Deportees fight against their stigmatization and the asylum policy of the EU

The Network of Ex-Asylum Seekers Sierra Leone (NEAS-SL)

The Network of Ex-Asylum Seekers Sierra Leone (NEAS-SL) is a self-help group of Sierra Leoneans who got deported from Germany. medico supports the important activities of the NEAS-SL in 2012 with 6000 Euro.

Documentation

NEAS-SL Breaks Taboo on deportation discourse in Sierra Leone

As a way of defying such taboo and address the issue of stigmatization of deportees, the Network of Ex-asylum Seekers Sierra Leone (NEAS-SL) held a one-day symposium at Santanno House, Howe Street, on Wednesday 13 June 2012.

In attendance were stakeholders drawn from a broad spectrum of the Sierra Leonean society including Civil Society and Human Rights activists, religious leaders, media practitioners, among others.

Conspicuously absent were government officials from the Immigration Department, Ministry of Social Welfare Gender and Children’s Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Even though they received their respective invitations well ahead of time they advanced no reasons for failing to turn up at the unprecedented event. This caused serious outrage among participants, especially ex-asylum seekers, who accused government of being insensitive to their plights.

As the program progressed, speaker after speaker vent their frustration over government’s apparent lackluster attitude with regards the well-being of young people, underscoring that they are only considered relevant when elections are around the corner.

Chaired by the Chairperson of the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission, Jamesina King, the program sought to raise public awareness on asylum seeking and deportation as well as the predicaments faced by deportees after being forcefully brought back home in a manner that erodes their human dignity.

Commissioner King admonished the deportees to view their predicaments as challenges and strive to surmount them so as to be guaranteed a brighter future in spite of the nightmarish ordeal they have gone through.

She commended NEAS-SL for its fight towards addressing the plight of deportees in the country and expressed dismay over the discrimination and stigmatization they often suffer at home.

She said it was high time the government started taking the issue seriously and urged the organization to continue the fight, assuring that authorities concerned will eventually receive the message and act on it.

The Head of Campaign, Amnesty International Sierra Leone, Solomon Sogbandi, on his part urged Sierra Leoneans to change their negative perception about their compatriots who are deported from especially European countries for not meeting the requirements to be granted asylum.

He declared that deportees are not criminals although they get criminalized in the process of seeking asylum.

Describing migration as a human right, Mr Sogbandi reiterated that it is a fundamental human right for people to move from one place to another in search of greener pastures or whatever purpose.

Deportation, he maintained, mostly affect refugees and migrants, pointing out that nobody likes to be deported because it is very degrading.

What is most alarming and disappointing, according to him, is that government which has the primary responsibility to protect its citizens has not done enough to address the plights of deportees.

“It is the business of government to enquire from its German or European counterparts what went wrong with its citizens in their countries,” he stressed.

Amnesty International, he went on, gives human rights education and capacity building to people in order for them to effectively advocate.

He urged government to look into the issue of deportation and treat it with the seriousness it deserves, saying it is against the UN Charter.

When they took the podium to narrate the harrowing experiences they went through in the process of being deported, NEAS members in their collective account titled ‘The Agony of Being Deported’ read out by one of them blamed their predicaments on the weakness of government and its bad foreign policy relating to the protection of the fundamental human rights of its citizens.

The country’s missions abroad were accused of not seeking the interest of their fellow country men particularly allowing German authorities to use fake Sierra Leonean traveling certificates to deport them.

“What we will like to understand is how the German authorities got Sierra Leonean travel certificates to deport us, and what role, if at all, did our authorities play in issuing such travel documents. This is essential because we found out in some cases that such documents were not authentic,” they emphasized.

The ex-asylum seekers revealed that the situation got worse when a Government of Sierra Leone delegation visited Germany in 2000 and declared that all Sierra Leoneans who had sought refuge in that country return because stability had been restored back home.

This, according to them, aggravated their already miserable situation as most of them who had been rejected asylum were living in dilemma as to what their fate would be.

They furthered that they were most times subjected to all forms of torture at deportation prisons prior to their forceful deportation. Mr. Tejan Lamboi, one of the facilitators, in his presentation on the topic ‘Restrictive Asylum Laws Not Deportees To Be Blamed For Being Deported’ called on all to stop stigmatizing deportees pointing out that what happens to them is as a result of the restrictive asylum laws in the West and not necessarily the actions of the deportees. The full text is published verbatim in this news letter.

The audience was shocked to learn from the soul-touching testimony of an ex-asylum seeker that a number of deportees commit suicide or later suffer mental problems from acute depression.

There were emotional scenes in the hall when the asylum seekers were recounting their ordeals. A cross section of the audience could not help but shed tears unable to fathom why people should subject their fellow humans to such inhumane and degrading treatment simply because they don’t want them in their countries.

The symposium ended with an interactive session interspersed by questions and answers.

Most participants especially those from civil society organizations, pledged to pursue the issue until it gets the required attention from government and other stakeholders.

The event was supported by the Frankfurt based human rights NGO Medico International.

The agony of being deported: Sierra Leonean Deportees from Germany tell their stories

"We the members of the Network of Ex-asylum Seekers Sierra Leone (NEAS-SL) comprise mainly deportees from Germany. Our experiences of deportation began when we fled Sierra Leone for fear of our personal safety and well being. For the majority of us, the reason for this fear and subsequent flight was connected to the civil war which plagued our country between 1991 and 2002.

We sought asylum in Germany at different dates and were transferred to asylum homes in various states in Germany including Berlin, Hamburg, Hannover, Bavaria, etc. according to Germany´s dispersal system for asylum seekers. A key characteristic of the asylum homes we were sent to was that they were mostly located in isolated parts of the country where accessing friends and other social networks was mostly almost impossible. In most cases, we were confined and were forced to stay in our remote asylum homes because of the residence obligation law which restricted our freedom of movements. Some of our members who violated this inhuman law to satisfy a basic human right as association received fines, some were imprisoned while others got criminal records which counted against their already limited chances of being granted a refugee status.

All of our asylum claims were denied but most of us were not readily deported and were tolerated to stay. The length of period in which we were tolerated to stay was uncertain meaning we could be deported at anytime. This period was full of fear and sometimes intimidation. We lived in constant fear and uncertainty because we never knew what might happen the next day.

The struggle to be allowed to stay was very difficult for most of us. Some of our members who had girlfriends that were prepared to get married which could have enabled them to stay were refused such opportunity. Although one of our members got married when he was in prison he was still deported even though the German law states otherwise.

For most of us, the situation got worst when a Government of Sierra Leone delegation visited Germany in 2000 and declared that all Sierra Leoneans who had sought refuge in that country return because Sierra Leone was then a peaceful place. This pronouncement added more sour to injury for most of us who had been rejected asylum and were living in dilemma especially so that we had to go to the foreigners’ office for the renewal of our visas periodically.

What we will also like to understand better was how the German authorities got Sierra Leonean travel certificates to deport us, and what role, if at all, did our authorities play in issuing such travel documents. This is essential because we found out in some cases that such documents were not authentic.

Once such travel certificates had been acquired, in most cases, it was when our members went to the foreigners’ office in Germany to renew their stay that they were arrested. Unprepared and totally taken by surprise, arrest by police officers at the foreigners` office was very traumatic and cruel. Sometimes we had nothing with us when we were arrested and whisked to a deportation prison.

While in prison awaiting deportation the journey of agony continued. Torture and severe beating by German police officers were witnessed by our members who were more outspoken and resisted their forceful return. One of our members reported that after he was ruthlessly beaten by police officers escorting him, he thought he was going to die. Another narrated how his roommate lost his life after been tortured by police officers.

Racist abuse sometimes by police officers was also a problem. One of our members narrated how a police officer referred to him as a black monkey who had no right to stay in Germany when he told him that he was going nowhere. For some of us, accesses to our lawyers and even family members were restricted while in deportation prisons. In fact there were cases in which our families and friends knew nothing about our abrupt arrests and subsequent detention in a deportation prison. For one of our members, he was arrested and taken to a deportation prison while his girlfriend was pregnant. He never got the opportunity to see the baby as he was hurriedly deported before the child came. The child, a beautiful daughter is now 8 but the deported father can only speak with her on the phone. Such conversations sometimes end in tears especially when the daughter asks “Papa, when am I going to meet you?” But he is fortunate somehow! For a good number of us, we no longer have contacts with our children in Germany. Being forcefully sent to Sierra Leone means we cannot live together with our children who are currently living with their mothers in Germany. This is very painful and a brutal outcome of being uprooted. How cruel! Our collective experiences further showed that the deporting authorities don’t care whether you had worked in Germany or not or whether you had worked and saved some money in your account or not. When you are deported you are sent back with mostly nothing. One of our members narrated how he had worked for five years when he was tolerated to stay. However once he was arrested and taken to a deportation prison, he no longer could access his hard-earned savings. He explained that at the airport, when he spotted a bank machine, he begged the police officers to allow him to get some money from his account but that they refused even though he had displayed his bank card.

The period when we were taken from the deportation prisons to airports was also very horrific. This happened mostly at odd hours – late at night or very early in the morning, apparently to avoid public attention. Some of our members who tried to resist were tortured by escorting police officers so they could give in. With no public attention, they could do whatever they wanted. One of them was beaten until his hand was broken. Some of us were so terrified just by how the police officers looked that we could not do anything but shivered. Events in chartered flights during deportation were also very tormenting. Some of our members were handcuffed, chained and blindfolded. In some cases, the chains were only removed upon arrival at the airport in Lungi in Freetown.

To be accommodated and accepted by families and friends is another challenge we faced once back in Sierra Leone. We were stigmatized, silenced and rejected leading most of us to withdraw and isolate ourselves from our friends and families. Our family members and friends blamed us for being forcefully sent back. They called us drug dealers, criminals and unserious persons who had not done enough to build houses and send money home while we were in Germany. All the afflictions we suffered in Germany became our fault. Nobody wants to listen to us even though we have a lot to tell. Although some of us coped with this, the societal pressure and provocation resulted in some other of our members developing psychosocial problems and some other forms of mental disorders.

It is our hope that as we tell our stories of the restrictive asylum policies and ruthless deportation practices in Europe but specifically Germany in our cases, people here might understand and begin to be more accommodating and tolerant to deportees. This is very much needed after traumatic experiences of being forcefully uprooted.

We want to conclude by saying that for most of us Germany was like home. Some of us lived there for over a decade. There were lots of nice people there who wanted to and who tried to help us. We still have good friends and families there. But the deportation practice was cruel and we affirm that it was a blatant violation of our fundamental rights."

What is NEAS-SL about? What do we stand for?

Because of the growing number of deportees from Germany in particular but Europe in general and the brutal and unfair processes leading to and involved in deportation, which in many ways violate our human rights and the predicaments we are faced with once back home, we members of the Network of Ex-Asylum Seekers of Sierra Leone (NEAS-SL) have therefore come together as a formidable force to raise awareness on these issues of blatant human rights violations.

NEAS-SL was founded in 2010 as an organization that could be used to speak out the problems of us deportees and sought solutions both at the local and international level.

At the international level, we hope to work with organizations in Europe who champion and agitate for the fair treatment of asylum seekers including those in deportation prisons awaiting forced return. By sharing information on our personal experiences after being sent back, we hope to bridge the information gap and the secrecy surrounding the inhumane migration control weapon known as deportation. We also aim to provide human rights organizations with personal stories of blatant human rights violations that could be mainstreamed in their work in Europe.

At then national level, we want to sensitize our population on the unfair processes involved in asylum seeking in Europe which subsequently lead to deportation. Because our population do not understand these issues, they tend to cast the blame on us deportees for being sent back viewing us as social misfits that have committed some criminal offence in Europe. The stigmatization that follows, even from within our family networks and friends, remains a major barrier to our reintegration into the society after such a painful experience.

Secondly, we also want to understand the role of our governments in the whole deportation process.

Our general membership is drawn from all over the country totaling 45 directly deported from Germany. We are also planning to involve deportees from other parts of Europe who share our vision. NEAS-SL is legally recognized by the laws of Sierra Leone under the Local Council Act 2004. It has steering committee run by seven people and Saturdays are schedule for general meetings to discuss and plan the way forward of the network. The running of the organization is guided by our constitution.

We have also undertaken familiarization tour of NEAS to key Government officers, state actors and Embassies. As of now the network is constantly engaging the Ministry of Social welfare, Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Sierra Leone Immigration department to look into the predicaments we are facing and finding ways of addressing them. However, little interest has been coming from the side of government. We are thriving to do more engagements with the media and create more linkages to source support and collaboration.


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