A former ELN kidnap victim is facing deportation from the UK
Fredy Celis fled Colombia with his family after he was kidnapped by armed group ELN. Now, the UK wants to send him back.
Fredy Celis and his wife Diana Pineros had built themselves successful careers in their home city of Bogota, Colombia.
Celis owned a restaurant and an import and export company, while Pineros worked in logistics.
Yet these professional successes brought them unwanted attention in July 2015 when Celis began receiving anonymous phone calls demanding protection money.
Celis dismissed the demands, and on August 28 several men arrived at his restaurant and beat him savagely.
“They thought they had killed me,” Celis told Al Jazeera.
After regaining consciousness in hospital Celis discharged himself despite the doctors’ protests, returning home still covered in blood.
He reported the attack to the police and immediately put plans in place to sell his restaurant.
In late October 2015, while in Mexico City to watch the Grand Prix and attend business meetings, Celis was accosted and forced into a car at gunpoint.
The car drove for an hour and a half before Celis was pushed out.
“We were somewhere in the mountains. About 15 men attacked me with pieces of wood, on my face first, shattering my nose, and then on my feet so I couldn’t walk,” Celis told Al Jazeera.
For the next 34 days, Celis was kept chained up and regularly beaten. He was forced by his unknown kidnappers to leave voice messages for his wife, demanding ransom money.
“I was ordered to tell her they wanted $370,000 and that if she contacted the police I would be killed,” Celis said.
We have done nothing illegal. At Heathrow, we were given 24 hours to enter London and we claimed asylum immediately. We claimed in the first European country we entered. I've signed at the police station every two weeks since we arrived and never been late
Back in Bogota, Pineros was frantic. She managed to raise a $70,000 downpayment on the restaurant sale which she left at an agreed drop-off point.
She then contacted the Colombian military’s elite anti-kidnapping unit, GAULA.
GAULA officers told Pineros to ask the kidnappers for a photograph of Celis providing proof of life, and then ask if she could send a family photograph back to her husband.
By accepting these demands, the kidnappers fell into a carefully laid trap.
The digital photograph sent via WhatsApp contained an encrypted virus which traced the kidnappers and a rescue operation was coordinated between Colombian and Mexican authorities.
“I heard the doors being broken down and I could see men pointing guns. I thought at first they had come to kill me,” Celis said of his rescue.
“Then the police commander entered my room and said, ‘You are free, you have come back to life!'”
Following his return to Colombia, Celis received a letter through the post.
“I had never known who was behind [the kidnapping]. But then I understood, it was the ELN.”
Founded in 1964, the ELN (National Liberation Army of Colombia) was traditionally Colombia’s second-largest armed group after the FARC.
But unlike FARC, who signed a peace treaty with the Colombian government in 2016, the communist-Marxist ELN have yet to broker a deal.
The ELN letter held Celis responsible for the arrest of two of their members during the rescue operation and summoned him for “a meeting”.
Convinced that he was about to be killed, Celis immediately moved his family to a new house and changed his children’s schools, but the letters continued.
When Celis received a “final warning” in July 2016, ordering him to meet the ELN General Command or “our units will take matters into their own hands”, he immediately prepared to flee Colombia.
While transiting through London en route to France the family missed their connecting flights. Feeling stranded and with little money for new tickets, Celis attempted to claim asylum at Heathrow, but with limited English he struggled to explain his request.
He was told by immigration officials that they could go to London to arrange onward travel. With the help of a family friend and a solicitor in London, the family lodged their claim for UK asylum within 24 hours.
After being moved through various asylum hostels, the British Home Office sent them to the Yorkshire city of Hull about 18 months ago.
Today, Celis, Pineros and their children, Dana and Joel, have a solid network of friends in the city. Eight-year-old Joel is playing for a local football team and Dana attends weekly dance classes.
Both children are popular students at the local school.
Friends have raised money so that Pineros can study English at Hull College. Celis’s English is improving and when he struggles his children often translate for him.
The family are active members of the local congregation and Celis occasionally helps out with odd jobs at the church.
In February 2017, a letter from the Home Office arrived. It was the letter the family had been desperately waiting for but it contained an asylum refusal they had been dreading.
An appeal against the decision was made which marked the beginning of an extended process of appeals followed by Home Office rejections.
The Home Office acknowledges that Celis’s kidnapping was genuine – an irrefutable fact since media coverage of his rescue can still be viewed online.
Regardless, the Home Office believe Celis and his family can safely return to Colombia because “a reasonable level of state protection is available” in Bogota, as stated in a March 2018 letter from the Home Office.
Celis scoffs at the suggestion.
“No one can assure me that I won’t be found and killed. I will never be able to go out or send my children to school. We will live in fear,” he said.
Celis’s fear of the ELN is not unfounded. Peace talks between the group and the Colombian government were suspended this year following a bombing campaign which saw oil pipelines and bridges destroyed, and police officers killed.
If the Colombian police cannot protect themselves, Celis reasons, how will they protect his family?
“Fredy and his family have been through an extremely traumatic situation with the kidnapping, the high-profile rescue and ensuing ELN threats,” Jayne Mercer, CEO of the Community Integration and Advocacy Centre which has taken on the family’s case, told Al Jazeera.
“Clearly, his life will be in danger if he returns to Colombia and they deserve protection in the UK.”
In March 2018, the family were summoned for a meeting with the Home Office’s Voluntary Returns Team in which, Celis said, they were told that they must “do the right thing and return to Colombia voluntarily”.
At a subsequent meeting, he was told to sign deportation papers and offered flight tickets back to Colombia.
When he refused to sign the papers, Celis was told he and his family would be “forcibly deported” if they didn’t agree to return and that they were acting “illegally” – a position which Celis vigorously denies.
“We have done nothing illegal. At Heathrow [airport], we were given 24 hours to enter London and we claimed asylum immediately. We claimed in the first European country we entered. I’ve signed at the police station every two weeks since we arrived and never been late,” he said.
The community in Hull is rallying around the family. Joel’s football team sent a letter to the Home Office asking them to reconsider their decision. The priest of their church acted similarly.
John Murray, headteacher of Dana and Joel’s Francis Askew Primary Academy wrote to the Home Office last month.
“For over four decades, I have been in the business of trying to raise standards in education and trying to nurture successful and caring citizens. Why then, oh why are we sending this family back?” his letter reads.
“The children have a bright and successful future to look forward to. Why snatch that away from them now?”
Local parliamentarian Emma Hardy has also taken an interest in the case.
“While it is perfectly legitimate for people to have concerns about immigration, the UK has a proud history of offering asylum … to people fleeing persecution in their own countries,” she told Al Jazeera.
“When I was made aware of this case, I got straight on the phone to the Home Office and asked them to put a block on the deportation and will continue to assist Fredy and the family in any way I can.”
A Home Office spokesperson said that “the UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and every case is assessed on its individual merits”, but that they were unable to comment on an ongoing case.
In April, the family lodged a fresh claim for asylum but this time, in Pineros’ name rather than Celis’.
Whether the new claim will be treated differently remains to be seen, but time may now be running out for the family.
The cracks are showing behind both Celis’ and Pineros’ warm smiles although they have not given up.
As Celis sees it, they have no choice: “I will give my life for my children so I will never stop fighting to keep them safe. There is only one life and we need to fight for it.”