issue 223 - September 1991
Refugee in orbit
Fill in a form wrongly and you can sentence yourself to death if you are
an exile. Kofi is – and he talks to Tajudeen Abdulraheem about it.
‘My name is Kofi Amega. I am a Ghanaian and I arrived in Britain in December 1984 with a visiting visa to seek political asylum. My application is still pending.
‘I came from Lomé, Republic of Togo, West Africa, where I escaped to in 1983 after evading security agents in Ghana who would have imprisoned or killed me.
‘The Government of Togo and that of Ghana have not seen eye to eye for years. But there has been periodic rapprochement between them, using refugees as pawns. It works on the basis of ‘you return my enemies and I will return yours’.
‘Ghanaian refugees – especially soldiers and occasionally politically active civilians – became hostages of the Togolese Government. So although there is a United Nations Commission for Refugees in Lomé I was reluctant to register because the Togolese authorities had ways of finding out who is who, and could use anyone in an exchange with the Ghanaian Government. Instead, like many refugees, I travelled around the West African Coast to avoid the Togolese police.
‘No state would accept us for fear our Government would accuse them of “interfering in its internal affairs”. And so we just kept moving, like rolling stones, never staying long in one place.
‘Finally sheer desperation made me seek an escape from this helter-skelter life. I managed, through the help of friends, to secure somebody else’s passport and travelled to the UK as a visitor.
‘I arrived in London in December 1984 full of hope. Having gone through a British educational system and served in the colonial army, I expected certain standards of British justice. Indeed my fellow exiles in Africa, while fearing that my false passport would be discovered and I be returned to Ghana, had otherwise envied me. They assumed my difficulties would be over.
‘Well, my passport was not detected and after the usual accusatorial probing at the airport I was let in on a visitor’s visa. Straightaway I inquired about organizations or individuals who could help me.
‘That was when my problems began. I got passed from one solicitor to another because I had no money to pay for their services. And because I had not claimed asylum on arrival at the airport many refugee organizations were reluctant to handle my case. Moreover, no sooner had I arrived than I had to start working to keep myself and get accommodation.
‘Since my visa was only for six months I was anxious to quickly get my application to the Home Office. But being penniless I had to make the application myself without realizing the processes involved. I wrote down my experiences as I recollected them. But when I was eventually able to afford a solicitor I had to re-write the statement, so the two accounts were slightly at odds with each other.
‘By then I was getting £33 a week from the State for my upkeep (excluding accommodation). It was hardly enough for food, let alone travel in London. Yet by law I had to wait six months after my application for asylum to apply for a work permit.
‘All this time, my predominant feeling was of guilt. I had not seen my family for almost two years by the time I reached London. My wife had had a second baby while I was on the run. My first child had only been four years old when I left. By the time I got here, the economic situation in Ghana – bad when I left – was worse. Yet I could not send them money because I was barely surviving myself.
‘I had become an irresponsible father, an absentee husband and a lost son. I had hardly even maintained regular correspondence when I was wandering. What could I say? It was unfair to increase my family’s emotional load with my stories of woe. I just kept hoping things would get better so I could write. Weeks became months, months became years. I postponed letter-writing to Christmas. But it was miserable – and so I further postponed writing until Easter. Time went by – and I often felt my whole life was a waste.
‘It was over a year before I got a notification to appear before the Home Office Committee investigating my case. I was told that there were many contradictions in my story. Therefore I was not being granted full asylum. Instead I had “limited leave to remain” pending an appeal. It meant I could stay – but for how long?
‘By this time I had the right to work. But few employers would take me knowing that I could leave at any time. So I remained in the underworld of casual jobs; low pay, high risk, unprotected labour.
‘And still I had my immediate family to think about. How could I ask them to come when my own feet were not firmly on the ground? Anyway under my “limited leave to remain” I was only legally entitled to ask one member of my family to visit after I had been here four years. I received letters from home with joy, but I often ended up sobbing after reading them.
‘Finally I could not wait any longer for the slow, grinding wheels of the immigration office. My wife and children came to Britain in 1988, four years after I had arrived, and started asylum procedures when they entered the country.
‘By then I was something of an expert in asylum applications. Even so their cases are still being dragged through the bureaucracy. But then, so is mine.
‘I attended my last appeal at the Home Office a few months ago. No decisions have been reached on my case. So it’s seven years now that I have been living in uncertainty and hope…’
Tajudeen Abdulraheem is the Research Co-ordinator for the London-based Africa Research and Information Bureau (ARIB).