A new report has followed the fate of refugees returned to the Congo from the UK.
The unique work by a small agency in the Northeast of England found that most had suffered a pattern of imprisonment and ill treatment in the Congo and some had fled again to other countries. Some had simply disappeared.
All had been removed from the UK on the basis that it was safe to do so. Removing refugees in the knowledge that they will not be safe is known as ‘refoulement‘ and against the Refugee Convention.
The report Unsafe Return was compiled by the group Justice First and followed 17 people who had begun to make new lives in the UK in the community of Teeside, where the group is based. All of their claims for asylum were rejected and they, including their children, were forcibly returned to the war-torn, repressive country.
Local friends had tried to maintain contact and it was from this friendship that a report was born. There has been very little work world-wide on documenting the fate of such people and the report’s findings are extremely disturbing.
The report author, Catherine Ramos, went to the Congo to verify the current situation of the returnees still living there. At least six had fled the country and others were found to be still living in hiding, fearful of re-arrest and unable to live with their families because of threats. One person was living under an assumed identity. Two had disappeared.
A Congolese Immigration official interviewed for the report explained that UK authorities had passed on the names of those to be removed, so their files were studied to see if the returnee had a ‘problem’ with the state. That the Congolese authorities had documents relating to asylum files is denied vigorously by the UK. But documents relating to one returnee’s asylum case were filmed during an interview with him. They had been handed over by a Congolese Immigration official just before he was transferred from the airport to prison.
The refused asylum seekers were considered to be traitors who had not only betrayed their country but also their president by talking about the human rights violations they had suffered before they had fled.
This is the case in numerous other countries, such as Zimbabwe and Iran – those fleeing are considered ‘traitors’.
The methods used to extract information of those arrested amounted to torture: severe beating, electrocution, rape and sexual abuse. Returnees were held without access to a lawyer or to visitors in prisons where conditions are recognised as breaching human rights conventions.
One woman wrote of her ordeal:
“They took me into the cachot [dug out cell] of the security services: Tolerance Zero [prison] on Avenue 24th November where I stayed for three months. I didn’t know where they had taken my children. I shouted out asking where they had taken my children. One of them hit me across the mouth telling me to be quiet. He waved his gun at my head threatening me with death. I was living in difficult horrible conditions. I was raped and slept on the floor on a piece of cardboard. I was their object with which they could do what they liked. I was tortured.”
Six children out of the nine removed with their mothers or parents were imprisoned. Three siblings became dehydrated within days and the youngest lost consciousness. The family name of this low level activist, as defined by the UK Border Agency, was sufficiently known for guards to transfer the children to hospital. They recovered physically but the two older children were found to be suffering from post traumatic shock. Three other children were held separately whilst their mothers were ill-treated.
The UK mechanically says that it does not remove asylum seekers to danger. This report shows otherwise but there is a need for much more reporting to prove beyond any doubt that they are breaching the Refugee Convention and to demonstrate what those who would reject most if not all refugees are in fact supporting.
Picture by Julien Harneis