Author: May Bulman
An asylum seeker who was wrongly deported by the Home Office to a country where he faced immediate danger has told of his ordeal.
Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Solomon Getenet Yitbarek said he was “terrified, screaming” as immigration officers escorted him onto the plane.
The Ethiopian national had been living in the UK for five years when he was detained by the Home Office.
“I tried to explain that my life was at risk, but they put handcuffs on me,” the 27-year-old recalled. “No one was listening. One of the officers said look, if you’re not going to be calm, I’ll tell the Ethiopian government who you are. I was so scared.”
On arrival at Addis Ababa Bole airport in the Ethiopian capital, he said he was forced to go into hiding.
Shortly afterwards, a British judge ruled that the deportation had been unlawful.
The Home Office subsequently conceded that it had been a mistake. After six weeks of living in fear of being arrested by Ethiopian authorities, Mr Yitbarek was returned to the UK, but his asylum case remains uncertain.
Persecuted in his homeland because of his allegiance to a political party in opposition to the government, he had originally come to Britain in 2013. His father had been killed because of his opposition to the regime.
After settling in Lancaster, where he volunteered with a local charity, the 27-year-old was detained on 13 May this year, while signing on with the Home Office. He had tried to explain that he had an ongoing asylum claim, but the officers proceeded to lock him up.
“I was terrified, I didn’t understand what was happening. I was in the cell for nearly 48 hours. Then they came and took me to a detention centre in London,” he said. “I called my solicitor and she was shocked. She said it was unlawful detention.
“But then all of a sudden they were moving me to Heathrow, and then they said I was about to be removed to Ethiopia. I was very scared. I said there must be something wrong, please. I kept telling them my life was in danger, but they said everything was finished here for me, that I had nothing. I couldn’t even stand up. I was terrified.”
The immigration officers proceeded to strap Mr Yitbarek into a restraint belt and put him into a van, he said.
“I wasn’t resisting, I was just trying to tell them the truth. But they said they had to put it this belt on me ‘in case’,” he said. “They put it around my waist and strapped my hands in. I felt like a criminal. All the way to the airport I was crying, trying to explain that I was being sent to a place where I would be in danger.”
Four officers escorted Mr Getenet Yitbarek in the van, three of whom also accompanied him on the flight to Ethiopia. He continued to warn them of the danger he was being flown back to but, as the plane took off, he had no choice but to accept that he was returning.
At that point started to think pragmatically about how he could reduce the risk. He asked the immigration escorts to take and destroy all the documents he had that showed his support for the political party. He also deleted any evidence from his laptop.
On arrival, the officers handed his passport to the Ethiopian border guards. He has not seen it since.
Mr Getenet Yitbarek was then handed over to a border guard who order him to follow him.
“I saw we were walking towards two policemen,” he said. “This was the moment I knew I had to save my life. The airport was busy. The officer was walking just in front of me. I took the chance and I escaped.”
Having been in touch with other supporters of his political party prior to his removal, Mr Yitbarek knew one of them was outside the airport with a car. He was driven to a friend’s home, but he felt far from safe.
“I was terrified of what could happen to me. It was like a nightmare. As far as I knew, only my brother and my aunt were in the country – but I couldn’t visit her because I was terrified to go out,” he said.
Shortly afterwards, he found out that his brother had passed away. His aunt had also fled the country in fear, so he had no family in in his homeland anymore.
Knowing that his mother was in Sudan, he decided to try cross the border – a problem made more challenging by his lack of passport.
After he eventually made his way into the country, he discovered she had moved to another state.
Days later, while staying with friends in Sudan, Mr Getenet Yitbarek heard from his solicitor in the UK, who told him the court had ordered his return.
“I was surprised. I had thought that was it,” he said. “Around this time I also found out my girlfriend in the UK was pregnant. I was so happy to hear I could go back to safety and back to her, but I was also sad about my brother’s death and that I hadn’t been able to see my mother.”
The British embassy in Sudan contacted him and told him they were issuing him with travel documents for his return. While he waited, he had to be careful, as if Sudanese authorities found him with no documents they were likely to arrest him and return him to Ethiopia.
Two weeks later, on 4 July, he boarded a flight back to the UK.
“I was surprised to be in business class!” he said. “I was happy, but then coming back and knowing that I was still under this process put me back again to where I was. I knew I was going to have to start from the beginning.”
Although the Home Office has admitted the deported was carried out in error, the government has made no apology to Mr Yitbarek. They simply gave him a date for when he should next sign on in August and warned him that he could be detained again.
“I’m still stressed. I’m struggling to sleep at night,” he said. “When I got back they told me that I could be detained again. I’m still waiting. Now I don’t know what will happen next time I got to sign on. I’m worried the same thing could happen again.
“I just want my case to be considered. I’m not expecting anything else from the Home Office. I’m hoping I can just be safe and live my life with my new family.”
When asked about the case, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The courts ruled that Mr Yitbarek had been removed in error because his solicitors had not received the full grounds of the Home Office decision to refuse his application ahead of his departure.
“As soon as the court ruling was received, arrangements were put in place to return him to the UK for his case to be dealt with.”