London, United Kingdom – A Somali man forcibly returned to Mogadishu from the UK under a controversial new scheme to send home failed asylum seekers has described how he was punched and kicked by the British guards who accompanied him, and left him bleeding in a cell after having a tooth knocked out.
The man, who did not want to be identified because he fears for his safety, also told Al Jazeera how he was restrained in handcuffs for most of his journey aboard the Turkish Airlines flights via Istanbul, and pressured by his escorts to sign a document stating that he had returned to his homeland voluntarily.
Speaking by telephone from the Somali capital, he said he was resigned to dying in a city that is still plagued by ambushes and bombings and considered unacceptably dangerous for returning refugees by most humanitarian organisations. “I have surrendered myself to death. All I am thinking is that I am a dying man,” he said.
The man is the first individual confirmed to have been repatriated through a new removals programme that seeks to take advantage of recent legal judgments and changes to UK immigration policy, which mean that Somalis seeking asylum must successfully prove that they face a specific threat, rather than simply being at risk from indiscriminate violence.
‘Test pilot scheme’
In legal documents relating to his case seen by Al Jazeera, the UK’s Home Office stated that he was part of a “Somalia test pilot scheme”. Al Jazeera has learnt that another Somali man is due to be removed to Mogadishu via the same route on Tuesday.
He said his ordeal began at midnight on May 3, when he was collected by guards from an immigration detention centre where he was in custody, driven to Heathrow Airport and seated at the back of an early-morning Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul.
As he struggled, shouted and cried, he said he was pushed and kicked by his escorts, and kept in handcuffs throughout the flight. On arrival in Istanbul he was taken to a cell in the airport, accompanied by a Turkish immigration official.
As he continued to struggle, he said his legs were kicked away, causing him to hit his face so violently that he lost a tooth. “I was bleeding really badly but they dragged me to the cell. I asked to be treated, but nobody came to help me. The blood just kept flowing all over the floor of the cell.”
On the next leg of the journey, a Turkish Airlines flight to Mogadishu via Djibouti, he pleaded with his escorts to let him go to the toilet, but they still refused to release his hands. “I told them, will you please remove the handcuffs because I am in pain. My bones are aching. They said, ‘If you write something on this [piece of] paper that you want to go back to your country, we are going to leave you alone.'”
The man instead wrote in Somali that he had been forced to return against his will. Yet despite his protests, on arrival in Mogadishu he said he was registered by immigration officials as having returned voluntarily.
Since then, he said he had simply been hoping to survive from day-to-day. “I am in hiding and I’m trying not be identified, but everyone here is vulnerable and you could be killed at any time.”
The Home Office’s latest quarterly immigration statistics appear to confirm a more robust policy on forced returns to Somalia, with 13 people removed in the first quarter of 2014, compared with just seven a year in both 2012 and 2013.
Asylum lawyers familiar with recent Somali cases said immigration officials were “playing hardball” and looking for reasons to refuse asylum claims made by those who had fled the country.
But James McGuinness, an asylum advocate at law firm Jackson & Canter, said he hoped a forthcoming country guidance decision by the immigration tribunal, which sets factual precedent for asylum cases in the UK, would “faithfully reflect the situation on the ground” in Somalia.
“There is cogent evidence to support the argument that Mogadishu remains highly volatile, unsafe, insecure and unstable,” he told Al Jazeera. “For the overwhelming majority of Somalis who have sought protection abroad, the prospect of returning to Mogadishu is the stuff of nightmares.”
In March, Al Jazeera identified at least six individuals who had been detained by UK immigration authorities pending removal to Somalia, and reported the story of one man who was flown as far as Istanbul before being returned to London when his solicitor secured a review of his case.
Abdullah, who had previously spoken to the media using an alias but believed that his anonymity had been compromised by coverage of his case on Somali-language television, also alleged that he was physically mistreated by his escorts. He didn’t want his last name published.
He said that Somalis returning from the UK risked being killed by the rebel group al-Shabab as a way to discredit claims by the government and its allies that the country is becoming safer and more stable. Al-Shabab, which was driven out of Mogadishu in 2011 but still mounts regular attacks in the capital, has previously stated that it will kill anyone returning from Western countries.
‘Essential for immigration control’
He said he also feared he would be targeted by individuals or groups with relatives abroad who might try to harm returning Somalis in order to halt repatriations, so that their family members would not face the same fate. As a member of a minority clan, he said he could not count on the protection of an established community.
Ensuring those with no right in the UK are removed at the earliest opportunity is essential for effective immigration control.
“I am an easy target. They will do anything to promote instability and it would be a big message to Western governments,” he told Al Jazeera. “I am not assuming this. I have received threats through family members back home and many people have told me that I will be killed.”
Concerns over security in Mogadishu were once again highlighted last week by a deadly al-Shabab attack on the Somali parliament. The Turkish Airlines’ security chief in the city was also killed in an ambush on Tuesday.
Jasmine Sallis, a case worker at the Unity Centre in Glasgow, which provides support to asylum seekers, said there were hundreds of Somalis in the UK whose claims had been refused who were now “very, very scared”.
“The Home Office just refuses as many cases as it can,” Sallis told Al Jazeera. “It has found a way to send people back to a war zone and they are detaining people.”
Sallis said that Somali organisations and communities in the UK needed to take seriously the threat faced by their compatriots, and called on them to speak out and support a Unity Centre campaign to stop the removals.
Turkish Airlines told Al Jazeera that it carried passengers being removed in compliance with UK aviation security regulations. Spokesman Ali Genc said flight staff had not reported any incidents on the flights in question. He said passengers being removed were observed prior to departure and that any displaying aggressive behaviour, including screaming, would be rejected from a flight.
A spokesman for the Home Office said that it did not comment on individual cases or discuss details of return routes for security reasons. He said all escorts were trained in the use of control and restraint techniques and had their performance constantly monitored.
“We are building an immigration system that is fair to British citizens and legitimate migrants, and tough on those who abuse the system or flout the law. Ensuring those with no right in the UK are removed at the earliest opportunity is essential for effective immigration control,” he said.
“Where individuals seek to disrupt their removal, restraint may be used to ensure the safety of other passengers, detainees and staff. We have commissioned a bespoke training package for aircraft removals, which we will start rolling out shortly.”
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