A homeless refugee-activist’s relentless fight for justice in DRC

Jenny fled the DRC and now runs an activist network from the UK, using free wifi at the library and 24-hour McDonald’s.

Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu
Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu escaped the DRC in 2006 and is hoping his 12 years of political limbo in in the UK will soon end [Courtesy: Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu]

To mark World Refugee Day on June 20, and Refugee Week in the UK from June 17 to 23, Al Jazeera is profiling five refugees who are based in England. This is Jenny’s story.

London, England – He needed a suit to wear to an important interview with a journalist but, as a homeless man, that was going to be a challenge – especially considering he’s roughly the size of a phone box.

His name is Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu, he hails from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and he’s currently seeking asylum in the UK. 

The Salvation Army came to Jenny’s aid, and he arrived at the interview in a black suit and tie.

Jenny is homeless because the UK government cut off his funding some six years ago and has forbidden him to work. So he spends his days at the library using their internet, and evenings at the 24-hour McDonald’s, using theirs. 

From his precarious “office spaces”, he manages an activist network of 65 Congolese activists who pass along documentation of human rights abuses in his country.

By his side is his precious laptop, which he takes everywhere he goes and uses to document the abuses, collecting hundreds of photos of rapes, murders, and torture. 

“I collect all stories, testimony, evidence. I’m going to introduce procedure to the International Court of Justice.” 

One of these videos showed an “enemy of the state” being disembowelled while still alive.

Jenny himself is no stranger to violence.

His father died when he was five and his mother became the sole breadwinner, feeding three sons and her extended family.

A devout Christian, she did not want to remarry, but according to Congolese custom, her husband’s younger brother claimed his “right” to marry her.

I fought injustice like Nelson Mandela fought apartheid. I was born in a country under a dictator, the biggest dictator in the world.

by Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu, Congolese refugee

When Jenny’s mother refused, he beat her and cast her and the children out into the street. She did not survive. At 14, the boy took on the role of caring for his two younger brothers. 

Jenny dropped out of school and began working in the market, using what little spare time he had to teach himself politics and law. 

“I was an afternoon activist with friends and politicians, to build a strategy, to change a country. That was my life. I fought injustice like Nelson Mandela fought apartheid. I was born in a country under a dictator, the biggest dictator in the world.

“President Mobutu spent 32 years in power. No law, no constitution, no parliament, no government, nothing. I was young, but I read a lot. I saw the way occidental countries had freedom and people protest. I joined a political group, Movement for the Liberation of the Congo.”

Anti-government DRC protests turn deadly
Congolese protest against President Kabila’s refusal to step down from power in Kinshasa, DRC, on December 31, 2017. Security forces shot dead at least two men outside a church while dispersing demonstrators [File: John Bompengo/The Associated Press]

One of his friends was enrolled in law school and shared his notes with Jenny, whose dream was to become a defence lawyer. 

There are more than one million people that went to prison for nothing,” he said. “And if you have money, you can kill someone, and nobody touch you.” 

In the DRC, political demonstrations have been met with violent responses from government forces. Protesters frequently attempt to escape but are not always successful. Jenny was arrested over 20 times. 

After a rally against then-President Joseph Kabila in 2006, Jenny had to go into hiding as police searched for him door to door. His cohorts had been arrested, and he felt certain that if he was caught, his life would be in danger.

He sought assistance from a British Anglican priest he had known for years. The pastor agreed to help him escape by securing a false passport and buying a plane ticket.

The pastor recommended Belgium as a natural destination since Jenny spoke French, but he declined.

The DRC had been a Belgian colony and Jenny didn’t trust their security to not be in cahoots with the government he was trying to escape. 

As part of his autodidactic political education, Jenny had studied British politics and found that Congolese politics suffered by comparison. 

“On BBC News or Parliament TV, I see the prime minister asking the MPs questions. But in my country, for 20 years the president, prime minister, ministers – they don’t give any answer how they run the country, nobody controls them. They just took everything, and people died.”

Jenny arrived at Heathrow in 2006 with false papers and little else. He spoke no English and had no friends, no housing, and no money. But he had his life – more than he would’ve had if he’d remained in Kinshasa for another week. 

At the London airport, he told Border Control in French that he was an asylum seeker and they led him to a room where he waited for six hours for an interview.

After midnight, an officer came to him with an interpreter and the interrogation began.

“He say to me, ‘You speak French, why you not go to France? Why you not go to Belgium? Why you come in England? Why only our country? You guys, you come too much in our country. Only for food, for house, for benefits. I’m going to send you back to the Congo.'” 

Jenny knew the ANR, the Congolese intelligence agency, would be waiting for him at the airport and would kill him straight away. 

A devout Catholic, Jenny believes what happened next was divine intervention. 

His interlocutor had to go to a meeting. The frightened asylum seeker waited hours and hours for his return, but instead, a kind female officer walked in who apologised for her colleague’s behaviour, and – after 34 hours of stress – told Jenny he would be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom. 

She issued him an ID and he was transported to Walsall, outside Birmingham, where he was placed in a shared house with three other African asylum seekers. 

The process of receiving refugee status that would give Jenny legal standing to remain, and the right to work in the UK, had begun. 

He immediately filed the papers supplied to him by the Home Office, complete with pictures, biometrics, and fingerprints. 

He has been waiting for the verdict for 12 years. 

Jenny Dakosta is an exceptional character with such an unbelievable burden for the deprived ones, relentlessly fighting for greater social justice despite his current challenging circumstances.

by Jean-Claude Kayumba, activist

In 2014, after eight years of waiting, a friend helped him write to then-Prime Minister David Cameron, who contacted the Home Office on Jenny’s behalf. 

Al Jazeera has seen a document from the Home Office confirming receipt of Cameron’s letter, and that their records show additional submissions made by Jenny in February 2009. They assure the applicant that they will contact him if they require further information.

Since then, Jenny has waited an additional four and a half years for a verdict, something he finds unjust considering he is part of a legacy group that arrived before March 5, 2007, and was guaranteed refugee status.

In 2018, MP Imran Hussain also contacted the Home Office requesting an explanation for the lengthy delay in resolving Jenny’s case. 

On September 25, 2018, the agency called him in for an interview. At last, he hoped, his wait had come to an end.

While preparing for his interview with the Home Office, he looked forward to being able to work at last and fulfil his dream of attending law school. 

He’s proud that his 21-year-old son is studying law in the DRC. The boy was nine years old when his father escaped, and he hasn’t seen him since.

But the Home Office denied Jenny’s last application and told him he must leave the UK in three months. 

Exhausted and defeated, he waited to be deported. After five months, he contacted the agency to see what was happening; he told them he was ready to go voluntarily. 

“They said your country is not safe. We are not going to send you there. We won’t let you go back.”

At least on this much, everyone is in agreement. 

His lawyer Joseph Baguley said: “Jenny is very active in exposing human rights abuses in the DRC. It is our belief that his political activities in the UK would place him at real risk of persecution if he were returned to the DRC and so we will be arguing that he should be granted refugee status in the UK.”

Yet while he has been denied permission to leave, Jenny has not been granted permission to remain. 

He has a new appointment scheduled with the Home Office in Liverpool for July 30, which he hopes will end his 12 years of political limbo. 

“Jenny Dakosta is an exceptional character with such an unbelievable burden for the deprived ones,” said his Congolese compatriot and fellow activist, Jean-Claude Kayumba, “relentlessly fighting for greater social justice, despite his current challenging circumstances.”

DRC elections-do not use
An anti-government protester, centre, is arrested by Congo riot troops, during a protest against a law that could have delayed elections to be held in 2016 [John Bompengo/AP]
Source: Al Jazeera