JOHANNESBURG, 13 March 2013 (IRIN) - The principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of asylum seekers and refugees to a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened, is often referred to as the cornerstone of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Even individuals whose bids for asylum have been rejected are protected by the Convention Against Torture and the European Convention of Human Rights, which forbid the extradition of people to areas where their freedom or safety are at risk.
In reality, however, states that are party to these conventions frequently return unsuccessful asylum seekers to countries where they are likely to experience detention, persecution and even torture at the hands of authoritarian regimes.
Governments have shown little interest in what happens to rejected asylum seekers after they have been returned, often insisting that individuals are never deported to countries where they would be at risk. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) for example, has said that the UK's asylum system delivers fair and high-quality decisions and that individuals determined to not need protection are returned to "a home country that has been found safe for them to live in".
But limited research by civil society organizations has found not only that individuals in need of protection often are deported, but that some of the countries they are returned to are far from safe.
Unsafe Return, a report by Catherine Ramos of the UK-based NGO Justice First, documented what happened to 17 Justice First clients who were returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between 2006 and 2011. Ramos found that two of the returnees had disappeared without a trace, nine had been in prisons where they experienced beatings, sexual abuse and inhumane conditions, and six had fled their homes and remained in hiding.
"To deport people is one way of showing that an immigration system has teeth," said Friederike Vetter of the Fahamu Refugee Programme, which links refugee-assisting organizations all over the world through online forums and resources.
Fahamu is in the process of setting up the Post-Deportation Monitoring Network. "Governments aren't monitoring [post-deportation] simply because they don't have to," she said.
Vetter and her colleague, Leana Podeszfa, who are managing the network, disagree with the UKBA's contention that all asylum decisions made in the UK are just and correct. They argue that cuts in government funding to the legal aid system, starting in 2011, have put many legal aid providers out of business, significantly reducing the legal advice available to asylum seekers. A 2012 survey by Refugee Action, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to refugees, found that asylum seekers who received no legal advice ahead of their interview with the UKBA were 30 percent more likely to be refused asylum.
"There's this cyclical argument of the Home Office, that they don't remove people in need of protection," said Lisa Matthews of the UK-based National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns. "But in fact people needing protection are removed simply because they haven't been recognized by a broken [asylum] system. The only way to prove that false logic is to follow what happens to people when they are removed."
While the need for post-deportation monitoring has long been recognized, monitoring efforts have been constrained by a number of factors, including a lack of communication between organizations in host countries and those in countries of origin.
Using its wealth of contacts in the refugee sector, Fahamu is in the process of identifying and recruiting organizations in both deporting and receiving countries to form an online directory. This will serve as the foundation of the Post-Deportation Monitoring Network.
"We're in touch with a number of organizations that were already doing some monitoring before, but the issue was they didn't know when [deportees] were coming... Now we've linked them with organizations in the UK that will contact them when someone's being deported," said Podeszfa.
Beyond providing an expected date and time of arrival, NGOs in sending countries may also share details of the individual's asylum case. "The more information an NGO [in the receiving country] has, the more they can do a risk assessment for themselves," said Podeszfa.
Jailed on arrival
Barbara Schuler, manager of the torture programme at Rights For All, a human rights organization in Cameroon that joined the network a few months ago, said her organization would not be able to intervene without the information they receive through the network. "We need to have information [about the deportee] ahead of time to ensure our own security and to be able to make a good argument in their defence," she told IRIN.
Even armed with this information, Rights For All has struggled to gain access to deportees who are usually whisked away by authorities soon after touching ground in the capital, Yaoundé. "They mostly make us wait outside [arrivals], or when we mention a name, they deny they're on the passenger list," said Schuler, who said four recent attempts to meet deportees at the airport had failed.
She added that Cameroonian police were informed about the arrival of failed asylum seekers by Interpol, and that the returnees are often viewed as criminals.
According to Schuler, after being questioned by police at the airport, they are usually transferred to Kondengui Central Prison, where they are charged with a crime, often forgery of documents, which is punishable by up to three years in jail. Those not immediately imprisoned often go into hiding and are difficult to trace. "We were in touch with one individual [who was deported] from the UK who has been back for two years and has not even seen his own children," said Schuler.
Ramos of Justice First said NGOs trying to monitor and assist asylum seekers deported to DRC have experienced similar problems. "People are very frightened," she told IRIN. "Also, anything that's going to happen to [the deportees] doesn't happen at the airport, it will happen elsewhere."
According to Ramos' report, several of the returnees she interviewed were allowed to leave the airport but were arrested soon afterwards.
A year after the publication of Ramos' report, UKBA conducted a fact-finding mission in DRC that confirmed many of Ramos' findings. Several respondents noted that returnees from the UK are viewed as "against the government" and often arrested and detained by the intelligence services.
Deportation of failed asylum seekers to DRC have nevertheless continued, with the latest country policy from the UKBA stating that "failed asylum seekers per se do not face a real risk of persecution or serious harm on return to the DRC" and that "monitoring of returns on foreign territory is impractical".
One of the aims of Fahamu's network is to document post-deportation human rights violations in order to lobby host country governments to change their asylum and deportation policies. Podeszfa cited the example of deportations to Eritrea, which have virtually halted from most countries since a 2009 report by Amnesty International found that returnees were routinely tortured until they admitted to having committed treason. Recently, however, Israel has reportedly coerced Eritrean asylum seekers to sign "voluntary repatriation" forms or accept deportation to a third country (Uganda).
Vetter noted that reports of abuses against deportees can also influence case law when they are cited by lawyers appealing individual asylum decisions.
On the ground, in countries such as Cameroon, DRC, Sri Lanka and Uganda, Fahamu's partner organizations have reported that their presence at airports indicates to authorities that returnees are being watched over.
"This can actually help," said Podeszfa. "Ideally, we'd like to see our partner organizations give [returnees] cheap cell phones and tell them to stay in touch and visit them from time to time."
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.