For almost a decade, concerns have been raised about the post-return experience of asylum seekers who have been refused sanctuary in the UK and removed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The inhuman and degrading treatment of these Congolese is described in a new report, Unsafe Return. Yet the British embassy has been unable to find any evidence of ill treatment amounting to torture.
Although aware of the concerns, human rights groups in the UK struggle to investigate the issue, owing to lack of time and resources. Where the DRC is concerned, much of the focus on Congo is directed on the east of the country, allowing the human rights violations and the rape of refused asylum seekers removed to the west of the country to go unnoticed, even when this appalling abuse has been reported by their friends and contacts in the UK.
Congolese clients of our charity, Justice First, removed back to the DRC between 2006 and 2011, have been reporting their imprisonment and ill treatment there, and the post-return experience has begun to be monitored. It shows that the UK Border Agency hypothesis that men, women and children could be safely removed to DRC was found not to be based on sound evidence. The Unsafe Return report records that 100% of Justice First clients, and six clients from other UK civil society groups carrying out post-return monitoring had been imprisoned in the secret services prisons of Kin Mazière and „Tolerance Zero“ and, in some cases, had simply disappeared.
Two men who had returned voluntarily to Congo had been imprisoned or threatened. A third voluntary returnee removed with her child is untraceable. The International Organisation for Migration had failed to monitor her after her failure to return to their office in Kinshasa yet had informed the author of the report that the young woman had safely picked up her reintegration package. It was only after persistent calls, and the help of Refugee Action, that it could be confirmed that the young woman had not received the package and was not traceable. Of the nine children removed with their parents to DRC, six had been imprisoned. Three siblings jailed with their mother had to be transferred urgently to hospital on the fourth day of their captivity due to severe dehydration.
I travelled to DRC late last year to assess the safety of returnees who had not again fled the country. All feared re-arrest, as they had not been freed from prison but had been extracted from jail following payment of a ransom. One used a disguise to attend a meeting with me, another was met at night in a neutral place. A Congolese immigration official confirmed that when the service receives the names from UKBA of those to be removed, they check the returnee’s file in order to see if there has been a problem with the Congolese government. If there has, the secret services will be informed and the person will be transferred to prison from the airport. There will be no excuse for the returnee and there will be no pity shown.
People can be killed in these prisons, where, according to international human rights groups, inmates are routinely tortured. Following the November elections in DRC, Congolese human rights activists consider that refused asylum seekers will be at even greater risk of torture.
Unsafe Return begins with the words of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: „All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as self evident.“ After a decade rejecting what has been described in the House of Lords and in early day motions as „compelling“ evidence from Congo, we hope that the UK will now observe in practice its responsibility under human rights and international law not to return people back to torture.
In April last year the Archbishop of York wrote: „More notice needs to be taken, I believe, of increasingly unpalatable evidence from countries like Congo and Cameroon that some returnees from the UK, including those with young children, are subjected to imprisonment, torture, abuse and starvation. By the time we learn of their appalling fate, it is too late to say, ‚we got it wrong‘.“
An e-petition has been set up as a result of the Unsafe Return report, and it requires 100,000 signatures for the issue to be considered for debate in parliament. If you believe that the right not to be tortured is absolute, please consider contacting your MP, MEP and the home affairs select committee.
• This article was commissioned after a suggestion from RichJames
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