Birthday wish for freedom

Birthday wish for freedom

Written by: Bianca Brigitte Bonomi

Coventry Refugee Centre is fighting to keep a Congolese asylum seeker in the UK, claiming that she could face danger and sexual violence if deported.

Birthdays have traditionally been seen as an annual celebration, offering us release from the monotony of the everyday and providing us with an opportunity to laugh and enjoy ourselves with friends. But for Ilengela Ileo, a Congolese asylum seeker currently being detained in Yarl’s Wood, her birthday today is characterised by worry and anxiety; balloons replaced with bars, frivolity with fear.

Ilengela arrived in the UK from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) three years ago, following the murder of her uncle and the disappearance of her four brothers and one of her sisters. The Red Cross has since attempted to locate these individuals but it has had no success and they are now presumed dead. Ilengela’s mother and youngest sister, who managed to escape to the UK, have both been granted leave to remain and live in Coventry, but the government plans to deport Ilengela and separate her from her only remaining family.

Ilengela’s story of detention in the UK is a familiar one. She reported to the Midlands Enforcement Unit on 12 April, as usual. Yet despite adhering to the reporting conditions, she was arrested and told that her asylum claim had been refused. Ilengela was subsequently transported to Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, where she currently remains.

Coventry Refugee Centre has now fought back against this decision, by launching a campaign to prevent the deportation. It is keen to highlight that since arriving in the UK, Ilengela has made a valuable contribution to the local community, working as a volunteer caseworker at the Coventry Refugee Centre. She has provided care and assistance for distressed individuals and campaigners believe that she now deserves the same support.

Since being detained, Ilengela’s emotional well-being has been adversely affected and despite being a strong individual, she has witnessed a deterioration in her physical health. This decline has been exacerbated by the fact that Ilengela has been taken to the airport in handcuffs three times, before being returned to Yarl’s Wood, forcing her to constantly confront the polarised emotions of fear and hope.

Ilengela maintains that she will be in danger if returned to the DRC. She has no relatives in her homeland and no friends, putting her in a vulnerable, alienated position. Her fears are seemingly justified: in June, the UK Minister for Trade, Investment and Foreign Affairs, Ian McCartney, stated that ‘The UK frequently raises with the Congolese Government our concerns about wide scale sexual violence in the DRC. In February, we and international partners formally presented President Kabila with a dossier cataloguing major abuses carried out by Congolese armed forces, including rape and sexual violence.’

In addition, the UN peace keeping mission in Congo (Monuc) was last year accused of ‘failing to protect civilians, including those targeted for sexual violence’. The Guardian has also reported that ‘tens of thousands’ of individuals have been raped by militias in the Congo conflict and warned that this abuse is ‘continuing’.

Jane Longville, of the Ilengela Must Stay Campaign, told IRR News of the positive response that the campaign has had: ‘We have had lots of letters and a large number of people have signed our petition. We are faxing off these letters of support to the Home Office on a daily basis and hope to deliver the petition to the Home Office shortly. On the legal front, Ilengela’s lawyer is pushing for a judicial review. There has been notable media attention, with the local press coverage proving very encouraging.’ Ms Longville, with whom Ilengela has worked, said: ‘I feel personally bound to help, because Ilengela was a volunteer in my asylum team at the Refugee Centre and did such excellent and necessary work.’

Ilengela’s supporters have organised a collection for her birthday and this evening two members of the Coventry Refugee Centre will visit her in Yarl’s Wood. Ms Longville commented that in spite of all the challenges faced in her life, Ilengela has remained ‘amazingly strong, with enormous faith’. With such positive characteristics and such overwhelming community support, perhaps Ilengela’s birthday wish will finally be granted.

Related links

Ilengela Must Stay Campaign

National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns

Coventry Refugee Centre

For more information contact the Ilengela Must Stay Campaign, c/o Coventry Refugee Centre, 15/16 Bishop Street, Coventry, CV1 1HU or email:

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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