-Says Foreign Affairs Minister
Foreign Minister Nabeela Tunis has said that the government will not compromise its process for verifying the nationality of deportees from the United States, following the US Embassy accusing the Sierra Leonean government of an inconsistent and delayed removals process.
Speaking at a press conference, the foreign minister strongly denied claims by the US Embassy that Sierra Leone was not compliant with deportations and expressed a strong commitment to the verification process.
"As a country we have a responsibility to go through the verification process as our national processes deem fit... despite the fact that we are under a lot of pressure to receive these people who are alleged Sierra Leoneans from the United States," said the foreign minister.
The US Embassy has suspended the issuance of all visas to Sierra Leoneans and has said that it will only reconsider the visa sanction once an improved removal process is put in place by the Sierra Leonean government.
"What we are looking for is a consistent, reputable, routine process by which the government of Sierra Leone issues these travel documents to their citizens," US Ambassador Marie Brewer told Radio Democracy yesterday.
However, the foreign minister is adamant that the government is compliant with deportation requests: "We have told them over and over again that we are not averse to accepting our nationals. We are ready to accept our nationals and we have been doing that for a very long time," said the foreign minister.
Ambassador Brewer stated that the number of people waiting for deportation to Sierra Leone stands at approximately 1,300.
The Sierra Leonean government will verify that each deportee is a Sierra Leonean national before accepting their repatriation.
The foreign minister also stated that the coronavirus pandemic has impeded the government's ability to repatriate nationals.
"There was a delay in us effecting [the verification process] because... the airports were closed... it is not practically possible for us to execute the request for deportations. Therefore, for a certain length of time we could not have these deportations done. But immediately when the airports were opened we did receive eight people in August," she said.
The foreign minister said that the verification process can last between a few hours and a couple of days depending on the level of documentation available.
The government has set up a committee responsible for verification comprising representatives from the immigration department, labour ministry, the Office of National Security, International Organisation for Migration, social welfare and the foreign ministry.
The committee was set up following the case of two deportees last year who claimed to be from the Caribbean rather than Sierra Leone.
Ambassador Brewer has said that it was the government of Sierra Leone that issued the travel documents to the two deportees and it was therefore their responsibility to verify their nationality.
The disagreement between the two countries has worsened over the past few years. Visa sanctions have been in place since 2016 and they were expanded in 2017 to include all foreign ministry and immigration officials. The latest round of sanctions are the most severe the country have suffered. Those that already have a visa will still be able to travel and the US Embassy has said it will respect its international obligations to supply visas to diplomats and embassy staff.