Congolese people who had sought sanctuary in the United Kingdom and had their applications for protection refused found friendship and acceptance within the communities of Middlesbrough and Stockton in the north east of England. As they settled into the communities it became clear that these were men and women of integrity, who, whilst awaiting the outcome of their asylum claims, were making valuable contributions to our schools, churches and voluntary groups. When a Congolese man, who had been accepted on to a Skilled Workers’ Programme which would enable him to migrate to Canada, was removed with his young family back to The Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007, many residents in the Tees Valley were appalled.
Tees Valley residents did not sit back and think they could do nothing to help. They campaigned relentlessly for the family and for others threatened with removal and they maintained contact with those removed. The ten individuals who were returned to DRC between 2006 and 2009 had all been clients of the charity Justice First. They trusted the integrity of those associated with Justice First sufficiently to confide details of their post-return experience and these are recorded in a new report, 'Unsafe Return', from Justice First.
A pattern of imprisonment and ill treatment emerged which was corroborated by similar reports from other UK civil society groups that had maintained contact with clients. The post return experience of only fifteen out of seventeen adults is documented, as two returnees are missing. A visit was made to DRC in 2011 by the report author in order to verify the current situation of the returnees still living there. At least six returnees 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. They wanted the truth of their situation to be made known so that others might be protected.
A Congolese Immigration official interviewed in 2011 explained that, when UK Immigration passed on the names of those to be removed, the files in the possession of the Immigration authorities were studied to see if the returnee had a ‘problem’ with the state, such as breach of state security. If he or she had, the secret services would be alerted.
Men and women allege they were arrested and interrogated about their activities in the UK. They were told they had to be punished because they were from the UK, home to the spearhead of Congolese resistance to the regime of President Kabila. Three returnees were tortured to make them confess to their involvement in an attack on one of President Kabila’s ministers in London in 2006 and to name others involved. 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 the DRC.
The methods used to extract information 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.It's was an awful experience: very bad condition of life because have to pee and to eat, to sleep at the same room and on the floor. No food was been given and sometimes we were forced to drink our own human urine and were beating [sic].” (Male returnee)
A Congolese Immigration officer stated that female returnees were at risk of being raped by ‘uneducated’ officers and that detainees are killed in prisons like Tolérance Zero. Those who took the first phone call from a woman who had just been extracted from prison after payment of a ransom felt overwhelmed. Her words poured out like a river in full flood as she recounted the repeated rape and torture. Yet, at the same time, she begged that others should not be sent back to a place where people were being killed like animals.
Subsequently, she wrote about her ordeal:“They took me into the cachot [dug out cell] of the security services: Tolerance Zero 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.”
Returnees have alleged, repeatedly, that the Congolese authorities had documents relating to their asylum files. This has been denied vigorously by the Home Office. In 2011 the 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. Returnees are removed on travel documents which appear to carry their name and address plus a description and photo. In 2009 a Congolese NGO had advised that those removed back to DRC should not give their address at the airport, as they might put themselves ‘involuntary’ [sic] at risk. It was confirmed by an Immigration officer in 2011 that, if a person is allowed to leave the airport, they are at risk of arrest at home. In 2009 and 2011 two returnees were forced to sign a document to say they had left the airport unconditionally but they were then arrested. Returnees spoke of having armed men in uniform arriving at their family home harassing their relatives, even when a ransom had already been paid to ‘extract’ the detainee from prison.
Six children out of the nine removed with their mother or parents were imprisoned in the DRC. 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.
‘Unsafe Return’ begins with a quotation; "All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as being self-evident" - Arthur Schopenhauer.
Over the last decade the truth about the ill treatment of refused asylum seekers removed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been mocked and violently opposed by the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Surely, the suffering of the courageous Congolese who have spoken out deserves a response other than the usual mantra rolled out to Members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, journalists and citizens, that UKBA only return those for whom it is safe to do so.
Western democracies value so highly the mineral wealth of the Congo so necessary for our MRI scans, flat screen televisions, and mobile phones. Why are the lives of Congolese citizens so expendable? Why does the UKBA continue to apply an untested hypothesis that it is safe to return refused asylum seekers to Kinshasa when men and women are being flown back to torture including rape? And why, when politicians speak so eloquently about not detaining children in the United Kingdom, are Congolese children being put at risk, not only of imprisonment but, like their elders, of dying in prison?
The UK government should heed the searing memorandum on UK practice by the Council of Europe human rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg in 2008, which included these words: “The Commissioner strongly opposes the UK practice of aliens’ forced returns on the basis of diplomatic assurances which are inherently flawed since they are usually sought from countries with long-standing, proven records of torture and ill-treatment.”
Those men and women who suffered inhuman and degrading treatment following return to the DRC believe they were sacrificed as part of a cleansing mechanism. They hope their testimony will serve to inform politicians and decision makers so that others will be saved from the same fate.
For their sake let us hope that this truth is soon to pass through its third stage.