We publish the extraordinary testimony of an asylum seeker from the Congo Republic ‘Laurent Mpinde’ who is fighting to stay in the UK and cannot give his real name.
Laurent Mpinde, who was studying sports science in Brazzaville and teaching in schools and colleges, was interviewed last year by Jeremy Seabrook researching the book, The Refuge and the Fortress: Britain and the Flight from Tyranny commissioned for the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics. The interview has been edited by Amanda Sebesteyen.
‘Democracy was confiscated’
‘The Congo Republic ought to be rich. It is rich. We have oil and timber. But it is a police state. The administration polices the people – hard. There is an elaborate system of surveillance and control. Although per capita income is around $15,000 a year, about 70 per cent of the people are poor. There is no justice.
The two main companies which extract oil are Elf, which is French and Agip, which is Italian. There are British companies also. The President’s son had his office in London, although it is closed now. They work through networks of sub-contractors. Our country is the private hunting-ground of France.
There was a series of coups after Independence, but this erupted into ethnic fighting after the 1992 elections, which were disputed. The southern-based president Pascal Lissouba was in power from ’92-’97, a brief period of democracy. But he was toppled by Sassou in 1997; the opposition was disqualified and a third party, that of Andre Milongo, pulled out alleging irregularities. This led to five years of civil war – petrol wars actually.
France had begun to lose its influence, so supported the war and sold arms to both belligerents. Many died. It seems almost every family lost a relative. People had to flee into the forests. It was the coup de grace for democracy.
I belonged to Lissouba’s Union Pan Africaine pour la Democratie Sociale. We organised the people, that was our crime. There were elections in 2002, and I set up a meeting at the university. We should have won; we were the largest party across the country. But our president was in England. He had been judged and condemned in his absence. We declined to take part because we knew the election outcome was a foregone conclusion.
The elections were a masquerade, although Europe saw fit to say the result was fair. Sassou’s party won almost 90 per cent of the vote. Whoever wins 90 per cent in a democracy? Democracy was confiscated.
When we lost power, everyone fled. We were arrested at the university. We were beaten unconscious. When I woke up, I was in prison, where I remained for seven months. We often had to drink our own urine. I was physically violated. The country was in a state of war.’
‘You are too young to die’
After seven months in a Brazzaville jail, Laurent was woken early one morning.
‘I was taken with other prisoners in a military truck to the southern region of Congo, where rebels had their headquarters. The intention was to shoot us, and then say that rebels had killed us.
Our life was saved by an officer. He said, “You are too young to die,” and released us. We begged to be killed, not shot in the back as we were running away. He said we should run. Sometimes, soldiers fire in the air, sometimes they miss deliberately.
These regimes do not command the loyalty even of the people they privilege – the police and army. They see the arbitrariness, the injustice of it, and do their bit to subvert the regime.
We were free. We came to deserted villages that had been emptied of all the population following a government ultimatum. There were just a few old and sick people who had been unable to leave. All the young people had gone. If anyone had caught us, we would have been killed.
I don’t know why the officer saved us. As teachers, many thousands of children pass through our hands. Our pupils and students often become soldiers, who knows? Maybe someone recognised us. Long afterwards I met a former pupil of mine in Manchester. He lived in France, and was in Britain visiting his family. You meet your pupils in the most unexpected places.
I took a pirogue canoe across the Congo River, the boundary between the Congo Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I understood some of the language of the piroguiers – the people who ply the canoes. They took me across to the DRC. I came to a village with a big church, a place of large-scale pilgrimage. I was sick. In prison I had been violated and beaten. I bled a lot. At the church, I met someone on a pilgrimage from Brazzaville. I asked her to contact my cousin-sister at home, who would help me.
My cousin-sister contacted some people-smugglers, and paid to have some false papers made. I was taken to Kinshasa by truck. Photographs and travel documents were prepared. I embarked with the smuggler and a woman on an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa. He held my passport. We flew on to London, passing through customs and immigration.
Once we got to London, he said he had to go. He gave us instructions, telling me I should ask for asylum. I slept in a flat where the woman was staying. It was a weekend so I could do nothing until Monday, when I asked for asylum at Lunar House in Croydon. There was such a throng of people, they said, “Come back tomorrow”. I requested asylum.
I stayed in the flat for three or four months. Little by little, I made connections, linked up with people. I looked for a lawyer, and had to find a doctor, because my health was still not good. I had to leave the place where I was staying; I was placed by the Home Office in a hotel for a week, then sent to Stoke-on-Trent.
‘Do the people who run the Home Office have any idea?’
My efforts to obtain asylum have been degrading.
At my first interview with the Home Office my request for asylum was refused. I wonder if the people who run the place have any idea of the political situation in our country? Do they know what the army and police do to their opponents?
At the appeal hearing I complained of the superficiality of the first interview. I didn’t know the system. I had an interpreter, and spoke only to him. I never even saw my lawyer. My English was poor. If you cannot speak the language, people think you are stupid. My lawyer abandoned me.
I got a good lawyer from the Refugee Legal Centre, but Stoke-on-Trent was too far away, so I was advised to find another. Then my file was lost. I had to make copies of such papers as I had, but because I had not signed my first declaration when I asked for refugee status, it was invalid. I had to go before the appeal tribunal, although I did not understand what was said. My appeal was refused.
I found a fourth lawyer, who urged me to make a fresh claim. I had no house, no support; I was taken in by some people who were kind to me. But my health deteriorated. At a football field I met someone who told me he could help get me work. He found me some papers, and took my photo. I started work. It was packing goods in a warehouse. I felt better. I was earning some money. I could pay for my lodging. It was not a quiet life, but it was better. That went on for some months. I was still waiting for a reply from the Home Office to my new claim. Then one day at work, the police and immigration authorities came. They arrested me.
“We have been looking for you.” “Why?” “Your case is over.”
I had been studying English at Crewe, and I went to my teacher who took me to another lawyer. I would have to pay £135 an hour. I had tried to save some money.
I was taken to a detention centre near Oxford. They said I was to be deported. They knew nothing. I was ill in the bus. I couldn’t walk. They took me to Harmondsworth, near Heathrow. I was badly treated there. Immigration was going to deport me. “Co-operate”, they said, “and tell us everything.” I told them I had made a new claim. They had no knowledge of it.
‘Ten days later, a letter came, saying my claim had been refused. I was issued with a removal order. I was taken to the airport with nothing, no bag, no luggage. The escort company put me in handcuffs and threatened me. They took me there so they could say I was uncooperative and could be held in indefinite detention.
‘I have never seen such misery as in detention here’
I was seven month in detention, which is the same amount of time I spent in prison in Brazzaville. I was arrested there, and I have been arrested here. You can see the marks of handcuffs on my wrists. These are British handcuffs, the handcuffs of freedom.
A cousin in London had offered me £500 to make a fresh claim. I gave it to the lawyer. He said, “I can do nothing”. But he wouldn’t give back the money. Then I was on my fifth lawyer. I was helped by the London Detainee Support Group who put me in contact with CARA, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics. It was CARA who helped me with money for travel and studying and basic necessities.
Another removal order came. I got a guarantee from CARA and from my teacher. At the next tribunal, Immigration said I had been aggressive and fought with their officers. I said, “No, they threatened me”. They said the deportation would take place in one or two weeks. I was to go via Paris. But there was no flight to Brazzaville that day. My name was not on the passenger list.
Immigration said the escort would have to be strengthened. I was taken onto the aircraft in handcuffs, not on the route taken by passengers but a back way. I could see the luggage being loaded. Mine was left outside. They threatened me. I was so angry, I fought. They hurt me. They sat me in the plane. I caused such a disturbance the pilot said he would not fly. I was taken out, insulted and sworn at.’
Laurent later discovered that the Secretary of CARA had contacted the Chief Removals Officer, and asked him whether his remit included sending people to their death, threatening to use his political contacts to publicise the case. Laurent was taken to Colnbrook , the high security detention centre near Heathrow.
‘CARA got me my sixth lawyer. A fresh removal order was made. A lawyer CARA had engaged from the Refugee Legal Centre took out an injunction and won the right to a judicial review.
By this time it was November 2005. I went before a judge. Immigration lied. They said I had no right of appeal. They said I was violent. The judge told them, “You are immigration officers, you are not the court. You have no right to prevent an appeal.” The judge saw no reason why I should be kept in detention.
It was such a relief. I could not accept being detained again. I have never seen such a concentration of misery, sadness and hatred as I saw there. I was in Harmondsworth when the July bombings took place in London in 2005. When they heard the news, there was jubilation among some detainees. Although the bombing was a barbaric act, I think I can understand the level of alienation they must have felt. Whenever the British teams were playing on TV, whatever sport, the people in detention always supported their opponents.
‘This country has destroyed me’
This country has destroyed me. I can no longer think or remember. I had lived difficult moments before, but at least you could believe in something. You believed that people over here would treat you with fairness. I have always worked. I have always studied. I love my work passionately. I am trying to learn English, but have now lost all chance of finding a place at university. I thought I would be protected here. Instead, I have been subjected to violent abuse, rejection and have been called a liar. If I see a policeman or immigration officer now I feel ill.
The more intellectual one is, the more the authorities seem to complicate your life. Whenever the authorities have interviewed me, they said, “You have no ties here.” It is as though they are pushing us to make relationships here and father children to support our claim. I don’t want to do that. I have a family I love. I am wondering if I will ever see them again. All I want is to be with them. I told my psychiatrist the only thing that has kept me from suicide has been my children.’
Laurent is an asylum seeker of undetermined status. He lives on Asda ‘gift card’ vouchers worth £35 per week, which are supposed to cover all food, clothing and transport.
‘In Stoke-on-Trent, people from the church have given me support and friendship. CARA has shown me that there is also compassion and understanding which has nothing to do with the State or the government. But I think the stories that deportees take away with them will do terrible long-term damage to your country and its interests.’
Read an IRR News story: Refuge and fortress: a tale of two cultures
Order The Refugee and the Fortress online here