Conflict & Justice

Fate of Deportees in Liberia

The Obama Administration has deported record numbers of immigrants, some 393,000 in 2009. And Congress has yet to take up immigration reform.

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So it appears that the immigration system will remain broken for a while. The impact on the US has been widely documented and debated. There’s been less focus on the impact on those who are deported.

Many deportees in the West African nation of Liberia, for example, are doing jail time, regardless of why they were sent back.

That’s what happened to Moriba Camara.

It’s the day after a big soccer match in Monrovia and at a local video club where many gathered to watch the game; the dusty wooden floor is littered with trash. Camara spends his afternoon sweeping up beer cans and soda bottles.

This is the only work that Moriba Camara can find in Monrovia, and it doesn’t even pay. The video club owner gives Camara a room in return for cleaning.

“Since I was released from the prison in Zwedru up to this present moment my life is just getting tough, tough, every day hard times,” he said.

Criminal

Camara cannot find a paying job because he said people see him as a criminal. After he was kicked out of the US, the Liberian government automatically incarcerated Camara on his return to Monrovia in 2008. And the government made sure to let people know that the deportees might be dangerous.

“I’ve been running after jobs all over but there’s nobody to give me a job because if I go in the community people are pointing at me,” he said. “And saying ‘this is the criminal that was brought from America.’ So people are afraid of me.”

Camara was born and raised in Liberia. But he fled in 2007 after watching his father killed during the country’s civil war. He was imprisoned when he arrived in New Jersey seeking asylum. Camara’s case was eventually heard and denied, and he was deported.

His nightmare began on the flight out of the US where he said Immigration and Customs Enforcement kept him shackled the entire flight.

“They just tied me up with the handcuff, you know, like a kind of a rope that tied me up with my hands by side. And they tied my legs that I don’t move freely.”

When Moriba Camara returned to Liberia, officials sent all the arriving deportees straight to jail in Zwedru, a city more then 300 miles from the capital Monrovia. Eric Mullbah, the director of prisons in the Ministry of Justice, said that when deportees arrive from the US, the presumption is that they are criminals.

Alarming for the Community

“A respected state, like the USA, is telling you that these guys are hard core criminals, that they have been involved in drug trafficking, that they been involved in theft, armed robbery and the like,” Mullbah said. “If you were to hear such, it’s alarming for the community.”

So Mullbah said the government has to hold all deportees until it can determine if they are safe to release.

Moriba Camara said that may be so, but he claimed his imprisonment for an undetermined length of time and without access to a lawyer was excessively harsh.

“The whole day we are locked up, whole night we are locked up. No access to go to recreation, nothing,” he said. “It got me sick, and when I got sick I tried to talk to the prison director to talk to them to take me to the hospital, but they said no, and didn’t take me to the hospital. I got dysentery.”

It took months for the Liberian government to confirm that Camara had not committed any crime in the US, that he’d only been denied asylum.

Electricity is still sporadic in Monrovia, making the use of generators crucial to getting anything done. But with the high price of gas, running a generator is limited to government buildings, some businesses and places like the video club when there’s a big soccer game on. So given these many basic infrastructure challenges for the Sirleaf-Johnson government, dealing with deportees from the US may be a low priority.

Meantime Camara continues looking for work as he struggles to eek out a living.

The Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute provided travel support for this story.