E.g., 09/29/2023
E.g., 09/29/2023
After Deportation, Some Congolese Returnees Face Detention and Extortion

After Deportation, Some Congolese Returnees Face Detention and Extortion

Plane engines

View from window of plane flying over Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo: Oskari Kettunen)

Following a sharp increase in the arrival of asylum seekers and other migrants from Africa and the Middle East at EU borders in 2015, European politicians have increasingly called for more and faster returns of migrants deemed not to have a right to stay. These returns can be carried out from within individual EU Member States or at the bloc’s external border. Yet to date, return rates from Europe have been relatively low: 214,000 individuals from all 28 EU Member States in 2017. EU leaders aim to make deportation procedures more efficient by using new methods to identify unauthorized migrants, increasing the use of detention, limiting asylum seekers’ opportunities to appeal a negative decision, and drawing on lists of third countries classified as “safe” to support return decisions.

Pressure from national publics increasingly skeptical of immigration and the focus among policymakers on increasing the efficiency of returns have to some extent crowded out evidence-based consideration of the implications of forced returns for migrants’ human rights, as well as whether such returns in fact do lower people’s migration aspirations—as politicians frequently claim.

To examine these questions, this article explores post-deportation dynamics in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one of the most populous and least-developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Economic uncertainty, political turmoil, and high levels of poverty have led to substantial emigration from the DRC to other African countries, Western Europe, and beyond. Unauthorized Congolese migrants and those whose asylum claims are denied in Europe and elsewhere may face deportation to the DRC. The top countries for removal of the 3,275 DRC nationals deported from Europe between 2009 and 2017 were the United Kingdom (1,085), Belgium (715), France (650), and Germany (265). The case of deportations specifically to the DRC is interesting because of allegations of serious human-rights violations after return, as documented by Catherine Ramos of Justice First in the United Kingdom since 2007 and on occasion internally acknowledged by UK Embassy staff in the DRC in documents obtained under a November 2016 Freedom of Information request.

Box 1. Studying the Experiences of Returnees in the DRC

The article was informed by interviews the author conducted with 15 returnees during field research in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in January and February 2016, as well as subsequent contacts with some. Of the 15 returnees interviewed, 14 were forced to return to the DRC. One interviewee was a participant of an International Organization for Migration (IOM) assisted return program. Of the 14 deportees, five were deported by the United Kingdom, four by France, two by Belgium, and one each by Canada, Germany, and Sweden.

Interviewees were identified through introductions by NGO staff, volunteers working in detention centers, lawyers, acquaintances, and priests in both EU Member States and Kinshasa. The author also carried out six informal interviews with government officials in the DRC. All names in the article are pseudonyms. 

While each deportation case is different, this article draws on interviews conducted with migrants returned to the DRC, mostly from Europe, between 2011 and 2016 to explore some of the challenges returnees may face—including detention, extortion, or even statelessness—upon arrival or in the three months thereafter.

Human-Rights Considerations during the Deportation Process

Deportation—both whether and how it occurs—raises several questions with respect to human rights, as spelled out, for example, in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the European Convention on Human Rights, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. First with respect to protection against deportation, states must assess whether returning a migrant to a certain country would violate the principle of nonrefoulement—i.e states are prohibited from returning or deporting someone if this exposes the individual to a risk of torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, or other irreparable harm. In order to protect anyone from refoulement, it is vital that individuals seeking international protection have access to asylum procedures and that applications are assessed carefully, thoroughly, and on an individual basis. Deporting states are also obliged to respect procedural safeguards and a person’s right to an effective remedy, which means that asylum seekers have the right to appeal refusals of their asylum application and the deportation order. When deportations take place before the outcome of such appeals, this creates major logistical challenges for lawyers, harm to the asylum seeker, and potentially financial costs for deporting states. Finally, deporting states must also respect a person’s right to private and family life (e.g., avoid separation from spouse or children) and the right to life (which can require access to necessary health or care services in immigration countries).

A second set of considerations pertains to how returns are carried out. The use of force prior to and during deportation is constrained by a person’s right to life and physical integrity, as well as by international human-rights instruments against torture. Reports of migrants dying during deportation flights from suffocation, asphyxia, or heart failure due to panic and stress have led to improved human-rights monitoring during, but not after, these flights. For example, while independent bodies are in place in many European countries to monitor conditions for people in detention and during select deportation flights, this monitoring does not cover interactions between deportees and state officials upon migrants’ arrival in their country of nationality. When deporting-country authorities escort deportees during the return process, they hand them over to the police in countries of origin upon arrival at the airport. Deporting-country authorities and independent monitors are hence not present during identification checks by police or state security officers after arrival. Therefore, little is known about how returnees experience crossing back into their country of nationality, which some may have left for political reasons and others might not have a living memory of (as is the case for one informant in this study who had left the DRC first at the age of 2 and then later at the age of 11).

There is, however, recognition that a state’s human-rights obligations can extend also beyond its own borders. According to the Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States—a collection of principles drawn from existing international law and adopted by a group of experts in international law and human rights in 2011—countries have the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the economic, social, and cultural rights of individuals (as spelled out by the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights) not only within their own territory, but also when their decisions to act or to refrain from acting bring about foreseeable effects elsewhere. In the context of deportation from Europe that results in torture or inhumane and degrading treatment, the European Court of Human Rights accepts cases that touch on extraterritorial human-rights violations when there is a sufficiently close legal and physical connection between a European state and the individual it deported. Such a connection can emerge if deporting states exchange sensitive personal information with migrants’ countries of nationality, when authorities in countries of origin refuse emergency travel documents issued by a European country to deportees either upon arrival or later for the processing of passports and ID cards, or when authorities keep deportees several days at the police post prior to release from the airport (as can be the case during weekends or public holidays).

Understanding the Factors behind Post-Deportation Risks

After deportation, migrants and their families may experience a range of legal, political, social, economic, and psychological vulnerabilities—including homelessness, social stigmatization, and mental-health problems. During field research conducted by the author, interviews with deportees were occasionally cancelled because they were suffering too acutely from depression or other mental illnesses. Deportation can also negatively affect the well-being of broader networks of people. For example, returnees may be separated from family members and other loved ones who remain in the deporting countries, or the migrants’ return may result in a sudden end to remittances they had been sending to support relatives in their countries of nationality.

Post-deportation risks vary in terms of level of severity. Some are so severe that they reach the threshold of a human-rights violation, casting doubt on the legality of the deportation. Other post-deportation risks may not rise to this level, but should feed into debates about the legitimacy and effectiveness of return to those circumstances, given the broader policy context. A final set of risks can be prevented by adjusting preparations for and implementation of the deportation. For example, in a country the size of the DRC, it is difficult for deportees originally from the eastern region to mobilize the financial resources to travel from Kinshasa (where deportation flights land) to places where they might still have social networks. Meaningful access to means of communication prior to deportation and assistance with onward transportation to returnees’ places of former residence can thus reduce the risk of homelessness upon arrival.

Post-deportation vulnerabilities also stem from different factors—some linked to external conditions, and others to the characteristics of individual returnees. Within the first category, risks may occur due to political and economic conditions in the country to which individuals are deported, or to aspects of the deportation process under the control of the state carrying out the return. There are considerable differences between how EU Member States identify migrants for deportation and handle appeals of removal orders, for example. And some observers, including Amnesty International, argue the deportation of people to Afghanistan and Sudan can be considered in and of itself a human-rights violation due to the security situation in both countries.

Other post-deportation risks are closely linked to the specific profile of the deportees. The deportation of failed asylum seekers, for example, can be particularly sensitive because applying for asylum necessarily entails making negative statements about state authorities in one’s country of nationality (e.g. in relation to rape allegations or killings by the police or military, repression of opposition activities, or the state’s inability to provide access to justice). Because few avenues exist for unauthorized immigrants to gain legal residence in Europe, authorities in returnees’ countries of nationality may assume that deportees have applied for asylum while abroad.

Detention and Extortion: Cases of Individuals Deported to the DRC

Over the last decade, the DRC has accepted the readmission from Europe of between 300 and 450 citizens yearly. Those readmitted arrive in a country where human-rights violation remain systemic. Human Rights Watch has documented that government officials and security forces have carried out widespread repression against opposition leaders and supporters, pro-democracy and human-rights activists, journalists, and peaceful protesters. In central and eastern Congo, numerous armed groups and, in some cases, government security forces attacked civilians, killing and wounding many. In addition, the U.S. State Department documented forced disappearances and abductions by government and armed groups, as well as torture and arbitrary detention by the government. Violence and crimes against women, children, and LGBT individuals is in part caused by government inaction, and the DRC justice system is characterized—like the rest of the state apparatus—by corruption and a lack of transparency. Prison conditions are harsh and at times life-threatening.

In this context, returned Congolese nationals face suspicion by police officers upon arrival and at times arbitrary arrest and detention, mostly with limited means to rebut accusations of supposed criminal activity. Four of the 15 returnees interviewed during this study were detained upon arrival. Their detention lasted two to 55 days, during which they were held in a military prison, at the police post, or at the headquarters of the Congolese national security service. Seven others reported that they would have been detained had they not been able to secure safe passage at the airport through family connections or bribes ranging from 25 to 3,000 euros. Since 2016, Ramos has documented another nine cases of detention and extortion.

The systematic nature of these arrests and detention is, despite this evidence, difficult to prove, in part because of how the justice and penitentiary system operates. For example, two deportees interviewed in Kinshasa explained that the Congolese police had asked them to sign documents certifying that they had been released without torture, detention, or fines. After they signed, the police agents asked them for a “present.” Each gave roughly 25 to 35 euros, about half of the monthly salary of a secondary school teacher. In the words of one interviewee: “It’s better to lose money than to take the risk to be picked up by national intelligence.”

Real or Perceived Political Activism as a Catalyst for Detention and Extortion

One reason police officers detain or extort money from deportees is returnees are suspected of engaging in political activism while abroad. The Congolese media reported, for example, that the diaspora was financing local demonstrations against the president in the run-up to the 2018 general election. During the field research, police officers informally described their view of all deportees as having been in “political exile,” and one state official told the author that those who had made unfounded asylum declarations abroad would be arrested and imprisoned. In addition to this political dimension, border officers may also suspect forced returnees of having money earned abroad, which can lead to the solicitation of bribes.

These dynamics are illustrated by the cases of interviewed deportees. For example, Michel was detained for 55 days in a military prison a few months after his deportation from Canada in early 2015. He had been abroad for 46 years but lost his refugee status following a criminal conviction. Initially, he was readmitted to the DRC without further questioning because his family, aware of his political profile, had given 3,000 euros to airport officials. However, military intelligence services later arrested him. While in detention, military officers showed Michel YouTube videos in which he could be seen criticizing President Joseph Kabila; they then interrogated him and made death threats.

Michel explained that he was able to survive detention because of his family’s social position and networks. The Canadian mother of his two children secured the attention of the Red Cross, which visited him regularly, and his mother paid 17,000 euros in installments to further informal release negotiations. These talks were also helped along by army officials in the family and by contacts of Michel’s late father, who had held political power. Michel was eventually released upon the condition that he would no longer voice his political opinions.

Crucially, because of the general perception that the Congolese diaspora engages in political activism, it seems that the political profile of individual deportees does not have to be particularly pronounced to result in detention. Lionel, for example, was not politically active while living in the United Kingdom but was still brought to national intelligence headquarters after arriving on a charter flight in 2012 along with 22 other deportees—a practice described as common by staff of a Congolese nongovernmental organization. Because of predeparture lack of access to communication, Lionel could not inform contacts in Kinshasa of his arrival time. Consequently, his family friend was unable to meet police officers at the airport to negotiate Lionel’s release. The following day, national intelligence officers did not allow the friend to provide Lionel with food and water, though he was released a day later without having to pay the officers.

Risks Continue beyond the Initial Detention Period

Even after these initial periods of detention, forced returnees remain vulnerable to state actors. As with other returnees, Lionel was asked to provide an address and he received a visit a few days after his release. Afraid of bribe requests, Lionel changed his phone’s sim card, sought a new place to stay in Kinshasa, and eventually returned to his home region. Originally from a city in the eastern part of the country, he had never been to Kinshasa before; the two are as far apart as Amsterdam and Warsaw. He used his UK savings (approximately 310 euros) to buy a flight from Kinshasa to a city nearer his hometown. But because he was not in possession of national ID, his brother arranged for the ticket to be bought under another name.

Interviews suggest that migrants who participate in voluntary return programs can also be subjected to detention. For example, after his return from the United Kingdom in 2009, Charles was interrogated by border police for 2.5 hours and then taken to an underground cell for three days. During his detention, he was not able to see a lawyer, and apart from occasional biscuits, he was not given food. The officers accused Charles of having insulted the country and its leaders when abroad and claimed to have seen him at a London demonstration. They also questioned why he had left the DRC and why he no longer had a passport. Because Charles was part of an assisted voluntary returns program, Charles was able to buy himself out of detention by promising he would pay the officers the money he was to receive from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) post-release.

The Importance of Identity Documents

Having access to identity documents is essential, both during deportation and upon deportees’ return. When a removal order is issued for migrants who do not possess the documents required to travel, their country’s consulate or the government of the deporting state may issue emergency travel documents, such as laissez-passers. For the country seeking to return a migrant, these documents need only carry the individual over the border; the lack of standard travel and identity documents can create post-deportation risks for returnees, however. When individuals are deported with emergency travel documents that are incomplete, contain errors, or were issued by an authority other than the country of nationality, they may be detained while local authorities investigate their identity. Some may also find it difficult to access official identity documents later.

Of the 15 deportees interviewed, six experienced problems getting national identity papers upon return. The case of Nadine is particularly striking in this regard. Born to a Rwandan father and a Congolese mother, Nadine lived in the Netherlands for five years, beginning when she was 16. Although the Congolese Embassy in the Netherlands did not recognize Nadine as a Congolese national for many years, it eventually agreed to issue her a tenant lieu de passeport (a rarely used identity document for Congolese nationals). When she was deported in March 2016, the Dutch military police escort officers handed Nadine’s emergency travel document to the Congolese border police at the Kinshasa airport—leaving Nadine without proof of nationality. When Congolese officers questioned her to determine if she was Congolese or Rwandan, Nadine protested her deportation and lack of identity documents. Eventually an officer guided Nadine out of the police post into a public area, advising her to leave the airport because otherwise she would be detained. Without family or friends in Kinshasa, Nadine found shelter with a pastor, residing in the DRC without proof of nationality. At the time of writing, she had returned to Europe.

During the author’s research, deportees who had traveled with emergency travel documents, not passports, described not having been able to see their identification papers prior to the deportation flight. Alain, for example, was deported to the DRC in late 2015 after 13 years in the United Kingdom, having been convicted of a crime. He had only lived in the DRC for part of his childhood—until age 2, and then later between ages 8 and 11—and spoke only rudimentary French and Lingala (a language spoken predominantly in the northwestern part of the DRC). The emergency travel document issued by Congolese authorities reportedly included his name, but the fields for his profession, date of birth, sex, marital status, and address were left empty. UK authorities accepted the document as sufficient to deport Alain, but upon arrival in Kinshasa he faced questioning about his identity. Alain was only able to communicate with the police officers because another deportee was able to translate for him. At the time of writing, Alain had been kicked out by family friends who had first sheltered him. Unable to work because he does not speak French, Alain survives with monthly money transfers from his mother living in the United Kingdom.

Since 2016, Ramos has documented an additional seven cases of returnees who have struggled to get ID documents post-return. Deporting states do not generally monitor returned migrants post-deportation, and there is consequently little empirical evidence on whether and how deportees are able to obtain passports and other identity documents. While this is a multifaceted challenge shaped by the administrative policies of different countries, a first step toward ensuring that returned migrants are not exposed to the risks associated with an inability to prove one’s nationality would be to guarantee that they can see their travel documents pre-deportation and be given a chance to correct errors.

Critically Assessing Deportation Risks as Political Focus on Returns Intensifies

Deported individuals face a unique set of dangers upon return. Some of these vulnerabilities can be tied back to the way deportation occurs, which falls under the responsibility of deporting states. Relying on travel documents not issued by migrants’ country of nationality, for example, as well as deportations prior to weekends and public holidays increases risks for deportees upon arrival. The above cases illustrate the importance of examining on-the-ground conditions after deportation, and the gaps between legal frameworks in countries of origin and actual state practices. As policymakers in Europe and elsewhere redouble their efforts to increase return rates, balancing this policy aim with countries’ human-rights commitments will hinge on building understanding of migrants’ post-deportation experiences.


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