Emmanuel Njoya is reluctant to talk. After a day’s wait, I receive a text.
‘Sorry not been able to text due to phone battery failure. No electricity where we are. I really don’t want to recall my/our horrible experience of the UK removal process again. We are struggling to blank it out in faith… We have nightmares. … It’s painful and negatively provocative.’
I’m a bit nonplussed. Mick Fryer, the priest of the church Emmanuel had attended in Britain and a pillar of his support, had told me Emmanuel was eager to talk about the injustice of his family’s deportation to Cameroon, where he is a wanted man. Maybe, suggests Mick, Emmanuel is feeling depressed again; the family is hiding out in a remote area and their year-old daughter, Tracey, is seriously ill. I should try to phone and check.
When I do, he has changed his mind and says what happened to his family should not be ‘brushed under the carpet’. He wants to expose a merciless system which throws people seeking sanctuary back into the situations they have been trying to escape.
But he is whispering. I ask if it is ok to talk. It’s not – he is outside and feels watched, plus he doesn’t want people in this Francophone part of Cameroon to hear him speaking English. It may raise suspicions. We agree to talk another time.
In the meantime, a flood of documentation arrives down the wire from Mick Fryer and anti-deportation campaigner Jackie Fearnley. Some of it is stomach-turning.
Accounts of torture made by asylum seekers must be recounted as mere allegations rather than lived experience
Emmanuel Njoya, a one-time press officer for the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), a political grouping dedicated to the cause of autonomy for the region, was detained at London Heathrow airport on 9 November 2002, en route to Mexico from Cameroon. Prevented from reaching his destination, he claimed asylum in Britain which was quickly turned down. Until his final removal on 19 September 2009, there would be appeals against this decision and a total of 16 further representations, which would all be refused; 11 recorded instances of Members of Parliament writing in support of his case; and a total of eight removal directions, with the ensuing panic they cause – before his final desperate journey back to a place where he feels hunted.
Catalogue of terror
When Emmanuel claimed asylum in Britain, he outlined the torture he had undergone in Cameroon, a country that is effectively a dictatorship (see box above). He belonged to a family which supported opposition politics. When he was 16, he had been picked up with his sister and they had been tortured by having Guinness bottles pushed into their anuses and being beaten on the soles of their feet (a technique called falaka). Earlier in 2002, the year he was detained at Heathrow, he had already undergone two bouts of torture and had his home destroyed.
This is where we are supposed to enter the territory of the journalistic ‘allegedly’. Accounts of torture made by asylum seekers must be recounted as mere allegations rather than lived experience. The authorities routinely dismiss them as made up and fraudulent.
A week before Emmanuel’s removal, Charmian Goldwyn, a doctor for the charity Medical Justice, made a detailed assessment of his injuries (nearly seven years after he had left Cameroon) and submitted numerous photographs along with her report. Here is a short extract:
‘Photo 313 shows damage to the soles of feet, consistent with falaka.
‘Photo 315 shows a mottling of the skin over the right thigh, typical of being dragged along the ground, when the skin is torn and heals up slowly and in patches.
‘Photo 318 shows two round scars, both around 3 cms diameter on the knee, and a scar down the right foreleg. These are all consistent with being kicked.
‘Photo 319 shows the left knee, with another round scar medially, about 3 cms across, as above. All these scars on the knee appear not have been sutured, which is typical of injuries made during torture or on the battlefield where there is no-one to suture. Torturers keep wounds open to prolong the pain.
‘Photos 316 and 317 both show the long fine scar across the right thigh… 20 cms long. Mr Njoya describes the threat of castration which was then turned into a wide cut along his thigh. This cut is diagnostic of Mr Njoya’s account. Accidental wounds do not appear in this position, as the natural response to damage is to pull your knees into your chest. In Mr Njoya’s case he could not do this as he was held down.’
There are a further seven entries in this catalogue of terror printed on the body. A document which was an open arrest warrant for Emmanuel by the Cameroonian authorities had also been supplied. None of it was considered compelling evidence by the British Home Office. When it comes to Cameroon, if documentation is procured – usually at great expense – it is rejected anyway, the argument being that rampant corruption in the country makes it unreliable.
Emmanuel’s case was due for inspection by another charity – the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture – whose word might have held more weight. But he had already been strong-armed out of the country.
Conscience and coercion
In January 2009, Emmanuel married fellow Cameroonian asylum seeker Efrasye, who had recently given birth to their daughter. A month later he was in detention, separated from his wife and daughter (who were also incarcerated), and resisting deportation attempts. He alleges he was assaulted by a guard at one of the detention centres – investigation of which would never run its course. When Jackie Fearnley travelled halfway across the country to talk with him and offer succour the guards turned her away, saying he didn’t want to meet anyone. This turned out to be a blatant lie.
Members of his church congregation in Hull, St Aidan’s, rushed to his aid (and continue to do so). When Emmanuel was forced onto a 6.40 am flight to Paris (en route to Cameroon) on 11 May 2009, his wrists bleeding from the handcuffs, two women from his church were at the airport leafleting passengers, asking them to request politely that he be removed from the plane. The passengers rose to the occasion, alerting the cabin crew, who told the captain. The captain then spoke with Emmanuel and seeing his condition and hearing that he was being removed against his will, refused to transport him. This triumph of conscience was but a momentary reprieve.
Eventually Emmanuel was pushed into compliance, through brute force, with Efrasye and Tracey deported a day later, despite assurances that the family would be removed together. His latest removal notice had run out making his removal technically illegal, but this was a rule the UK Border Agency was willing to break.
When at the appointed time I get Emanuel on the telephone again, this is what he tells me: ‘There were about seven of them who came to escort me at the airport. But on the flight there were five. My arms were handcuffed, my legs were tied. They just treated me like a criminal. But I said: “Well, this is what they have to do to control the immigration of their country. So be it.” I know that God has planned everything. Christ was beaten so many times. You know, he had thorns on his head. Tortured like no-one can imagine. That’s what he went through. Why not me? I said: “Well, God, this is probably what you wanted for me.”’
Talking further it becomes evident that Emmanuel’s strong faith is what has kept him going so far.
When Emmanuel landed, he says the British escorts bribed the immigration authorities so he wouldn’t be checked, feeding the very corruption they are quick to condemn. As for paperwork: ‘I don’t have a passport. Efrasye doesn’t have a passport because she was a refugee and an asylum seeker as well. They just returned us with an EU travel document. They left it with the guards at the airport.’
As for the much-vaunted claim that ‘failed’ asylum seekers get help with resettlement: ‘We were abandoned at the airport! They promised my wife that when we’d get to the airport they would give transportation, so that she would be able to travel to her own region of the country. [Southern Cameroons has no international airport and travelling there from the capital Yaoundé is risky without ID as there are numerous checkpoints.] Nothing was given. They promised all promises there in England. They give money for deported people to re-establish themselves, to re-integrate… Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Not a penny.
‘When she arrived I saw her standing, her alone with a baby in a baby cot. It was so painful, seeing her there like that on the other side of the glass.
‘She had come with a bag. The police were keeping the bag from her in a room. Now standing in the open yard with my wife and daughter, two police officers came to me and told us: “We have come for identification.” I told them: “Yes, I am a Cameroonian, I was born here, I grew up here.” But I didn’t reveal the political part.’
Outside the airport Emmanuel managed to persuade a woman who had come to drop off someone to take them to a nearby village so they could figure out what to do next. ‘When we got to that lady’s car there were two army officers who came after us. They were trying to hold my wife back. They claimed she was an Ivoirian, not a Cameroonian. She had not been able to answer the questions they had been asking her, very difficult questions about politics in this country. They said I should present documentation, ID, passport. I said: “I don’t have it, I lost it: this is who I am. If you believe me, that’s alright. If you don’t believe me, I don’t have any other way I can identify myself.”’ Emmanuel was terrified they would fingerprint him and discover his political past through prints kept on file.
‘They probably just wanted to take our money. They got us out of the car, searched our bags, searched everything: they took every last penny. Then they told me they would take my wife. They would separate us until I had proof that she was my wife. I had my marriage certificate and my child’s birth certificate. They took them away. They pretended throughout that we hadn’t any things like that.’
Efrasye was then locked up with baby Tracey for 24 hours. The helpful woman who had agreed to transport them was too frightened to do so on their release. ‘We didn’t know any place here. There are no facilities where we could go and ask around. We went to a grassland [a sort of park]. That’s where we passed the night.’
Finding a place to stay was proving difficult, a year’s deposit being required. One prospective landlady was so suspicious of her tenants-to-be that she went to the police. ‘The police took my fingerprints, they took my wife’s fingerprints. Two commissioners came back to tell me they had discovered who I was.’ They then began angling for a bribe to issue him with ID. Emmanuel ended up paying the money sent for rent by parishioners of St Aidan’s via an intermediary. But that was not the end of the story. He was further interrogated and told to report every week. The first time he went to report, another official was in post and demanding another fat payment. With the threat of a prison term looming if he didn’t cough up, Emmanuel took his family into hiding.
Trying to disappear
He is too frightened to reveal where they are now, but says this: ‘When I came here, I came into a very backward community, with witchcraft and witch- hunting. I spoke to the few people who lived around here. We started having a prayer meeting. I suggested we re-establish the church [which had fallen into disuse]. We support each other through the church. I serve them like a lay preacher.
‘I have been visiting a local orphanage. We have some stuff that was sent to us from England from our local church there. Most of it is baby stuff. So we went there and handed it to them. This is how we gain favour from them. In return they come with coco yam, with peas. That’s how we manage where we are.
‘The people here are very remote. They don’t have television. Radio reception is not good. But believe me, the people here shouldn’t discover who I am. By the time they discover this, I hope I will have won their trust. Then they won’t react so hostile.’
I ask after the baby. ‘She is now with an exorcist; I took her this morning to a Catholic priest. She has been having diarrhoea, she’s been coughing and vomiting. Yesterday I discovered that she was very pale. Her eyes were going greenish. Early in the morning, at 6 o’clock, my wife suggested I take her to an exorcist. We’ve done all sorts of medication; we don’t have the money to buy more medication. We’ve gone to get medication from the roadside. It is not helpful at all. It’s a very difficult time.’ There are heaving sobs at the other end of the line.
Later Mick informs me that Tracey hadn’t received any inoculations before she was deported. He says detainees hear through the grapevine that children who haven’t had their shots won’t be removed, and so, in a desperate gamble, refuse to have them inoculated. He wonders if this is what Efrasye did.
From their hideaway, Emmanuel’s struggles to get some form of ID continue. He rarely ventures out, except to his church group, for fear of being challenged. ID is essential in order to get work and to be able to travel across checkpoints back to the South. Without it he can do neither.
‘We are surviving through Saint Aidan’s. If Saint Aidan’s was not there, I would have committed suicide. As a Christian it is very hard for me to say this, but it was what I had on my mind. But if I did it, what about my wife? I said: “God, take control. This is who I am. I have never hurt anybody. I have used all my conscience to try and change the community for the good of everyone, so that everyone can live in peace, justice and democracy.” And actually, Christ hasn’t left me alone. Even though we are here, we are not alone. I received text messages from Saint Aidan’s. All day I’ve been sitting here, praying. I know somebody, somewhere will hear my cry. Somebody somewhere will know the pain we are going through. Somebody somewhere will change things, so that people who come after us will not go through what I’m going through.’
Since the interview, the parishioners of St Aidan’s have again come to the family’s support and paid for proper medical treatment for Tracey. She is now well again.