By Arun Kundnani
The plane lands at Ndjili airport, Kinshasa, in the dead of night - the better to avoid monitoring by journalists and human rights activists. Then the returning asylum seekers are led out onto the tarmac by their European escorts to be handed over to the Congolese authorities. Some will have suffered violence in the process of being deported or in the detention centre where they were held prior to the flight. Others will have been tied to the seats with scotch tape for the duration of the seven-hour journey. Most would have been prevented from using the toilet or eating. They are handed over to the offices of the Director-General of Migration (DGM), ostensibly the Congolese immigration service but, in reality, an arm of the government's security services. A file containing details of their claim for political asylum in Europe is also passed to the DGM. According to René Kabala Mushiya, an activist who works in Kinshasa with the National Human Rights Observatory, this is the moment when European governments abandon those who have claimed asylum in their countries to a state which violates human rights with impunity.
Talking to IRR News while on a visit to the UK to address the Bar Human Rights Committee, René Kabala Mushiya has outlined a trail of abuse that stretches from Europe's immigration detention centres to the brutality and violence of DRC's notorious Makala Central Prison - nicknamed the 'morgue' in recognition of the numbers of people who have lost their lives there.
'According to reports that we have had from returning asylum seekers as well as from agents of the DGM, deportees are held by the DGM in small cells at the airport,' he says. 'There are no windows and there is no light. But you can see cockroaches and rats. From these cells, they are called in one by one to the director of the DGM for an interrogation.'
During the interrogation, deportees are sifted into different groups. Only those able to pay a bribe of between US $250 and $300 have a chance of immediate escape from detention. Since the officials of the DGM have not been paid for so long, accepting bribes is their only income. Yet few deportees have easy access to these sums of money; it would take a university professor six months to earn the required amount on local wages.
Of those who cannot bribe their way out, many will be handed over to the National Security Agency (ANR) which operates its own extra-judicial prisons where people are detained illegally for long periods of time. As individuals who have claimed asylum in Europe, deportees are automatically regarded by the ANR as threats to national security in Congo. Simply because they have claimed asylum in the West, the Congolese authorities consider them political dissidents. 'There are cases I have dealt with,' says René Kabala, 'in which somebody asks for asylum in Europe for humanitarian rather than political reasons. However when they are returned to Ndjili airport, they are put in prison like all the others.' They may then stand trial under the national security legislation and, if convicted, find themselves imprisoned at Makala.
Makala is a place where prisoners depend on outside support for food and medical care. The US State Department reports that sixty-nine people died there in 2003, some as a result of severe beatings, the others as a result of starvation and disease. But often the families of returned asylum seekers have already fled the capital to avoid persecution, meaning that deportees sent to Makala are less likely to have networks of outside support.
According to René Kabala, there are lots of cases of political prisoners who have been held at Makala by the Congolese authorities, then bribed their way out before fleeing to Europe to claim asylum. But because of Europe's failure to properly assess asylum claims, these asylum seekers have then been sent back into the hands of the authorities from whom they fled and, in turn, find themselves back at Makala prison, the very place from which they were hoping to escape. Asylum hearings in Europe tend to be sceptical about stories of bribery, further reducing the chances of sanctuary for refugees from places like Makala prison.
René Kabala cannot produce figures on what proportion of asylum seekers deported from Europe end up in Makala or other forms of illegal detention in Kinshasa. 'There are many cases which escape us,' he says. 'We can follow up those that we know about. Others disappear if we haven't got contact details for their families.' But even those deportees who are released face insecurity. The DGM takes down details of all deportees' family members and, often, agents arrive on their doorsteps a few weeks later to make arrests. Some deportees have chosen to disappear on their return to Kinshasa to avoid re-arrest.
The allegation that files containing information about asylum claims are ending up, via the DGM, in the hands of the Congolese security services is particularly disturbing. Frances Webber, a leading immigration barrister in the UK, told IRR News: 'If these claims are true, it is a matter of extreme concern that asylum files which are meant to be confidential are finding their way to the very agencies which asylum seekers have fled.'
The majority of deportations from Europe to DRC originate in Belgium and Netherlands. Current Home Office policy is that failed Congolese asylum seekers should be deported from the UK. The expectation is that Britain will follow in the footsteps of Netherlands and embark on a much tougher regime for Congolese asylum seekers under which detentions and deportations will be stepped up. The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) knows of four Congolese asylum seekers who have been returned from the UK in the last six months. The most recent was Bonnet Malungidi Mbombila, a paranoid schizophrenic who needs weekly injections. At first a fax and email campaign by supporters persuaded Air France to abandon the deportation. But NCADC believes he has now been returned to Kinshasa. It says it is in touch with a number of asylum seekers who have been removed from the UK and who allege that they have since been held in detention in DRC.
'H' is a Congolese asylum seeker whose claim for refugee status in Britain has been rejected at appeal and who now faces deportation to Kinshasa. He cannot be named for his own safety. Before fleeing to London, he worked in DRC as a trade unionist. As a 'failed asylum seeker', his benefits and accommodation have been withdrawn and he currently has a peripatetic existence, sleeping on friends' floors for a few days at a time. He has lost contact with his wife and two young children who have also had to flee Kinshasa and have headed towards the border with Angola. Were he to be deported, 'H' would be unable to take any money with him, having had no entitlement to work. He would not therefore be able to bribe himself out of detention in Kinshasa. 'I would certainly be scared that I could end up in prison,' he told IRR News. 'I just hope it's not going to happen that way.'
Earlier this year, Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), a charity that supports asylum seekers held in UK detention centres, discovered that, of three deportees who were removed to DRC between October 2003 and April 2004, two were able to pass information back to the UK revealing that they had ended up in Makala Central Prison. BID has also documented abuses that occurred after thirteen Congolese asylum seekers were deported from the UK on a charter flight on 12 March 2002. According to the testimony of one of the deportees, who later returned to the UK, they were detained and beaten on a daily basis by three to six soldiers who accused them of being 'traitors'.
René Kabala's allegations were also corroborated by the Dutch NGO Docu-Congo. Speaking at a meeting at the Houses of Parliament earlier this month, Mieke Rang, co-ordinator of Docu-Congo, criticised reports that had been published by other NGOs on deportations to DRC. A report by the NGO Voices of the Voiceless, which had been commissioned by a European government, claimed that an international monitoring team had been operating at Ndjili airport to ensure the safety of deportees. In fact, says Mieke Rang, no such monitoring exists. 'To return someone to Kinshasa means to put them in the hands of the security services.'
The Home Office's Country Information and Policy Unit claims that there is no evidence that failed asylum seekers are persecuted after they are returned to DRC and that Congolese asylum seekers whose claims are rejected should, in principle, be deported.