Monday, March 24, 2014

A Safe Return?

Ismail is a Somali refugee who has been recently detained and told he is to be returned to his conflict-stricken country, despite the severe security concerns and legal obstacles that have made it virtually impossible until now for British immigration officials to send Somali asylum-seekers home.  His and other cases point to a tougher approach and a new returns programme at the Home Office - one that could endanger the lives of many others whose asylum claims are rejected. The UK has long had a policy of returning Somalis whose asylum claims are rejected to less volatile regions of the country that are safely accessible by air, such as Somaliland. But most of the country, including Mogadishu, has long been considered too dangerous as a return destination because of the ongoing conflict between government forces and al-Shabab rebels.

When Ismail arrived early last year, after being smuggled over land and through the air from Somalia, he believed he was finally on the verge of beginning a new life.

"The Britain I had in mind was one in which they welcomed people of different colour, different religion and different backgrounds and where human rights were respected," Ismail, who preferred not to use his real name, told Al Jazeera. "I wanted to live in a safe place where I could just study and work and help my family and support myself, so what happened to me was a big shock."

Less than a year after failing in his bid to claim asylum in the UK, Ismail found himself handcuffed, forcibly placed aboard an airplane bound for the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

"When I told people in the Somali community what the Home Office was doing to me they said, 'No, that's impossible, it's unheard of. Nobody is stupid enough to remove people to Mogadishu,'" said Ismail.  Tt the end of January, after three weeks in a detention centre near a London airport, Ismail was bundled into a van, pushed aboard a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul and seated at the back of the plane between three guards tasked with removing him from the UK. "I said, 'Please don't take me back to Somalia. I came here seeking asylum and security. Don't take me to Mogadishu because you are signing my death penalty'

Luckily for Ismail, his solicitor had secured a judicial review of his case and instead of going to Mogadishu, he was flown back to London and returned to another detention centre.

The UK government appear to have been emboldened by a European Court of Human Rights judgment in a Swedish case last September, which ruled in favour of allowing repatriations to Mogadishu in circumstances where a returnee was not deemed to be at specific risk.  An immigration tribunal decision in December last year, in which a Somali man's appeal against deportation was rejected on the grounds that the tribunal found nothing to suggest he would face a real risk of suffering serious harm. The tribunal noted that al-Shabab was "no longer the force they once were".Yet a report this month by UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon said the security situation remained volatile, with al-Shabab continuing to use "guerrilla and terrorist tactics" and deadly violence occurring almost daily. Most human rights groups and organisations working on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers still consider Somalia to be an unacceptably dangerous destination.  Al-Shabab has shown itself still capable of mounting major attacks in the capital, such as last month's deadly assault on the heavily fortified presidential palace.  Last year an al-Shabab commander said any Somalis returning from abroad were "working for the infidels" and should face death.

One  three other Somali individuals currently in detention in the UK who, like Ismail, have been told that they are to be returned to Somalia,  told Al Jazeera he was a member of a tribal minority who had fled the country in 2012 after seeing all of his immediate family killed. An aunt, his only surviving relative, paid for him to be smuggled by plane to the UK, where his claim for asylum was rejected. Last month he was sent to a detention centre in the England's east and told he would soon be sent home.

 In opposing a bail application by a Somali man held in a Scottish detention centre, the Home Office can normally only justify detention if there is imminent removal planned. In the bail summary, they talked about a new pilot project to remove Somalis to Mogadishu. The removal directions were on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.

"People are really alarmed. They think that to actually be forcibly sent back you haven't got a chance," Paul Morris, a volunteer at the Somali Adult Social Care Agency in Manchester said  "No Somali is going to think that the British government is so brutal as to send people back, so the people [in Somalia] will assume them to be agents - and the punishment for being a spy or an agent is decapitation."

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