Couple facing deportation to Cameroon released after campaign by writers

Leading writers condemned home secretary’s decision to deport playwright Lydia Besong and her husband

A couple facing imminent deportation to Cameroon have been unexpectedly released from detention this week after a campaign by leading writers to halt their removal from the UK.

A week ago, leading writers and barristers wrote to the home secretary, Theresa May, to condemn the UK Border Agency’s decision to deport Lydia Besong, a playwright, and her husband, Bernard Batey.

The former children’s laureate, Michael Morpurgo, Monica Ali, Hanif Kureshi, Alan Ayckbourn, Nick Hornby and Helena Kennedy signed the letter urging May not to deport them. Kennedy, a leading QC, described the agency’s decision to deport the couple as “hideous” and “insensitive”, and called for an overhaul of the way women are treated in the asylum system.

Besong says she was raped in Cameroon and would be persecuted for speaking out against the government. She was not informed that her husband’s latest appeal against deportation had failed on 23 December. On 10 January, the couple were taken into detention as they registered with immigration services in Manchester as normal.

Besong said she spotted a van outside the office and thought to herself: “I hope that’s not come for me.” She said she feared something would happen as she had had a prophetic dream the night before.

Severely traumatised by her ordeal, Besong’s leg trembles as she talks and she is suffering from glaucoma, which has required three operations.

“We had no idea we were about to be released,” she said of Wednesday’s events. “[I had] an eye appointment at Bedford hospital and I was taken accompanied by security guards. Everyone was looking at me wondering what I’d done, but I was not a prisoner.

“When I returned from the appointment and was told I was being released I just said: ‘Hmm.’ I didn’t feel a lot of emotion after everything I’d been through. Although I was being released, there were still people in Yarl’s Wood such as my roommate who’d been there for 10 months.”

“Many bad things will happen [if I am returned to Cameroon],” she added. “OK, the media is watching now, but what about when they go away? I would be locked up because of my political views.”

The couple’s lawyer said the secretary of state’s handling of the case “continues to baffle”. Gary McIndoe said: “Having confirmed that they are to reconsider their decision on Bernard’s asylum claim, UKBA have authorised Bernard and Lydia’s release from detention, only 24 hours after communicating to us a refusal to release them.”

He said he hoped the substance of risks faced by the couple in Cameroon would now be looked at with greater care and clarity.

During Christmas 2009, Besong was held for four weeks in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and she and her husband were threatened with removal to Cameroon. Their flight back was halted by a high court judge and the UKBA said their case would be reviewed.

They were forced to leave their home country in 2006 as a result of their membership of the SCNC, a peaceful organisation which campaigns for the rights of the English-speaking minority of southern Cameroon. The couple were imprisoned and tortured, and Lydia says she was raped by a uniformed prison guard. They say they have both been traumatised by these experiences and have become depressed.

Since arriving in the UK, Besong has written three plays about her life as an asylum seeker and criticised the political situation in her home country.

Besong’s latest play, Down with the Dictator, is currently in rehearsal and due to be performed in Greater Manchester and Bristol in March.

Michael Morpurgo said: “How this country treats asylum seekers is the measure of what kind of a people we are. Lydia was oppressed in Cameroon. That there is a risk she will be imprisoned and abused again seems undeniable. That she is extraordinarily brave in her stand against oppression is clear. And that her talents would be of great value to us as a citizen in our society would seem to be obvious.”

The couple arrived at a friend’s flat in Tottington, near Bury, at 1am on Thursday. Lydia and her husband were waiting for the UKBA to return their house keys so they could go home.

Besong said she feels blessed to have been released, but her second period of detention in Yarl’s Wood has left psychological scars.

“There are roll calls at 7.30am, 12, 5 and 9.45pm,” she said. “The guards are always checking up on you and you can hear their keys jangling. It is difficult to get any rest at all. When you come out of that place it is sometimes difficult to forget that you are not there because it comes with you as you are living with the memories.”

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Authors and activists condemn decision to deport Cameroonian playwright

Home secretary urged not to deport Lydia Besong and her husband, who fear they will be persecuted in Cameroon

Bestselling authors and leading human rights figures have joined forces to condemn the UK Border Agency’s decision to deport a Cameroonian playwright and her husband.

The former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo, Helena Kennedy, Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi, Nick Hornby and Alan Ayckbourn, have written to the home secretary, Theresa May, to urge her not to deport Lydia Besong and her husband, Bernard Batey.

Kennedy, a leading QC, described the agency’s decision to deport the couple as “hideous” and “insensitive”, and called for an overhaul of the way women are treated in the asylum system.

Besong is due to be deported back to Cameroon, where, she says, she was raped and would be persecuted for speaking out against the government. She is expected to leave on Saturday, barring any successful last-minute efforts to stop her removal.

Supporters say Besong was not informed that her husband’s latest appeal against deportation had failed on 23 December. Instead the pair were taken into detention when they registered normally with immigration services on 10 January.

Since arriving in the UK in 2006 Besong has written three plays about her life as an asylum seeker and criticised the political situation in her home country.

Besong’s play How I Became an Asylum Seeker – produced by Women for Refugee Women, who continue to support her – has been performed in Manchester, Liverpool and London. Rehearsals for a new play were due to begin in Manchester the week Besong was detained at Yarl’s Wood removal centre, with a performance scheduled at an international theatre festival in Bristol at the end of March. Her husband is being detained separately.

Morpurgo said he was begging the home secretary not to remove a “remarkable woman”. He said: “How this country treats asylum seekers is the measure of what kind of a people we are. Lydia was oppressed in Cameroon. That there is risk she will be imprisoned and abused again seems undeniable. That she is extraordinarily brave in her stand against oppression is clear. And that her talents would be of great value to us as a citizen in our society would seem to be obvious.” Kennedy said the manner in which Besong and Batey were detained was unfair: “The way in which this was done was hideous, with the couple not informed they were going to be removed. The whole way it was carried out was insensitive and terrible.” She added that the Home Office and the UKBA was failing women.

“There are serious concerns about the culture of disbelief in the immigration system,” she said, adding that a lack of training and willingness to listen meant women who had been raped could not tell their stories. “There is an ongoing lack of understanding of the issues and how they affect women, because they do affect women differently.”

Lawyers for the couple are seeking an emergency judicial review to stop the deportation. Supporters argue that cuts to legal aid have left Besong more exposed, and reliant on fundraising to pay for legal representation. “It is so hard to get good legal advice in these cases and cuts to legal aid mean the only way of getting advice is to rely on others to pay. It is just hellish,” said Kennedy.

Speaking from Yarl’s Wood, Besong said: “Of course it would put me in danger if I was returned to Cameroon. There is no hiding that my work is critical of the current government. I would be detained indefinitely. There is no freedom of expression in Cameroon, this is happening every day.”

But she would not stop writing, she added. “I wanted to highlight what was happening at home,” she said. “If it couldn’t be beneficial to me maybe it could be beneficial to others. I didn’t know I would find myself in this situation. I am very, very, scared.”

The couple say they were jailed and tortured in Cameroon as punishment for involvement with the SCNC pressure group, which campaigns for southern Cameroon’s independence. The playwright said that while in jail, she was raped by a guard.

Previously, Juliet Stevenson, Joan Bakewell, Andrea Levy, Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Lisa Appignanesi, Linda Grant and the writers’ group English Pen, have all expressed support for Besong.

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