No way to treat us after all these years

For Joyce Onibiyo and her husband, a local government engineer, home meant Britain. But 18 months ago, he and their youngest son were deported.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When the phone rang, Joyce Onibiyo had just finished the prayers she says daily for her husband, Abdul, and her youngest son, Ade, both deported from Britain during the past 18 months. Down a crackling line she heard Abdul's voice telling her that he had escaped from prison in Nigeria and was in hiding in a neighbouring African country. It was the first she had heard of him for 18 months.

That was two weeks ago. The last time Joyce saw Abdul and Ade they were skeletal figures in detention centres in the UK. Sitting now in her terraced house in south-east London, surrounded by photographs of them, she says: "The phone call from Abdul was like an answer from God - hearing him, knowing that he was alive. But his health is very bad and he is in the greatest danger. I am praying now that Jack Straw will show compassion and bring him back here before he is recaptured and very possibly killed."

The case of the Onibiyos, a Nigerian family who had made their home in Britain for 30 years, became something of a cause celebre when Abdul, a civil engineer working for Lambeth council and a high-profile opponent of the Nigerian military regime, was deported to Lagos. He was last seen being left at the airport by the British immigration officials who had escorted him there, and before being taken away by Nigerian officers. He was not heard of again and both the Home Office and the government in Lagos denied any knowledge of what had happened to him.

The family's distress was great enough when they realised that the Home Office was serious about getting rid of Abdul. But then came what Joyce describes as "the almost unbearable cruelty" when immigration officials picked up 18-year-old Ade, saying that he, too, must apply for asylum. "His only crime", Joyce says, "was to be born in Nigeria. But he had lived in England since the age of 10 and this is his home." For 13 months Ade was kept in Harmondsworth and Campsfield detention centres, knowing that his father was being deported and then realising the same fate awaited him him, as his pleas for asylum were turned down. Joyce's voice breaks as she remembers how, during one of her final visits to Ade at Campsfield, he clung to her terrified, begging: "Mum, help me. Don't let them take me." But with grim synchronicity the deportation date was fixed for Ade's birthday, 7 December 1995.

The Onibiyos' story began in 1964, when Abdul came to Britain on a British Council recruitment programme and he and Joyce married in the UK. They were granted permanent residency in 1974, even though in 1973 Abdul had gone back to Nigeria temporarily to work on a contract. They took their two children who had been born in Britain, Tim and Lola, and while they were back in Nigeria, Ade and his two younger sisters, Toro and Yemi, were born. They came back to their house in Britain regularly, and Abdul continued, as arranged with the British authorities, to pay National Insurance stamps in the UK. Joyce explains: "Abdul's skills were badly needed in Nigeria, so he agreed to help with a new water and sewage project there, but we always intended to return to Britain, which we regarded as home."

They came back in 1983 because Abdul had been nominated for an EEC award and invited to Newcastle University to do a Masters degree. It was then that their trouble began. The couple were told when they arrived back that they had forfeited their residency by being out of the country for more than two years. "Nobody told us when we were leaving that this was the case," Joyce says. They assumed that the stamps in their passports saying Indefinite Leave to Remain meant just that. They also believed that, because Abdul was paying national insurance they were seen as still belonging in Britain. "We would never have gone otherwise," she says.

The Onibiyos were given the impression that getting residency reinstated would be simple. The family settled back into their home, the children went to school, Joyce found a clerical job and Abdul took up his place at Newcastle University, having got a one-year student visa to cover the length of his course. When that was finished he got a job with an Essex local authority, where they shared his belief that getting residency back was a formality. Joyce's laugh is weary as she recollects: "I would wake up full of joy and spirit because I loved being in Britain. I watched my children making friends, doing well at school and attending church. I felt we were blessed and had been made at home here."

It did not feel like that when, in 1984, the Onibiyos were told that residency had been refused. Abdul's solicitor was amazed, and a protracted correspondence took place, but nothing happened for a long time, until the morning that is seared in Joyce's memory.

"The first time we realised how serious things had become was at six o'clock on the morning of 24 June 1993, when there was a knock on the door and 12 police and immigration officials rushed into our home. They turned everything upside-down and then detained Abdul, me and Ade for 13 hours in police cells. We were all interviewed by immigration officials and told we had to sign on monthly because we were temporarily admitted to the country. I felt sure it was a terrible mistake. After all, this was our 11th year back in Britain, and it was not as though we were living on benefit or costing the country anything."

But reinstatement of the residency was refused. Abdul was told that he and Ade must apply for asylum. Joyce says: "Then we became scared. The rulers had changed in Nigeria since we were there, and there was a military regime. It was known that Abdul opposed them. He had been on demonstrations, and was involved in pro-democracy here. We had no doubt he would be seen as a wanted man in Nigeria."

On a March morning in 1995, Abdul was told his plea for asylum had been refused. During the following months, the Onibiyos' solicitor appealed against the decision, but on the evening of 25 October Joyce received a call from Abdul saying he was to be deported the next day and she should pack a few things. She travelled to Gatwick with the children next morning, having been told she could say goodbye to Abdul. Instead he was taken, handcuffed, on to the plane without seeing his family. They stood and watched it taking off. That was the last they saw or heard of him.

Then it was the turn of Ade, who was being kept at Campsfield in Oxfordshire. Joyce had watched the bright, cheery boy she had known, who was in the middle of working for his A-levels when he was detained, become ever thinner and more depressed. In a grim repeat of Abdul's story, the family's solicitor applied to the Home Office to grant Ade asylum on compassionate grounds.

Jeremy Corbyn MP, who took up the case when Abdul was being deported, spoke out angrily about the clear risk to Ade in view of his father's disappearance. The government's response was an appearance by Ann Widdecombe on television saying that Abdul had been found alive and well in an un- named village. "They would give us no details, and Interpol said they knew nothing," says Joyce. Now they know that he had in fact been in prison.

When the last possible legal move had been tried and had failed, Ade's deportation was set for 2 May 1996. At the 11th hour, a campaign group, which had gathered thousands of supporters and the backing of 78 MPs, secured safe haven for Ade in Guyana, where he is now.

Joyce says: "The relief was enormous but still there was dreadful sadness. My son, who had just lost one parent, was being banished from the rest of his family and I had no idea when I might see him again."

She has not seen him since, and although the authorities in Guyana have treated Ade well they have recently contacted Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to ask when, now that there is a change of government, he can be returned. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn has made "urgent representations" to the Home Office, asking that Abdul is let into the country immediately. "I have no doubt this is a life-and-death situation," he says. "What happens will be a test of just how humane the Home Office really intends to be towards immigration and asylum cases." He is also asking that Ade be brought back because if Guyana feels it can no longer keep him, he too risks being sent to Nigeria. And anyhow, he says: "The point is to get this family back together again so that they can get on with their lives.' "n

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