January 12, 2012 — Review
Written by Frances Webber
A new report on returns to the DRC challenges the government’s assertion that refused asylum seekers are not at risk.
In Unsafe return: refoulement of Congolese asylum seekers, Catherine Ramos examines the experiences of seventeen Congolese refused asylum seekers returned to Democratic Republic of the Congo and finds that most of them were subjected to some sort of ill-treatment, including detention, rape and sexual abuse, beating and extortion. They are considered ‘traitors’ for claiming asylum abroad. Even if they get through the airport, they run the risk of being arrested later.
Allegations of ill-treatment on return to Congo are not new. For over a decade, reports from NGOs, refugee and human rights groups have claimed that refused asylum seekers returned to the DRC are regularly detained and ill-treated. In 2005, a BBC investigation found that ‘failed asylum seekers were beaten and locked away in prison without trial or hiding in fear and no one appears to accept responsibility for checking if they are safe’. In 2008, witnesses from NGOs, the BBC journalist who conducted the investigation and two respected academic experts on the DRC gave evidence to the immigration tribunal on the risks facing refused asylum seekers removed to Ndjili airport, together with three former DRC officials (including two former immigration officers from the airport). A dossier of cases monitored by rights organisations was presented, containing consistent allegations of detention and abuse, including rape and beatings. But the tribunal found reasons for rejecting all this evidence. Refused asylum seekers, it held, were inherently unreliable witnesses, since their asylum requests had been rejected, so nothing they said about their treatment on return home could be taken on trust. The BBC journalist was insufficiently rigorous in her investigation of her informants. The experts, at least one of whom was generally impartial, had unaccountably veered into contention and equivocation in their reports. The DRC officials had exaggerated. The tribunal found that refused asylum seekers were likely to be detained for questioning, might have their possessions stolen by officials and would probably have to use bribery to be released, but that, provided they could pay, they were unlikely to be abused. Payment to avoid further detention and abuse was seen as perfectly acceptable. The Court of Appeal upheld the ruling.
In response to parliamentary questions in 2009 and 2011, ministers have said that ‘no evidence’ has been found of mistreatment of returnees. The responses provoke the question: where have they looked? Embassy staff abroad are not renowned for their vigorous investigation of human rights abuses – a rare diplomatic exception, Craig Murray, the ambassador to Uzbekistan, was sacked in October 2004 after his forthright denunciation of the Uzbek government’s gross human rights abuses. The normal response to allegations of ill-treatment is a discreet and courteous query to the interior ministry of the relevant country, and a totally unquestioning acceptance of the assurances given in return. Unsafe return challenges the UK authorities’ complacent reliance on flawed country information, the lack of proper monitoring by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the situation in Kinshasa, the failure by the government to institute proper monitoring of the fate of returnees despite the flow of consistent allegations. The report is careful and thorough. Is it too much to hope that immigration judges will take its allegations seriously, the next time the safety of the DRC is considered?
Unsafe return: refoulement of Congolese asylum seekers, Catherine Ramos, Justice First, November 2011. Download a copy of the report here (pdf file, 292kb.  BK (Failed asylum seekers: DRC CG)  UKAIT 00098, upheld in the Court of Appeal as BK (Democratic Republic of the Congo) v SSHD  EWCA Civ 1322.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.