One way of looking at John ‘Bosco’ Nyombi’s hellish journey is to see it as an epic battle of resistance – how one man and his supporters overcame the efforts of two government machines to crush him. But such battles are unprovoked wars and the scars they leave endure despite the victory won.
John left quite a comfortable life in Uganda in September 2001, but as a gay man he knew he could have wound up with a life sentence in prison. He wanted to go to any English-speaking country and that’s why he ended up in Britain, having paid money to an agent to get a passport and air ticket. He probably thought his chances of getting a good job were high as he had been working in a bank in Uganda. As he puts it: ‘I had my own life, I had my own house, I had a car: I had everything.
‘But people used to come to my mum and say, “Why is your son not getting married? I have my daughter and she is really nice.” And I’d say, “No, I’m not ready.” But how long can you keep giving excuses? People will find out. I was worried all the time, because, you know, at one point they arrested somebody just because he was dancing like a girl.’
He was immediately detained on arrival, without the chance to retrieve the few belongings he’d brought with him from Uganda. Advised to seek asylum, he got caught up in a process being repeated thousands of times each year. A legal process he barely understood, designed to assess his claim – though it seems to work towards finding the swiftest route to expulsion.
‘In the detention centre, they asked me if I had a solicitor. Then they said: “Can we get you one?” That was confusing, because I was thinking: “If you are detaining me and you are thinking of getting me a solicitor, on which side will that solicitor be?” Then they told me: “If you want to, you can represent yourself.”’ As John had difficulty understanding the legal terms, a Ugandan interpreter was brought in and the situation became somewhat farcical: the interpreter didn’t actually speak the same language as John and kept putting his own spin on what was being said.
Thus began a round of detention and refusals of his application for asylum. He spent the winter of 2001/02 in Haslar Immigration Removal Centre near Portsmouth. ‘My time in Haslar was terrifying. Nobody to talk to. I didn’t have relatives or friends in the country. I didn’t have clothing. We didn’t have heaters in the room. We didn’t have blankets. The windows were sealed in the dormitories and there was no ventilation. At night with people breathing and everything, it could smell really bad. They would wake us up in the night and start counting us again. You could not believe a human being could be treated like that. I was sick and losing weight, I was scared.
‘Luckily there is a group of people who befriend detainees in detention centres. I met a lady from the Haslar Visitors’ Group. She managed to get me some more warm clothes to put on.’ Eventually she even stood surety for him, convincing another friend of hers to do the same. That support and a letter from a nurse at Haslar saying he needed specialist medical treatment the Centre couldn’t provide, finally got John bailed out.
Going in circles
‘In February 2002, I got a decision from the court allowing me to stay in the UK. The Home Office appealed against the judge’s decision and we went to tribunal. Then the Home Office, in front of two judges, withdrew the case, saying they didn’t have any further evidence to challenge the immigration judge. And so the tribunal judges told the Home Office to put it in writing and to write to me to confirm the withdrawal. The court case had taken three months.
‘The Home Office didn’t write anything. My solicitor wrote to them. They didn’t reply. They wrote another letter. They didn’t reply. The third one; they didn’t reply. Then the people from the church I go to, they wrote a letter to the MP from the area where I was staying. The MP wrote to the Home Office asking why they couldn’t write one letter to save the taxpayers’ money, so that I could move on with my life.’
The Home Office eventually replied giving him one year’s leave to remain, from July 2002 to July 2003. When challenged, they replied that John could apply for an extension when the year was up.
John found a job as a careworker for people with mental illness and was never on state benefits. When he applied for his extension, it was refused, beginning several rounds of legal appeals that went on for years and wound up thrice in the High Court, which found that there was a case to answer. From 2004 he was asked to report to the police regularly, which he did without fail.
‘In September 2008, I went to sign at the police station. There I met the immigration officer who told me, “We have to review your case. So make sure you come back next week.” I agreed, but deep inside I was scared.
‘The next week, on 9 September, I went to sign again. As soon as I walked in, they asked me my name. I told them my name, I told them I was here last Tuesday and was told my case was to be reviewed. As soon as I mentioned that, they closed the doors. Four guys came from different angles. They said: “You are detained now and you have to sign this document that you are going to be deported.”’ John refused, asking to see his solicitor first. He was put in a cell.
Meanwhile his friends, suspecting the worst, swung into action. ‘They started ringing around telling friends and everybody. They started campaigning, ringing the Home Office, sending faxes, telling them what was happening. I’ve never done anything wrong, I’ve been working for seven years, I’ve never been in trouble, anything. I did everything they wanted me to do. I abided by all the immigration rules.’
‘We are paid to do this’
One attempt to deport John (on 14 September 2008) failed due to the media interest his supporters had whipped up, their protest activity and John’s refusal to board a plane without seeing an immigration official. His friends tried getting him bail, and a hearing was fixed for 21 September.
But on 18 September 2008, he was informed that he was being taken to Heathrow to see an immigration officer. ‘And I said, “Can I talk to my solicitor?” They told me: “No, we don’t have enough time.” They grabbed my phone, they put it in a bag and sealed it; they took all my money.’
He was bundled into a van with four Group 4 guards. ‘When we got to Heathrow, one of the guys jumped out of the van to talk to the immigration officer. Then he came back and said: “Look, there is nothing we can do. We are going to deport you.” I told them: “You told me I am coming here for an interview with immigration. Now you are saying you are deporting me. I want to talk to my solicitor.” One of the men said: “It’s our job. We are paid to do this. There’s no point. He is not going to talk to a solicitor, full stop.”
‘I was in tears. I was shaking. They drove up to the plane, down by the steps. And then they opened the double doors of the van. One came from the left, another one from the right. They held my hands, put handcuffs on me and dragged me out of the van. I sat on the ground. They lifted me up and I was screaming, crying, saying: “Please, please don’t deport me.” Then, because I was kicking out, they put me on the ground. One punched me in the private parts to make me straighten my legs. They got straps and restrained my legs and lifted me like a dead body and put me on the plane.
‘I was thinking: “Now the time has come. I’m on the plane. Whatever comes, that’s it. Because what I have seen here is nothing compared to what I will face when I get back to Uganda.”
‘When we were in the air, they took off the handcuffs and the leg restraints. They gave my money back and they told me to hide it in different places, in underpants, in socks, so that it can’t be taken away from me in Uganda. They told me to keep some in case I needed to bribe somebody.
‘It was around eight in the morning on 19 September when I landed in Uganda. My luggage was handed to the police and then immediately they took me to the immigration officers. When we got there, they told immigration: “We’ve brought him back, we don’t have any problem with him, now it’s up to you.” Then they just left me there. The plane was going to another country, so they had to board back and they left me being interrogated.’
A known face
Two days prior to his removal, John had made the front page of the leading Ugandan newspaper The New Vision as a gay man fighting deportation from Britain. ‘The officers, the authorities, they knew all about me. When I got there, they said: “Oh, are you John Bosco? We’ve read about all your stories. You people, you copy European culture, then you go there, then you want to come back. We can’t allow people like you to be in our country. It’s not our culture.” It was an awkward situation and I could not even think how scared I was.’
When the immigration authorities finished their interrogation, he was sent to the police to collect his luggage. ‘As soon as I walked in, the woman at the counter recognized who I was. She said: “We don’t have gay people in Uganda. You think you will copy those European things and bring them into Uganda? I can arrest you now. Unless you have brought something for us, I can’t let you go.” That’s the language they use in Uganda to get money from people. I had £40 ($61) which I gave and she told me to take my luggage.
‘I had a hood which I pulled up and started hiding myself, so as not to be noticed by other people. It was boiling hot. When I switched on my mobile. I started getting messages from the UK, because people were wondering where I was. First I rang my solicitor who contacted my friend in the UK, who knows people in Uganda. And then they told me: “Wait at the airport. Don’t move. We are going to get somebody who can come and pick you up and find somewhere where you can hide.” To hide, not even to live.
‘I was at the airport for almost five hours. Eventually someone came, picked me up and took me where I could stay.’ Meanwhile John’s solicitor got busy mounting a challenge to his deportation, first taking his statement over the phone and then asking him to see a local legal expert who recommended getting a doctor to detail the bruises and cuts on his arm due to the forcible way he had been taken onto the plane.
‘I went to see the doctor after two days. I was scared to go out. They told me: “You have to disguise yourself by wearing big shirts, shades, a hat. Cut off your hair. Dress differently.”’ But the doctor asked for ID to prove that John was Ugandan. However, deportees are typically left with no papers and John didn’t have a passport.
He attempted to get a birth certificate from the hospital where he had been born, where a familiar story repeated itself. John was again recognized as the ‘man in the newspaper’. Hospital guards were called, who proceeded to rough him up and deposited him in the clutches of the Ministry of Immigration Affairs. After a bout of fruitless interrogation where he was asked to produce a passport, he was handed over to the police who beat him and threw him in a cell. ‘The money I had was taken. They took my watch, my shoes were stolen. The cell was really small. We were just sleeping on the floor. The toilets were broken, there was no running water.
‘Then the people [other inmates] started beating me up saying they can’t sleep next to me and calling me insulting names. Nobody wanted to be near me and it was a small room, so there’s no way you can avoid contact with somebody.’ Eventually he was brought before a judge who advised him to plead guilty to not having a passport. He could either pay a fine or be imprisoned for a year. ‘I was not even taken to the court, I was taken to the judge’s chambers. It was like a deal, just to get money. Because it was a Friday evening, they told me: “Now we have to take you to the prison until Monday, when the bank has opened and we have paid in the money for the fine. In prison I was beaten up again, because I didn’t have any money left on me.’
On Monday, 14 October 2008, John was released and told to report to the police regarding his sexuality. He hobbled back barefoot the three miles to where he had been staying and went into hiding. ‘I didn’t go back to report to the police. I just stayed indoors, not going anywhere, not even coming out of the room all day long.’ The people sheltering him were also cagey that news he was there might leak out.
It would be a further five months of such solitary confinement before a remarkable breakthrough. In February 2009, his solicitor rang to say that his case for illegal deportation had been won and that a High Court judge had ordered the Home Office to return John ‘Bosco’ Nyombi to Britain. The judge condemned various illegal actions of the UK Border Agency (the Home Office department involved in removals) which included:
l misleading John that he was going for an interview when he was taken to the airport for removal;
l seizing his phone, thus removing access to his lawyers;
l violating their own published policy by not giving deportation notice 72 hours prior to removal;
l wrongly recording John’s behaviour as ‘disruptive’ in order to get past the notice requirements.
Lawyers for the Home Office admitted that John’s removal had been illegal but argued it was pointless flying him back because he would lose his asylum claim anyway, presumably because Uganda is such a gay paradise. (A bill currently before the Ugandan parliament even proposed the death sentence for homosexual activity before international pressure led to that recommendation being dropped.)
A British diplomat then contacted John and set the wheels in motion for his return, but there were further tense encounters at the airport before he was finally on a plane headed back to Britain. ‘As soon as the plane took off I found relief. It was like a resurrection, like I was dreaming. Even up to today I still can’t believe I’m in the UK.’
His landing was bumpy – despite everything, the immigration authorities did not have any information regarding his return and locked him up again. After a few days, just when he was about to re-enter the asylum seekers’ round of being shunted from detention centre to detention centre, the immigration authorities finally got their facts clear and he was released.
He still didn’t have refugee status and until he won that fight four months later he was forbidden from working or claiming state benefits – yet another measure that enforces destitution on desperate people. ‘Friends helped me out. I was sleeping on my friend and work colleague’s floor for all those months. People from my church used to give me money.’
John is now pursuing a case against the authorities for damages. Although things are slowly falling into place, he still suffers flashbacks. Whenever he sees a Group 4 security van driving by, fear rises up within him. And there are nightmares to contend with. ‘I dream I am in Uganda being beaten up. Somebody is knocking on the door, demanding: “Who are you?”’
John’s story begs the question, how many more people has the British Home Office deported in a similar illegal fashion into the jaws of ever-present danger? The Home Office is unlikely to tell us. And as for the people themselves, their voices are, in the main, lost.
Read the transcript of John’s tense moments on his journey back and his thoughts about being gay in Uganda. John has received support in his legal battle from Refugee and Migrant Justice.
Moving on from hate
Read our interview with barrister Julian Burnside, who explains the changing picture for asylum seekers in Australia. John is one of Australia’s tireless defenders of human rights and was elected a Living National Treasure in 2004.