By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
TEN asylum seekers are seeking damages and an injunction preventing the government from deporting them after claiming in a lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court that they were falsely imprisoned and wrongfully deprived of their liberty.
The lawsuit seeks the immediate release of eight of them as well as compensatory and vindicatory damages for alleged loss of liberty, breach of constitutional rights, unlawful arrest and unlawful detention. Damages are also sought for two of the plaintiffs, a mother and her two-year-old daughter, “for the degrading and inhuman treatment” they experienced when they were separated.
The plaintiffs are seeking special damages, damages for pain, suffering and injury to feelings, aggravated damages, exemplary damages, assault and battery and an order giving them the “goods, papers, passports and money wrongfully withheld from them together with damages for the wrongful detention of property”.
The lawsuit, filed by Callenders & Co attorneys, claims the plaintiffs all have a “well-founded fear of prosecution by reason of their race and/or ethnicity and/or religion and/or because of their Anglophone social and political ties and/or their membership of political parties.”
“Notwithstanding the above, the plaintiffs have each been wrongfully detained, falsely imprisoned and deprived of their personal liberty,” the suit alleges.
Nine of the plaintiffs come from “the self-declared state of Ambazonia, a predominately Anglophone area of land also claimed by the Francophone government of the Republic of Cameroon,” the lawsuit says.
“Following the Ambazonian declaration of independence on 1 October 2017, the government of Cameroon declared war on the separatists and has subsequently imprisoned some of the Ambazonian leadership. The ongoing conflict has resulted in many people, including the 1st to 9th plaintiffs, fleeing the country.”
The tenth plaintiff is from Biafra in Nigeria and is a member of the marginalised ethnic group Igbo “which he says are subject to persecution in Nigeria”.
The plaintiffs allegedly arrived in The Bahamas in May 2019 seeking political asylum and/or refugee status. The plaintiffs include a freelance creative director and social media blogger, a nurse, a businessman and teacher, a French teacher, an accounting student, a self-employed fashion designer, a seamstress, a mother and her two-year-old child and a businessman.
Their names have been withheld due to fear of retribution.
The lawsuit alleges that after arriving in The Bahamas “on or about 4 May 2019,” the plaintiffs told immigration officers they sought political asylum and handed over various papers, including job offer letters in The Bahamas. The lawsuit said they were admitted as lawful visitors for three days.
While dealing with immigration officials, the plaintiffs allegedly encountered two men they believed were immigration officials or connected to immigration officials, a Nigerian man called “Goddy” and a Bahamian known as “TJ”.
“The plaintiffs went with Goddy and TJ who found somewhere for them to stay in Nassau,” the lawsuit claims.
“The plaintiffs stayed in Nassau for one night and were then told by Goddy and TJ that they should return to the airport and fly to Freeport. The plaintiffs travelled to Freeport, accompanied by Goddy, and on arrival were accommodated in two apartments in a complex in Freeport.
“TJ told the plaintiffs that he needed money for processing fees, either to help them to obtain work permits in The Bahamas, or to help them get to Miami, Florida by boat. The plaintiffs persuaded friends and relatives to send money or gave what they had.
“The plaintiffs collectively paid approximately US$20,000 to TJ. Some money was paid in cash, but mostly it was transferred by friends and relatives directly to bank accounts which TJ told them to send it to. TJ then disappeared, leaving the plaintiffs in the Freeport apartment with no food.
“Three days later, on or about 16 May 2019, immigration officers came to the apartment. Their first question was: ‘Did you pay the money?’ When they received the answer ‘Yes’, the immigration officers arrested the plaintiffs and told them that a representative in Nassau would assist them with their refugee status.”
When the first plaintiff explained what happened to TJ, an immigration officer allegedly took his phone and deleted the messages between him and TJ. Immigration officers then allegedly seized and retained the phones of all the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit claims eight of the plaintiffs were taken to the Detention Centre in Nassau where they were detained against their will after they were arrested on May 18. The mother and daughter were taken to a detention facility for women and children known as a safe house.
“The plaintiffs were told by immigration officers that they did not need to instruct lawyers to help them, as the UNHCR would take care of everything,” the lawsuit says. “However, after some months the plaintiffs began to question what was occurring and tried to get messages to their friends and family.
“From about February 2020 the plaintiffs have been prevented from communicating with friends or family outside the Detention Centre or safe house.
“In August 2019, some of the plaintiffs, including the 3rd and 5th plaintiffs, were imprisoned for five days in Fox Hill during the passage of hurricane Dorian.
“They were kept in a small cell with 37 people. They had to defecate and urinate in buckets for those five days. They had nowhere adequate to sleep as the cell was so crowded and could only sleep standing up.”
The lawsuit said the mother of the two-year-old girl has been physically separated from her child since January 2020 after she was transferred from the safe house to the Detention Centre and has had only rare telephone calls with her daughter since then.
Deneisha Moss-Balboni, a former assistant protection officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, interviewed the plaintiffs shortly after their detention, the lawsuit says.
Ms Moss, who has since left the UNHCR, allegedly met the plaintiffs in November 2019 and told them she was finished her investigation and passed the file to the government.
“More than 21 months since they were first detained, the plaintiffs are still waiting for the determination of their applications for asylum,” the lawsuit says.
“The government (in the person of one or more of the defendants) remains responsible for the lawful and timely processing of applications for asylum.
“Since the plaintiffs were first detained in May 2019 there has been more than sufficient time for the government to consider the plaintiffs’ applications for asylum, determine the outcome, and implement whatever further action is required.
“From the fact that the plaintiffs’ applications have still not been determined and/or the results of such determinations implemented, the plaintiffs infer that this failure to process asylum seekers in a timely manner is part of government policy.”
The lawsuit says four of the plaintiffs have been physically and verbally abused by immigration officers and others at the Detention Centre.
One of the plaintiffs has allegedly been assaulted often and threatened with deportation while another “was slapped in the head by an immigration officer and has suffered an earache since.”
One plaintiff has allegedly not slept or eaten and “has been vomiting after her meals but was given vitamins rather than medical attention.”
Another plaintiff has allegedly “been called stupid by immigration officers and told to ‘get your African ass back to your (expletive) country.’”
The lawsuit says the sixth plaintiff developed complications with blood pressure and dizziness and, along with the seventh plaintiff, was released from the Detention Centre in September 2020 for medical reasons. They are required to sign in with the Department of Immigration once a month. The lawsuit says the sixth plaintiff is very ill and requires urgent medical attention.
The mother of the two-year-old is currently detained in the Department of Correctional Services remand centre after she was charged in November with assaulting a fellow detainee, the lawsuit says.
The plaintiffs, according to the lawsuit, have suffered pain, shock and mental distress along with sustained loss and damage.
“Further still, the defendants have shown by their acts of false imprisonment that they are willing to ignore the law in order to achieve their aim of deporting asylum seekers without even having to adjudicate on their claims,” the lawsuit says.
“In the circumstances the plaintiffs seek an injunction that they not be deported from The Bahamas, save on application to the court on at least 28 days’ notice, to ensure that the defendants do not further deprive the plaintiffs of their rights by deporting them without lawful authority.