Liberia: Barred From Travel On "Anti-Human Trafficking Regulations"?

Rep. and Mrs. Yekeh Kolubah believe they're simply being persecuted for being critical of President Weah

The Government of Liberia is sticking to its claims that it held back Mrs. Georgetta Kolubah and her 6 children from a holiday trip to Accra, Ghana, not for political reasons but because "she could not prove that the children were hers." Citing "anti-human trafficking regulations", the government wants Mrs. Kolubah and her husband, Montserrado County District #10 Representative Yekeh Kolubah, to provide documentation that the children are theirs.

The situation comes in wake of another "Save the State" protest action, scheduled for July 24, leading up to July 26, Liberia's Independence Day. Rep. Kolubah, a fierce critic of President Weah, is one of the organizers of the pending protest. Recently, Kolubah and his bodyguards were charged by the government with multiple crimes that included aggravated assault, criminal attempt to commit murder, kidnapping and criminal facilitation.

Mrs. Georgetta Kolubah said she and their six children woke up early on the morning of Saturday, July 13, 2019 and headed for the Roberts International Airport to catch their much anticipated flight to Accra, Ghana, where they were to spend about one week of their end-of-school vacation and return in time for July 26, Liberia's Independence Day. According to her, as this was not their first family trip out of the country in the last 18 months, everything was expected to go smoothly as usual.

The family had taken other trips before in 2018 -- once to Lebanon and another time to Nigeria. In both instances, according to Mrs. Kolubah, there were no issues. They all returned together, safely. Now they had a pair of new-borns -- twins, which would be joining them on the trip to Accra. Suddenly, while her and her kids' passports were being inspected, she found herself the subject of interrogation, by immigration officials, as to whether all the kids were hers. She answered in the affirmative, but could not convince her interrogators. Therefore her husband had to be called in to attest that the six are indeed their children.

Rep. Kolubah said he arrived at the airport and corroborated his wife's answers to the immigration officers' questions. According to him, they also wanted to know if he was aware that Mrs. Kolubah was taking them out of the country. Again, he answered in the affirmative.

At that point, Rep. Kolubah said he was assured by the immigration officers that his family was cleared for travel.

According to Mrs. Kolubah, no sooner had they been cleared for travel, another man (unidentified) came and collected the family's travel documents from the immigration officers and said Rep. Kolubah need to complete a form. When the lawmaker decided to oblige, the official eventually told him that instructions had been handed down that the Kolubahs should not leave the country.

By this time, the Kolubahs said they had reason to believe that they were being harassed because of Rep. Kolubah's critical remarks against the President of Liberia, George M. Weah. Their suspicious were confirmed when unnamed official who collected their passports told Rep. Kolubah that the directive to bar them from travel "came from the higher up".

Rep. Kolubah said he contacted the acting Minister of Justice (unnamed) who admitted being aware of the situation, adding that "President Weah just touched down [at RIA] and he gave instructions that you and your family shouldn't leave this country." The acting minister also told Rep. Kolubah that the family could not get their passports back.

Late Saturday evening, the Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT) issued a statement denying any "political considerations" for barring the Kolubah family from travel. Instead, the statement cited "anti-human trafficking regulations" as the reason for barring them from travel.

The Act To Ban Trafficking In Persons Within The Republic Of Liberia, outlines requirements for international transport operators to observe when selling tickets to would-be travelers. Section 10 of the Act, which talks about "misuse of commercial transportation", notes that: a) International transportation companies must verify that every passenger possesses the necessary travel documents, including passports and visas, to enter the destination country and any transit countries; and b) That requirement in (a) shall be applied to both staff selling or issuing tickets, boarding passes or similar travel documents and to staff collecting or checking tickets prior to or subsequent to boarding.

The act was passed by the National Transitional Legislative Assembly in 2005.

The Act does not specifically list any other travel documents besides passports and visas, by which persons should be allowed to travel, individually or as a group. However a legal professional, who requested not to be named, told the Daily Observer of a certain regulation that requires that if a parent is traveling with child(ren) out of the country, that parent must provide a compulsory affidavit from the remaining spouse acknowledging and agreeing to the child(ren) accompanying the traveling parent. Such laws or regulatory instruments are common around the world, even in Africa, which protect the right of either parent to be with their children.

In Liberia, this requirement is not found in the 2005 anti-human trafficking act.

In spite of Rep. Kolubah's in-person attestation to the immigration officers at the airport that all of the children accompanying Mrs. Kolubah were theirs -- including their newborn twins -- the MICAT statement had this to say: "During routine checks, Madam Kolubah could not prove that all the children were hers, or that they were traveling with the consent of both parents in keeping with anti-human trafficking procedures. When she didn't produce the necessary legal instrument which would have validated her claims, Mrs. Kolubah was duly informed on how such documentation could be obtained, without which she cannot leave the country with the children. This is standard practice which other adults accompanied by even a single child have had to face."

According to the MICAT statement, Mrs. Kolubah "was... accompanied by seven children, five of whom had diplomatic passports. The other two had laissez-passer."

According to Article IV Section 3 of the "Revised Regulations To Govern The Administration And Issuance Of Liberian Passports", dated March 2016, Members of the House of Representatives, their spouses and their children under the age of 18 are entitled to diplomatic passports.

"Meanwhile, the government strongly refutes Representative Kolubah's claims that he spoke to Justice Minister Musa Dean about Saturday's incident. The Minister has not spoken with the lawmaker since his return to the country from a trip to Guinea" MICAT says.

Rep. Kolubah, in fact, told Journalists on Saturday that he "spoke with the Acting Minister of Justice."

The MICAT release also said there were seven children with Mrs. Kolubah. However, the Kolubahs report that there were six children with Mrs. Kolubah.

"The Government, however, reiterates its commitment to upholding the rights of every Liberian, including the right to free movement. The government interposes no objection to any plans by Representative Kolubah's family to travel out of Liberia, except where interdicted by the courts."

Amid claims by Rep. and Mrs. Kolubah that they had traveled twice in 2018 as a family and had no issues raised by the Liberian immigration about whether the children belonged to them, the onus is now on them to establish that the children Mrs. Kolubah was traveling with belong to the couple.

Pundits, however, find it baffling that the motive behind the barring of the Kolubahs from traveling was anything but political. "To the extent that the government would take away the luggage and the food that had been packed for the Kolubah's twins, what has that to do with human trafficking?" one commentator asked.

Meanwhile, Rep. Kolubah says he has alerted the ECOWAS Ambassador to Liberia, Tunde Ajisomo; and will register his concerns about his ordeal in written communications to the United Nations, the United States and the European Union.

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