so that she could contact her sister. “She [the sister] was doing all the negotiations. Otherwise I believe they would have sent me to prison.”
The police accused Miranda of fraud, while her sister argued that Miranda’s visas were valid. The commissioner asked Miranda’s sister for the equivalent of €1000 for her release, which her sister was unable to raise. It was only thanks to intercession by an acquaintance, who used to be a police commissioner, that they were able to reach a settlement. In the end, Miranda’s sister paid the equivalent of €300, later followed by a further €150. Although this allowed Miranda to leave the airport, the officer retained her passport as Miranda refused to give him a bottle of whiskey, in addition to the money already paid, in return for her passport. For a long time it was difficult for Cameroonians to obtain a passport from their state, and although passports have now become more readily available, visas are still a rare resource. Miranda wanted her passport back because it contained the genuine visas with which she had been traveling before her trip to Germany and, at the cost of a further €10, she was eventually able to retrieve it a few weeks after her release.
Just like deportees, participants in “voluntary” return programs are also vulnerable to spontaneous requests by state agents. In twenty-three interviews with my research assistant, two such participants reported coming under pressure to pay police officers or being afraid of imprisonment upon arrival in Cameroon. Both were Anglophones in a predominantly Francophone country. Stefan gave CFA 400,000 (€600) to police officers on his return to Douala airport. When asked why, he explained that the airport police officers had accused him of damaging Cameroon’s image abroad. During his interactions with the police officers, he was threatened with detention by the judiciary police and ultimately a transfer to New Bell prison. Stefan had entered France on a valid tourist visa, which he had subsequently overstayed. During his detention in France, he requested to participate in a voluntary return program.
Social networks are important resources for returnees. When talking about his return to Cameroon, Bernard explained that he did not experience any problems with the police because he had a friend who was a commissioner in Douala. Before leaving Bologna, he had called this friend and requested his protection to avoid being sent to New Bell prison. Although Bernard was part of a voluntary return program, neither he nor the commissioner in Douala considered it safe for him to arrive at Douala airport without assistance. The commissioner therefore traveled to the airport and arranged for his friend’s release from the airport police station.
In a context where efforts to combat fraud are high on police officers’ agendas in both the Global North and South, the ever-present suspicions of fraud are transferred from migrants to post-colonial citizens. Regardless of whether they have committed fraud, forced returnees are regularly forced to pay money in order to avoid detention and imprisonment.

6. Non-Admission and the Combat against Fraud

Restrictive border controls undermine family-based forms of loyalty that may require cross-border movements, regardless of whether these movements are sanctioned by state authorities. At the same time, border controls and anti-fraud programs create opportunities for actors with stakes in or connections to forms of state power. Travelers can, for example, see their scope for negotiations with airport agents diminish if prior to a bribe request—and in line with pre-entry clearance regulations—they had to lay open their financial resources for their travel project. The following section draws on two cases of non-admission—Robert and Pamela—to analyze returnees’ vulnerabilities, as well as to highlight the profits that various agents can generate from combating fraud in migration trajectories. Both cases examined were vulnerable because of Cameroonian state agents internalizing the norms of border control officers in immigration states.
Robert’s attempt to enter Turkey on a passport other than his own was criminalized by Cameroonian state agents and he consequently spent almost two months in prison. His case is emblematic of a new type of post-colonial imprisonment created by border control policies [28] and which is visible only from the vantage point of emigration countries.
Robert had been working in Turkey without a residence permit for several years. I met him in prison in Douala, Cameroon, and followed his court proceedings for several months. Robert comes from the Anglophone part of Cameroon and studied at university for a year, but had to abandon his studies because of a lack of financial resources. After a period of unemployment in Cameroon, he worked on a construction site in Equatorial Guinea for over a year. With the money he was able to save there, he paid a broker to obtain documents that allowed him to travel to Turkey, where he worked packing clothes for almost two years until 2013, when his father and sister both passed away and he decided to return to Cameroon for their funerals.
As an undocumented migrant in Turkey, Robert knew that attending these family funerals exposed him to the risk of not being able to return to his new home and place of work. After his visit, he tried to return to Turkey by obtaining a visa for Dubai and purchasing a Turkish Airlines flight with a stopover in Istanbul. His passport and visa complied with all the requirements when he left Cameroon. During the stopover in Istanbul, however, he attempted to enter Turkey on the passport of a Cameroonian friend with a residence permit. The Turkish police noticed that it was not Robert’s own passport and so refused him entry. They then confiscated the friend’s passport and handed Robert over to Turkish Airlines’ head of transit, who dutifully returned him—at the airline’s expense—to his airport of departure, Douala.
Although Robert had attempted to enter Turkey on somebody else’s passport, his departure from Cameroon had been entirely legal. He had had his own passport, as well as a valid visa and travel ticket for Dubai. Nevertheless, when he left the airplane in Douala in the middle of the night, he was intercepted by the Cameroonian border police. The latter accused him, as Robert told me in a later interview, of “being Nigerian”. Although Robert speaks exceptionally good French for an Anglophone Cameroonian, he was vulnerable vis-à-vis the Francophone police officers for coming from a part of the country often associated with being more critical of the current political regime. Robert claimed that Anglophone police officers would not have treated him in the same manner.
Robert was detained at the airport police station until the next evening. After a police hearing, the border police transferred him to the judiciary police in Douala, where he was detained for a further three days. It was only then that he was finally able to contact his family. Samuel, an uncle of roughly the same age and whom Robert thus refers to as his “brother”, promised to plead his case with the judiciary police. Samuel was a trader who occasionally traveled to Dubai and China on business. Upon arriving in Douala, Samuel attempted to stop Robert’s case at the level of the judiciary police. Despite Samuel’s intervention, however, Robert was transferred to New Bell prison.
The Cameroonian penitentiary system does not separate convicted criminals from detainees being held in preventive custody; as a result, inmates can easily be subjected to rape, murder or other acts of violence [29]. From one day to the next, therefore, Robert found himself in a situation of extreme violence and hardship. The prison food, for example, caused digestive problems, both for him and other detainees, and it was only thanks to Samuel’s financial support that he was able to buy food from market women that did not cause him health issues. Another problem was that detainees at New Bell are not automatically given beds and cells to sleep in. Once again, Robert was able to rely on Samuel’s money to buy access rights to a cell from some of the prison guards. A few days later, however, the guards transferred new inmates to his cell. Robert then decided to give up the cell, to buy a mattress and to sleep in the open with everyone else. In prison, Robert also needed money from Samuel to be able to pay for access rights to the toilet and bathroom, as well as the “new man tax”—a fee levied by “prison chiefs” (senior inmates who collaborate with prison guards) to install discipline and order among prison inmates.
Robert was detained in New Bell prison in Douala from early January 2014, but did not appear in court until January 24. Although he tried to explain his case to the judge, he was quickly told to shut up. The judge was only interested in hearing whether he pleaded guilty or not guilty to the offenses of identity theft and attempting to emigrate illegally. There was no room for discussion. Robert, like most other prison inmates, did not have a lawyer.
It took Samuel several weeks and a total of €400 (the equivalent of a good monthly salary and twice the salary of a junior university lecturer) to obtain the favors of the State Council and the judge in question. When I raised the possibility of legal defense by a lawyer, Samuel pointed out the vulnerability of his nephew and the extreme powers of the Cameroonian state system: “Francophones are very funny. If you start to work with rights, saying that you know your human rights, they can even abandon your case. You will stay here forever. So it’s better to just work according to their command.”
After one month of detention, the court finally announced Robert’s sentence of exactly one month’s imprisonment. It then took several more weeks of negotiations on the part of Samuel to get Robert released from prison. Studying actual travel trajectories makes it very clear that personal negotiation skills are key. Some Cameroonians report that acquaintances have had to pay CFA 1,500,000 at the airport in order to avoid a court case, while other interviewees, such as Pamela, never had to face criminal prosecution.
At the age of 31, Pamela had a law degree, but no paid employment. She had tried several times—both with and without a broker—to emigrate, but each time had failed for a different reason. Her parents were close to retirement and needed an older member of their family to generate income so that the younger children could go to school. In 2008, they therefore paid a migration broker from their home village to organize another travel and migration attempt for Pamela. Although Pamela planned to live and work in Scandinavia, the broker provided Pamela and her travel companion with visas for Ukraine. With an Italian residence permit, they were supposed to cross into Schengen and then move freely across Europe to their desired destination.
At Douala airport, and so before they had left Cameroon, Pamela and her companion were asked to stand aside. They were told that the police had doubts about their travel documents; they therefore needed to “motivate” the officer to guarantee their passage to the plane. Pamela could not reduce the sum demanded below €300 because the police officers knew that she had €900 as they had just asked her to prove whether she had sufficient means of subsistence for her travel. In this way, legal entry requirements reduced Pamela’s scope for negotiating with the Cameroonian police.
Upon arrival at Kiev airport, Pamela and her companion were not admitted to Ukraine. As well as the telephone number of their supposed business partner not being reachable, they did not have the full address of the company with which they were supposedly going to do business in Ukraine. Their visas, which were only valid for another week, were cancelled at the airport.
As they had arrived in Kiev with Aeroflot, this airline took them back via Moscow to Dubai, where they waited for four days. As Pamela and her companion had originally arrived in Dubai with Kenyan Airways, Aeroflot was no longer responsible for returning them to Cameroon. In the end, the migration broker in Cameroon sent money for a Kenyan Airways flight via Nairobi to Douala, Cameroon.
As Dubai immigration officers had the travel documents of Pamela and her companion, they escorted them onto the Kenyan Airways plane. Upon arrival in Nairobi, Pamela and her companion were told to remain seated in the plane until Kenyan immigration officers escorted them to their flight to Douala. Pamela was concerned about how she would be treated by the Cameroonian police upon arrival at Douala. She told me that as she now knew herself to be in Africa, she took her chance and managed to persuade the Kenyan police officer to release her travel documents (including the Italian residence permit) in exchange for €50. As soon as Pamela had the opportunity to go the toilet, she destroyed the Italian residence permit she had just repurchased, keeping only her Cameroonian passport containing the cancelled Ukrainian visa. “Otherwise, I’d still be in New Bell.”
Authorities of deporting states entrust deportees’ travel documents to staff of the airline transporting the returnees. The airline staff in turn hand the travel documents over to the police authorities upon arrival at the airport in the relevant country of origin or nationality. Cameroonian police officers in charge of legal enquiries systematically conduct interviews with nationals who have been subject to non-admission and deportation. During these hearings, officers seek to verify various things, including whether returnees are indeed Cameroonian nationals. Officers also use these hearings to collect information that could be useful to them in their pursuit of intermediaries selling visas or other travel documents. These interviews provide a platform for spontaneous requests by police officers, which the latter feel justified in formulating, given their mandate to combat fraud and illegal emigration.
Upon arrival at Douala airport, Pamela paid another €20 to the Cameroonian police officers, who then waved her through. She was not detained or imprisoned. She spent a total of €370 on Cameroonian and Kenyan police officers to secure safe passage.
Anti-fraud programs create vulnerabilities for failed migrants, while also fueling corruption in migrants’ countries of origin. While programs against fraud can further fuel corruption [30], family interventions also create new dependencies for failed migrants. Nevertheless, forced returnees without social networks to mobilize contacts and money are particularly vulnerable to detention and imprisonment upon return.

7. Conclusions: Border Controls and Post-Colonial Subjects

Based on a review of case law, observations of imprisonment practices and narratives of returnees’ experiences in Cameroon, this article has sought to identify characteristics of contemporary border policing and its social repercussions for forced returnees. Sovereign control over nation states’ borders has seen important transformations in the course of its externalization and privatization, with both processes diffusing legal norms to new actors and places. Today much migration control occurs through exit controls. This article explored how the externalization of border policing is also connected to the internalization of legal norms that were originally developed by the Global North as a means of controlling its own borders.
In line with French policy priorities expressed in the bilateral agreement on migration and co-development, the Cameroonian police and judiciary system have come to see the combat against fraud a an essential element for Cameroon’s development. By thus foregrounding the importance of passports and civil registry certificates, development becomes rooted in the security of the nation state-rather than in the needs of communities and families. In the Cameroonian case, the fraud agenda of police officers and magistrates has led to the creation of case law that establishes an offense of “attempting to emigrate illegally”. This offense causes failed migrants and travelers to be penalized twice: firstly by their involuntary return and secondly by the instigation of criminal proceedings against them.
The empirical core of this article underlines the risks faced by returnees arriving back in their country of nationality. Their narratives reveal tensions between emerging legal norms and the subjectivities of aspiring migrants in the Global South. Both the absence of meaningful avenues for legal migration and the prosecution of fraud interferes on a normative level with family obligations and care needs. Individuals returning involuntarily to Cameroon risk monetary extortion, detention, criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Support from their social networks is then crucial if they are to negotiate safe passage and protection from police officers upon their return. Returnees also depend on their family networks to avoid and alleviate degrading and inhumane imprisonment conditions by negotiating and lobbying with state councils and judges on the outcome of court sentences. In this way, efforts to combat fraud fuel corruption, while also placing additional strain on families in emigration countries and creating new dependencies and vulnerabilities.
While contemporary border policing keeps many aspiring migrants put in their countries of nationality, supposedly sovereign nation states in the Global South generally fall short in terms of being able to provide meaningful avenues for social protection, employment and care. Nonetheless, efforts to combat fraud portray the nation state as the unique source of development. This conception of development has definite paybacks for elite families with a vested interest in the state in emigration countries. The active stance adopted by Cameroonian state agents in combating fraud creates both financial and social opportunities in Cameroon. Police officers, for example, can aspire to travel to France for training and seminars, while judges and state councils have the chance to earn additional income to support their own families. The externalization and internalization of border controls has created new subjectivities for state agents in the Global South.
The externalization and internalization of border controls, including stringent entry controls, have also produced a new category of failed migrants, namely “inadmissibles”, travelers who manage to leave their own country, but who never gain entry to the territory of another nation state. As failed migrants, non-admitted people do not reach European soil and so remain largely invisible to researchers, who are often still mostly located in immigration contexts. Forced to return immediately to their countries of departure or nationality, “inadmissibles” never fully become immigrants. In the eyes of state agents in the Global South, however, they give cause for suspicion by being seen as potentially fraudulent emigrants. As such, they can become subject to oppressive measures such as detention and imprisonment. In this way, border controls serve to destabilize the already volatile status of citizens in the Global South.
The criminalization of emigration in Cameroon is an example of how contemporary border policies outsource the implementation of entry requirements to places of departure. Valuable work has been done on detention centers as post-colonial prisons [28]. Yet, border policies do not only lead to foreigners being imprisoned in immigration countries. Failed migrants can also be imprisoned as citizens upon return in their own country of nationality. Although imprisonment of these non-admitted travelers is not easily visible to citizens in the Global North, “inadmissibles” are post-colonial subjects whose vulnerability is immediately conditioned by border policies in that Global North.


This article project comes out of the “Migration Law as Family Matter” research programme, which was generously funded by the NWO. The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers, François Crépeau, Betty de Hart, Anja Eleveld, Ninna Nyberg Sorensen, Anna Shea, Thomas Spijkerboer, Franca van Hooren and Sarah van Walsum for comments, input and encouragement.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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  • 1While fatalities are highest at sea borders, the numbers of entries and exits into and from the Schengen area are five to six times higher at land and air borders.
  • 2The question of voluntariness in return programs is complex [9,14]. With regard to voluntary return programs, this article focuses primarily on participants who, for a variety of reasons, did not have a residence permit prior to signing up for a return program.
  • 3Interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.
  • 4See forthcoming publications by the author.
  • 5I wish to thank and acknowledge the work of Charlotte Blondel, Marie Conciatori, Nausicaa Preiss, Meritxell Sayos Monras, Suzanne Seiller and Janine Uhlmannsiek, who contributed to the “Airport Casualties: Migration Control, Human Rights and Countries of Origin” project at Sciences Po Paris.
  • 6Cameroon participated in two workshops that FRONTEX organized in the framework of its Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community in 2014.
  • 7Accord France Cameroun relatif à la gestion concertée des flux migratoires et au développement solidaire.
  • 8Between 2009 and 2010, the French state provided €50,000 for police co-operation under the Franco-Cameroonian agreement.
  • 9The agreement provides for a budget of €1,500,000 for reforming the civil registry.
  • 10These dispositions relate to special saving accounts for migrants who want to invest in Cameroon and the setting-up of a website comparing the transaction costs of various money transfer facilities.
  • 11During my research at the police station at Douala international airport, the commissioner instructed officers to compile a digital dataset for the research project, based on the existing registers.
  • 12Owing to a lack of close supervision and training, actual numbers are very likely to be higher. I was unable, for example, to trace in the register the case of a non-admitted traveler whom I had met in prison and who had previously passed through Douala airport.
  • 13The Cameroonian police do not have a budget for communications or for looking after people in preventive detention.

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Alpes, M.J. Airport Casualties: Non-Admission and Return Risks at Times of Internalized/Externalized Border Controls. Soc. Sci. 2015, 4, 742-757.

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Alpes MJ. Airport Casualties: Non-Admission and Return Risks at Times of Internalized/Externalized Border Controls. Social Sciences. 2015; 4(3):742-757.

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Alpes, Maybritt Jill. 2015. "Airport Casualties: Non-Admission and Return Risks at Times of Internalized/Externalized Border Controls" Social Sciences 4, no. 3: 742-757.

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