Cameroon couple win asylum seeker status after long fight

Playwright Lydia Besong and her husband, Bernard Batey, can stay in the north west after their campaign was successful

The news that a Cameroon playwright and her husband have won their asylum case after a long battle has been welcomed by campaigners.

A campaign by leading writers to halt the removal of Lydia Besong and her husband Bernard Batey from the UK has been successful. In January, leading writers and barristers wrote to the home secretary, Theresa May, condemning the UK Border Agency’s decision to deport the couple.

The letter was signed by former children’s laureate, Michael Morpurgo, Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi, Alan Ayckbourn, Nick Hornby and Helena Kennedy. With hours to go before their scheduled deportation earlier this year, the couple were granted a judicial review.

Besong says she was raped in Cameroon by a uniformed guard when she was in prison and if she and her husband were deported, they would be persecuted for speaking out against the government.

They have both been detained in the UK twice over the last two-and-a-half years, most recently in January as they registered with immigration services in Manchester. Severely traumatised by her ordeal, when I spoke to her following her release, her leg trembled as she talked and she was suffering from glaucoma. She was fearful of what would happened if she was returned to Cameroon once the media spotlight had gone.

Gary McIndoe, their solicitor, of Latitude Law, said: “The tribunal has recognised that Lydia and Bernard’s political and cultural activities will place them at risk if they return to Cameroon. This is a deeply important victory for everyone interested in ensuring the safety of our refugees.”

The couple, who currently live in Bury, have fought a high profile campaign for asylum in the UK. They were forced to free Cameroon more than five years ago after they were both imprisoned, tortured and persecuted for their political activities as members of the SCNC – South Cameroon National Council – a peaceful organisation that campaigns for independence.

Besong said she was very pleased with the decision and hopefully it will be a final decision, as the UKBA still has some time to appeal. She thanked her supporters and said they now feel safe.

Amnesty’s international deputy director for Africa, Tawanda Hondora, said: “Political opposition is not tolerated in Cameroon. Any dissent is suppressed through either violence or abuse of the legal system to silence critics.”

Lydia’s most recent play, Down with the Dictator, performed in Manchester and Bury. It is set in Cameroon and explores themes of power, political corruption and censorship. Her earlier play, How I Became An Asylum Seeker, was performed throughout the UK.

Michael Morpurgo has previously said: “How this country treats asylum seekers is the measure of what kind of a people we are.” He said Besong was extraordinarily brave in her stand against oppression and “that her talents would be of great value to us as a citizen in our society would seem to be obvious.”

But Nkwelle Ekaney, the Cameroon High Commissioner in the UK, rejected the couple’s claims, saying Cameroon respects human rights and the rule of law and international conventions that “respect the integrity and dignity of the human person.”

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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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