Violating the rights of deportees: why some deportations to African states amount to refoulement

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Democracy in AfricaIn today’s mobile world, questions of rights and democracy cannot be limited to the borders of nation states. In this article, Leana Podeszfa and Friederike Vetter explore the human rights abuses that can occur when failed asylum seekers from Africa are returned to their country of origin. Leana Podeszfa is a graduate of the MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Oxford. Friederike Vetter holds an MSc in Migration, Mobility and Development from SOAS. Together they manage the Post-Deportation Monitoring Network for the Fahamu Refugee Programme. They are reachable at

In international law, refoulement refers to the return of individuals to cruel or degrading circumstances. In order to avoid such inhumane returns the principle of non-refoulementwas enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, both relating to asylum seekers and refugees, and in the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which applies to all people. Non-refoulement is considered a cornerstone of protection under international refugee law. In Europe, states are further bound by the provisions of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Non-refoulement interdicts the expulsion and extradition of people to areas where their lives, physical integrity or freedoms are threatened. However, research shows that failed asylum seekers who are deported to, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda and Eritrea are detained upon arrival and face torture, rape, prolonged detention or disappear altogether. These cases thus illustrate how some deportations amount to refoulement.

In parts of the African continent, some progress has been made towards democracy, yet many African leaders continue to oppress their oppositions. In some countries, all deported failed asylum seekers are under general suspicion because of what they are believed to have said during their asylum interviews. In Uganda, Bernadette Iyodu asserts, ‘political ideology need not be the instigator for the mistreatment [of deportees] as people who have claimed asylum in the West are immediately regarded as a threat and are automatic targets’.

Describing the mistreatment of deported failed asylum seekers, she paints the following scenario:

‘A failed asylum seeker … arrives at Entebbe airport and is handed over to one of the security organisations. If suspected of political dissident activities, the person is taken … for questioning. Rape, for women, is inevitable. Children over the age of three are taken from their mother and put in an orphanage. Detention can last weeks, or months; a number of people have “disappeared” from custody.’

Such practices were also documented in Justice First’s report, Unsafe Return. It was found that failed asylum seekers deported to the DRC had been harassed, imprisoned, and tortured by state authorities upon return. Two of the 17 deportees included in the report have disappeared altogether.

Moreover, several states view the mere application for asylum in another state as an act of treason. Amnesty International found that in Eritrea ‘under torture … returnees have been forced to state that they have committed treason by falsely claiming persecution in asylum applications’. In the DRC, deportees are also seen as having betrayed the government. In an interview with Justice First, a refused Congolese asylum seeker recounted how he was arrested post-deportation. He was told by state officials:

‘You went to a foreign country … and said that we don’t respect human rights here … that you were ill-treated … And for having said that over there, here, on principle, we have to arrest you. Because there, you betrayed our country, you betrayed our government.’

Despite the threats failed asylum seekers face upon return, countries all over the world, from Australia to South Africa, are deporting people to danger. Moreover, states are shrinking asylum space, which can lead to more unjust deportations. Legal aid cuts are a major cause of this shrinking asylum space in the UK. In 2011, the Guardian reported that Refugee Action had its government funding cut by 62 per cent. Refugee Action’s representative said ‘clients will … not receive the help they need to accurately make their asylum applications – which means they will be wrongly returned to murderous regimes’. Subsequently, Refugee Action conducted a pilot survey in early 2012 on the impact legal aid had on the outcome of asylum applications. It was shown that ‘those who had received no legal advice before their substantive asylum interview with UKBA were 30 per cent more likely to be refused asylum’. Refugee Action came to the conclusion that ‘without quality legal advice from the very beginning, it’s not uncommon for asylum seekers to find their application wrongly refused by the UK Border Agency’.

In the absence of official mechanisms, monitoring of failed asylum seekers post-deportation must be undertaken by members of civil society. Therefore, the Fahamu Refugee Programme (FRP) is building the Post-Deportation Monitoring Network (PDMN), an online directory of organisations willing to assist failed asylum seekers after deportation in host countries to their countries of origin. Ideally, an organisation representing an asylum seeker pending deportation would use the PDMN to contact an organisation in the country of origin. Should the individual be deported, this organisation would provide support. To avoid human rights abuses this domestic support should include airport pick-up as well as legal assistance.

Furthermore, Fahamu is collecting information about human rights violations against deportees in order to lobby governments concerning their asylum policies. Justice First has shown the way forward. After extensive lobbying, ‘Unsafe Return’ was included in UKBA’s 2012 country of origin information for the DRC. Despite this success, much more research and documentation is needed so that asylum policies may be influenced, the principle of non-refoulement respected and, most importantly, no one is deported to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.

If you are interested in reading more about this topic, see the latest issue of the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration.

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