A leading Scottish judge has found the Home Office guilty of making a serious blunder by unlawfully returning an Ethiopian asylum seeker fleeing persecution and made a “groundbreaking” ruling that it had to return him to the UK to continue with his case.
Solomon Getnet Yitbarek fled Ethiopia’s brutal regime five years ago and has an ongoing asylum claim in the UK. However in a case described as “shocking” even to veteran asylum lawyers assisting him, he was detained during a routine appointment to sign on with the Home Office and deported back to Ethiopia, where he feared for his life.
He claims that he was mistreated on route, with excess pressure applied to handcuffs to keep him quiet, and once in Ethiopia – where both his father and brother were imprisoned, tortured and later died due to their opposition to the ruling regime – was forced to flee into Sudan illegally, to avoid capture.
Meanwhile his lawyer, Lia Devine of Latta Law – working with advocate Alan Caskie – took the case to the Court of Session, where judge Lord Colin Tyre ruled that the Home Office must issue Yitbarek with new travel documents and flights and return him to the UK at its expense. He returned earlier this month, was reunited with his pregnant girlfriend and is continuing with his asylum claim.
Describing the ruling as “groundbreaking” Devine said: “We knew we had a strong case in terms of what had happened, however, we were never sure if we would ever be able to obtain an order for his return. This does not happen often. We were all delighted with the result achieved.”
Stuart McDonald MP, SNP spokesman on immigration, asylum and border control, said the latest in a long line of irresponsible decision making by the Home Office meant there was now cause to “look at whether the Home Office should at least be stripped of its role in deciding asylum applications”.
He added: “The Home Office continues to act like a law unto itself – not only putting into full force the Conservative government’s awful policies and rules, but too often going further and behaving in an even more outrageous way. From Windrush to unlawful detentions, a mixture of under resourcing and poor decision making means the Home Office is too often getting it wrong.”
Celia Clarke, director of campaigning group Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), said that wrongful return sometimes went unchallenged. Surveys for BID show that only half of those in detention centres have legal representation. She said: “Detention is meant to be used as a last resort but in practice we find that it is being used as a first resort.”
A Home Office spokesperson confirmed that Yitbarek had been “removed in error”. She added: “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.”
Solomon Getnet Yitbarek from Ethiopia, now 27, fled to Sudan with his mother and brother after his father had been arrested by Ethiopian authorities for his political actives. It was too dangerous to return to their own country, yet life here was difficult too.
Five years ago he met a British Ethiopian woman at church and the two married and came to the UK, where they settled in London. He was working, studying, and he was safe.
But the relationship broke down after three years, by which point his brother had also been arrested and detained in Ethiopia. “The same issue was the politics that my dad had also been arrested for,” he says.
Afraid for his future, Yitbarek, who had also campaigned for Ginbot 7 – a peaceful Ethiopian opposition political organisation whose members have been targeted and detained by the Ethiopian government – sought advice and applied for asylum. However his case was refused. The Home Office said it did not believe him.
He was detained for immigration purposes and moved to several detention centres before ending up in Dungavel in South Lanarkshire in March this year, where he had to find a new lawyer and was put in touch with Lia Devine, of Latta Law. She believed there were grounds to put in a fresh asylum claim, and after doing so, applied successfully for bail.
It was awful. I was crying and saying “please help me” but nobody was doing anything. Solomon Getnet Yitbarek
But within a matter of weeks, at a routine appointment he was detained again while signing on with the Home Office, this time being held in a police station for almost 48 hours before being taken to Morton Hall detention centre in England. “I told them I had an outstanding case,” he explains.
“But they said they had been ordered to detain me. They took all my stuff including my phone, searched me and put me in the cells. I was very scared about what was going to happen next, what would happen to me if I was sent back to Ethiopia.”
Once he had been taken to a detention centre a shocked Devine applied for bail the following Tuesday – the first available date – reassured Yitbarek that under UK law his active asylum claim meant he could not be deported and left the office for the weekend. But to his horror he was then moved to IRC Heathrow and after a brief meeting on Sunday – when he was unable to contact his lawyer – was told he would be deported back to Ethiopia.
“I kept telling them I had an outstanding case, but they didn’t listen. They put a belt on me with handcuffs and I was taken in a van straight to the plane and put in the back while everyone was boarding. It was awful. I was crying and saying “please help me” but nobody was doing anything,” he says.
“The guard told me if you don’t behave I’ll tell them you are with Ginbot 7. I was very scared. Then he started squeezing the handcuffs – it hurt so much I screamed out. He told me if I didn’t keep quiet he would keep squeezing them. I felt I had no choice. I had marks after.”
Once there he was taken to an office inside the airport where they handed over his passport to the Ethiopian official. He was told to follow him, but seeing him heading towards three police men he took fright and ran.
He initially went into hiding with a fellow supporter of the party, but after learning that his brother had also been tortured in detention and had died following release, he fled, making a dangerous and illegal border crossing to Sudan.
Meanwhile Devine went to the Scottish Court of Session in Edinburgh and phoned him with life changing news.
“When she told me that the Home Office had been ordered to return me [to the UK] I was so shocked,” says Yitbarek. “I had been feeling hopeless. Now I was just like “wow!”. I was so shocked and so happy, all these mixed feelings after everything that had happened.”
Travel was arrived from Khartoum, Sudan’s capital where he flew back to Heathrow to be reunited with his now pregnant girlfriend. “It just felt like a dream,” he said. “Now I want to be safe, to have my case considered and have a normal life in the UK.”
Photo thanks to Azerifactory, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 15 July 2018.