Public outrage has been sparked at the imminent deportation of Cameroonian playwright Lydia Besong, after she was issued with a removal order by the UK Border Agency, along with her husband Bernard Batey, earlier this week.
The couple were taken into detention on 10th January, despite still awaiting a decision from the Home Office on a protection claim filed in October 2011. They are being held separately, with Besong at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, while Batey is at Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre.
Persecuted in Cameroon for her involvement in political activities in the country, Besong was imprisoned and raped, and fled in 2006.
A letter addressed to Home Secretary, Theresa May, calls for their release “due to the very real serious concerns that Ms Besong and Mr Batey would be at risk of further persecution if removed to Cameroon at this time.”
It also asserts that “We believe Lydia Besong’s courage and creativity in the face of great adversity should be celebrated and the UK should be proud to offer her protection from the persecution she suffered in her home country for her political activities.”
The letter has been signed by numerous authors, actors and other notable signatories, including Monica Ali, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Joan Bakewell, Ali Smith and Helena Kennedy.
Kennedy, a leading QC, told the Guardian “The way in which this was done was hideous, with the couple not informed they were going to be removed. The whole way it was carried out was insensitive and terrible.”
Besong has worked with Women for Refugee Women to produce three plays since she arrived in the UK, including ‘How I Became an Asylum Seeker’. They have been performed in London, Liverpool and Manchester, and rehearsals for a new play were due to begin in the week that she was detained.
She spoke at the NUS Zone Conferences in October 2011 of her time as an asylum seeker, and said that being detained in the UK “brings the memory of what you have gone through back in your country” when she was “hoping to come and find safety for your life.”
Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, said “Lydia’s courage and creativity is a real inspiration for those standing up to oppression. It is shocking to see how she has struggled to get a fair hearing in the UK asylum process.”
Michael Morpurgo, former Children’s Laureate, said “How this country treats asylum seekers is the measure of what kind of people we are.”
He added, “I would ask, beg, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to look again, think again, and allow this remarkable woman the right to stay here and live amongst us.”
Cameroon is sometimes regarded as one of the more politically stable nations in Western Africa, but Human Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have criticised the government for their actions.
“Political opposition is not tolerated in Cameroon,” said Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Africa. “Any dissent is suppressed through either violence or abuse of the legal system to silence critics.”
The deportation is expected to take place early on Saturday 21st January, if attempts to secure the couple’s asylum are not successful. Women for Refugee Women have said there are “very real fears that they will face further persecution if returned.”