Refugees as political activists: walking the tightrope

Published: 20 May 2013
By: Djibril Balde

On Monday May 7, 2013, the Senegalese authorities expelled Makaila Nguébla to Guinea Conakry. He is a Chadian blogger and activist who had lived in Senegal since May 2005. Following a similar incident in which a Gambian opposition member was arrested at the airport and expelled to Mali, this latest development calls into question the reputation that Senegal has enjoyed internationally since independence as a generous host country for those in flight from political oppression. It also highlights the complexities for states which grapple with fulfilling their obligations to provide asylum at the same time as maintaining diplomatic relations.

Senegal has long welcomed foreign opposition politicians, political refugees and even foreign heads of state, including former Cameroonian President Amadou Ahidjo, former Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré, and controversially Hissene Habre, the former Chadian leader who is facing international crimes charges. The AU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa is clear that asylum should be regarded as a “peaceful and humanitarian act” and not an “unfriendly” one. But on a continent where refugee activism and organisation in diaspora has been central to major political upheaval this is not always an easy paradox to manage Politically active refugees who are vocal about seeking their rights can often be key actors in stimulating the change needed in their countries of origin which ultimately creates the conditions for return home of refugees. Governments are of course deeply suspicious of this engagement.

Several days after the expulsion of Mr. Nguébla, the government of Senegal reacted publically through its spokesperson in an interview with Radio France Internationale (RFI). The spokesperson argued that Mr. Nguébla was living irregularly in Senegal, that his asylum claim had been rejected under the previous administration.

It is true that Mr. Nguébla had applied for asylum, including going through the appeals process and was living in Senegal in somewhat of a legal limbo, without refugee status.

However, there are concerns about both the legality and the fairness of the expulsion. A prominent lawyer that I interviewed about the case indicated that the expulsion was illegal in that it did not follow the appropriate procedure for a deportation: Mr. Nguébla should have been brought before a competent judge and a deportation order issued, but according to the available information this does not appear to have happened. From the perspective of the basic principles of administrative fairness Mr. Nguébla was not given any advance notice of the decision to expel him and had no time to find another host country. When he protested vehemently against return to Chad he was summarily expelled to Guinea, a country where he knows no one and has no family connections. The lawfulness of his presence in Guinea is unknown.

It has been suggested that Mr. Nguébla’s expulsion had more to do with attempting to silence him in advance of the visit of a Chadian minister than with law enforcement. Mr. Nguébla’s asylum claim was rejected several years ago, but no attempt was made to deport him until now. In the RFI interview the government spokesman acknowledged that, “the presence of M. Makaila was tolerated under certain conditions: that he abstain from doing a certain number of things and from making declarations that the Senegalese government considers to be contrary to his desire to live with us.”

Mr. Nguébla told IRRI that the police had reprimanded him for having spoken on the radio station Sud FM on May 5, 2013, about his situation as an asylum seeker and for having criticized the Senegalese asylum system. This was not, however, the first time that Mr. Nguébla had spoken publicly about the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Senegal. Indeed, Mr. Nguébla spoke about the situation of refugees at an event hosted by a number of organizations including IRRI, on June 19, 2012, on World Refugee Day. Despite the fact that this event was covered by both national and international press, Mr. Nguébla was not disturbed as a result of his participation.

In this context, a number of organizations, including la Ligue sénégalaise des droits de l’Homme (LSDH), Amnesty International Sénégal et de la Rencontre africaine pour la défense des droits de l’Homme (RADDHO), have speculated that his expulsion was linked to the expected visit of the Chadian Minister of Justice the day after the expulsion. Mr. Nguébla is a prominent opinion leader in the Chadian community and regularly uses his blog as a platform to question human rights abuses being committed in Chad.

Refugees –like any other non-citizens—have the right to freedom of expression. Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides that “1. Every individual shall have the right to receive information. 2. Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.” However, the ability of refugees to express themselves politically is often caught up with the relationship between the host country and the home country. In short refugees have political rights and rights to freedom of expression and association but these rights may be legitimately restricted with respect to state security, public order or indeed where states are required to ensure respect for the international law principle of the sovereignty of states. The tricky question is striking the appropriate balance. In this case, considering the nature of Mr. Nguébla’s peaceful activism, the right judgment does not appear to have been made.

A number of human rights and refugee organizations have already denounced this incident, as well as the refugee situation in Senegal generally. The Senegalese government must stop expelling foreign opposition members and opinion leaders without due process and in contravention of international law: bringing clarity and consistency to the asylum system which is in dire need of reform would be an important place to start.

Regions: Western Africa, Senegal
Type: IRRI Blog