18.04.2005 General News

Asylum Seekers (or Mercenaries) Imprisoned?

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Public outcry against security lapses at Ghana's entry points which facilitated an influx of 180 'asylum seekers', supposedly from the conflict-riven Darfur region of Sudan has compelled the security agencies to relocate them to James Town Prison in Accra.

At Press time on Saturday when Public Agenda visited the premises of the Bureau of Ghana Languages, where they were kept in an uncompleted storey building, it was learnt that they had been moved to the James Town Prison. A follow up confirmed that they had indeed been transferred to the prison and held under strict surveillance, ostensibly because of the security threats they pose to the country.

Further probing at the prison revealed that some of the so-called asylum seekers have since October last year been arriving in the country in trickles, but it was last weeks arrival of about 180 of them that sent worrying signals of a probable invasion of the country by a number of mercenaries posing as refugees and asylum seekers. Some sources have estimated the total number of the asylum seekers to be in excess of 240, suggesting that some of them may have gone into hiding and that the police and immigration officials were tracking them. In fact, a close look at the 'asylum seekers' suggests that they appear too fleshy, in contrast with the refugees seen on TV to pass for refugees fleeing the turmoil in Darfur. Their appearances do not also suggest that they walked the thousands of kilometers from Sudan to Ghana.

Our diplomatic sources have hinted that Ghana may have been conned into accepting failed asylum seekers from various European countries, who were made to pose as refugees from Darfur. And this may have been worked out with the connivance of some officials at Ghana's embassies in Europe and some top security personnel within the country. Ghana has become the destination for failed asylum seekers because a large number of asylum seekers who posed as refugees from Darfur and were arrested in Italy last year turned out to be Ghanaians or people of other nationalities who were traveling on the Ghanaian passport.

The reason is that the Ghanaian passport is the easiest and cheapest to obtain in West Africa, opening the way for all shades of people to travel on the Ghanaian document. Further inquiries have revealed that the so-called refugees or asylum seekers are victims of an international trade in displaced people involving some EU countries like Italy, Germany and Britain, who want failed asylum seekers to be settled in a third African, while their appeals are heard. Italy and Germany for instance have supported controversial moves to stem the tide of illegal migrants into Europe.

Britain first floated the idea of confining African asylum seekers in neutral African countries while their cases were investigated, but the idea was rejected by most EU countries like Sweden which fear charges of human rights abuses.

Amnesty International has decried the plan; arguing it would confine asylum seekers to countries known for human rights abuses. Libya, Tunisia and Egypt were the first three countries earmarked for the project. Libyan security officers have gained notoriety for manhandling asylum seekers.

Over the last few months hundreds of Ghanaians deported from Libya have narrated horrifying stories of how they were beaten, chained, raped and held under deplorable conditions before being dumped in the country. A large number of those returning from Libya have been identified as nationals of other countries. Some of them are on record as pleading with European security officials to return them to Ghana, where there is peace and respect for human rights, rather than their countries of origin.

The difficulties of returning asylum seekers to their countries of origin have long dogged attempts by European countries to remove asylum seekers. Last year the Home Office of Britain was reported to be negotiating with South Africa to settle failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers as part of efforts to step up immigration removals and deportation. Part of the difficulty has to do with the reluctance of many countries to take back failed asylum seekers because they usually destroy their documents.

British Prime Minister, Tony Blair in June 2004 confirmed to the House of Commons that negotiations with Tanzania were underway for a £4 million British-funded pilot scheme under which rejected asylum seekers would be sent to the African country as part of an overseas aid deal.

But Tanzania, which already houses thousands of refugees from Rwanda and Burundi rejected the deal. "We reject this deal because we don't see the logic for refugees to be sent to Tanzania before they are returned to their own country", John Chiligati, Tanzania's Deputy Minister for Home Affairs told journalists.

Blair's official spokesman had confirmed that there was a second African country that Britain was hoping to persuade to tackle the problem, but declined to name it. Could that country be Ghana?

Whatever the country is, Oxfam and other refugee welfare groups have warned Britain and other European countries against making aid to developing countries conditional on cooperation with asylum returns. They also warned that the moves opened up a new attempt by European countries to deport failed asylum seekers to third countries. It was long thought that Ghana, which is more pliant to foreign dictates, may just be the right country for the new asylum project.

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