The Ebola refugees

Has migration policy reckoned with epidemics like Ebola?

Ebola Virus at 108,000 Magnification.

The recent “outbreak” of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has the United Nations and the World Health Organization scrambling to control the spread before it reaches an urban center. The global response today is much more coordinated than the 2013-16 epidemic in West Africa, when more than 28,000 cases were reported with over 11,000 deaths. Reaching a major city, such as Mbandanka in the northwestern Equateur province, particularly in an area deeply scarred by decades of armed conflict, poses the greatest peril.

It cannot be overlooked that this is the ninth outbreak of Ebola in the DRC. New vaccines and treatment trials offer little comfort to Mbandanka’s terrified population, traumatized as it is by civil unrest, horrific sexual violence and a collapse in civic infrastructure. Years of war and neglect have taken a heavy toll, and large parts of the city have no electricity or running water. Most of the streets and avenues of the city are unpaved and in disrepair. Nevertheless, Congolese and WHO authorities are distributing the experimental Ebola vaccine rVSV-ZEBOV in the city of nearly 1.2 million people. The first group of 8,000-12,000 individuals are being vaccinated this month.

But in a city of over one million terrified citizens, many impoverished, waiting for a vaccine seems like a risky gambit. Ebola is a highly infectious virus which causes a sudden onset of symptoms including fever, fatigue and muscle pain within two to 21 days. Individuals suffer vomiting, rashes and diarrhea, compromised kidney and liver functionality, and often internal and external bleeding. Survivors of the disease are often left with symptoms months or years into the future. What about those who are not as fortunate to be in the right place at the right time; or to know the right people. How does a population like Mbandanka’s deal with this sudden new fear and trauma? Where do people go for help?

Chronic and acute illnesses, such as Ebola, sit uncomfortably with asylum claiming and refugee mobilities. The story of Jimmy Thoronka, a Sierra Leonean athlete, who feared Ebola and sought refuge in the UK illustrates the perils facing those with few choices in the event of such a rapidly unfolding medical emergency. Small numbers of refugees fleeing West Africa in 2013-2016 invoked fear of Ebola, or the death of family members as grounds for humanitarian protection.

Their advocates adopted trauma discourse and crisis metaphors to perform a particular form of asylum claim.

Thoronka remained in Britain after the 2014 Commonwealth Games. After learning that Ebola had claimed eight family members, he absconded from his team compound. After being arrested by UK immigration agents, then released into supervised care, he was befriended by members of a local track club. Thoronka’s lawyers provided an expert medical report asserting the sprinter was in a “chronic traumatised state” following his family’s passing.

After consulting its internal database of “Country of Origin Information” about Sierra Leone, the UK Home Office deemed Thoronka’s claim lacked merit on several grounds, among them, that trauma counseling existed in Sierra Leone. His claim “did not meet the required thresholds within the immigration rules.” Thoronka was told that he had no right to appeal until after returning to Sierra Leone. If he did not return voluntarily, he could be arrested, detained, and forcibly removed at any time.

Thoronka’s experience is unusual insofar as he gained extraordinary social, political and media attention. A petition attracted more than 70,000 signatures within a few weeks. A GoFundMe website raised over £32,000 by October 7, 2015. Prior to the negative decision, dozens of news articles appeared in the UK and Sierra Leone. After the USA Today syndicated the story, thousands more appeared globally. But, whereas he was surely not the only Sierra Leonean athlete affected by Ebola, he was the only known “defector” alleging fear and trauma.

For contemporary asylum seekers, Ebola is yet another novel claim strategy, and thus a useful subject matter to investigate the shifting modalities of migrant agency, the unstable fabric of medical humanitarianism and knowledge production in moments of exceptionality. Thoronka’s case is emblematic of a dramatic growth of public immigration struggles, which unfold when undocumented migrants contest their status in the public realm, via social media, such as blogs and twitter, and physical protest.

Among the more famous precursors were the sans papiers and their French advocates in the 1980s and 1990s. Participants in these contemporary struggles attempt to marshal public opinion to put pressure on democratically elected parliamentarians. In so doing, they short-circuit administrative and judicial processes. Attempts to facilitate the social “trending” of asylum claims constitute a high-risk strategy, however. Public debate certainly does not guarantee success, as attested by Ugandan “lesbian” Brenda Namigadde and Pakistani student Majid Ali.

Asserting Ebola as a basis to contest deportation underscores the conflation of medical humanitarianism, asylum, and refugee status with social mobilization and political expedience. In an interview at the time with Guardian journalist Diane Taylor, entrepreneur Emma Sinclair suggested people “tweet” (then) Home Office Secretary Theresa May with the #KeepJimmyHere hashtag. Revealing a meagre knowledge of migration policy or asylum grounds, she asserted,

I cannot bear the thought of having to… send him back to a country where he no longer has his family unit and where his training cannot be supported. Some of us in London have gladly become Jimmy’s new adopted family and I would be devastated if he had to be uprooted again and I had to say goodbye to him—all the while knowing he is no burden on the state and indeed has the capacity to make the whole country proud. Jamaica and the US welcome African asylum seekers who are world-class athletes and we are keen to give him away.

In Sinclair’s convoluted rendition, Thoronka’s “Ebola trauma” is displaced by an even greater British tragedy, the loss of a promising athlete. Thoronka’s family may already be deceased; but deportation will surely kill his career. This rhetorical slippage—from Ebola as fear and jeopardy, via Ebola as trauma, to Ebola as deprivation of opportunity—underscores how asylum practice and migration policy collapse when national pride and public sentiment collide.

By employing “crisis” metaphors with reference to Ebola, asylum seekers appear cognizant of the benefits of strategic references to the vocabulary of crisis to “perform” their trauma as a claim for refuge. From mid-2014 Ebola began to feature in West African refugee narratives and requests for expertise, albeit tentatively and inconsistently. Ebola fear was no sure path to protection for Thoronka: it was a highly risky argument to advance in 2014-15 partly because knowledge about the disease and its effects was expanding swiftly. UK Home Office officials scrutinized Thoronka’s claims against regular streams of new information emanating from Sierra Leone-based British embassy staff and Department for International Development personnel.

Under what conditions might those fearful of Ebola be considered plausible refugees or asylum seekers? Fear of Ebola may shape a refugee claim by diminishing the capacity for safe internal relocation. The ongoing Ebola epidemic may engage humanitarian protection because medical and psychological healthcare services have deteriorated severely; depending on the nature of the illness, this may generate the Refugee Conventions. The presence of Ebola may contribute to a climate of instability rendering it unsafe to return someone whose asylum claim has otherwise failed; failed asylum claimants may be deemed a protected group under particular circumstances, such as acute mental illness. And an individual’s familial experience of, or death from Ebola may contribute to stigma, rendering it difficult for social reintegration. Thoronka’s claim was perhaps not entirely without merit; it simply failed the UKHO’s various tests it developed based on its interpretation of refugee law, at least initially.

Asylum claims, like Jimmy Thoronka’s, offer an unusual psychosocial viewpoint on popular perceptions about Ebola, the imagined experience on the ground, and legal imaginaries and motivations of migrant advocates. For many years prior to and during civil conflicts, citizens from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire fled their domestic settings and sought asylum; their narratives became important repositories of data about regional conflict. And just as asylum claims have expanded to incorporate a broad spectrum of gender-based and sexuality-targeted violence, it is important to consider the possibility that future DRC Ebola-related claims may be part of a dynamic refugee jurisprudence, one that may yet stretch protection to include future health-crisis related mobilities.

Further Reading