Asylum seeker living in fear of returning to homeland

Yonas Weleslasae with wife Yordanos, daughter Nardos and son Mnase
Yonas Weleslasae with wife Yordanos, daughter Nardos and son Mnase

AN ERITREAN asylum seeker fears he will be killed if he is forced to return to the homeland where he says he was persecuted for his religion and tortured.

Yonas Weleslasae, 30, has a pregnant wife and two young children in Hartlepool – but he could be deported if his second bid for asylum fails.

He said: “It is unthinkable that I could be sent back to that horror. I would be killed and my children would grow up without a father. This can not happen.”

Soldier Yonas spent four years on the frontline in Eritrea in the Horn of Africa during the volatile peace after a three-decade struggle with neighbouring Ethiopia.

But in 2004 he was captured by his own army after his superiors discovered he was a practising Pentecostal Christian, rather than an Orthodox Christian, Catholic or Muslim, which are the main religions in the country.

In the degrading and savage punishment that followed he claims he was beaten, shackled to a tree, forced to stand for hours in the brutal heat of the desert with his hands tied behind his back, only being freed to dig a hole which guards would callously fill up again, and even had milk poured over his body to attract flies.

Yonas, who has settled in Hartlepool, off Huckelhoven Way, said: “You don’t think about escaping.

“The only chance would be to escape to the opposition and it would be too difficult.”

But after a month, Yonas found the courage to make a bid for freedom.

He took a chance and ran for five hours to the Ethiopian border.

But he was recaptured – this time by the border guards who thought he was a spy as he was still in his military uniform.

Eritrea produces more refugees than almost any other country in the world, with nearly 2000 people escaping every month. There have been repeated stories of refugees about the Eritrean regime forcibly conscripting men and women and of deserters can be tortured or killed.

Ethiopa and Eritrea are not in current conflict, but the control of border territories between the two nations is still disputed.

Yonas, who is dad to Nardos, three, and one-year-old Mnasei, said: “They didn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t a spy and kept saying they would send me back.”

After a short time penned in an enclosure in the Ethiopian camp, he escaped again.

This time he ran until he crossed the border with Sudan, where he went into hiding.

He said: “I stayed there, although I still couldn’t practice my faith as it is a Muslim country.

“I still wasn’t safe and if they found you they would just deport you.

“You have got no passport and can’t stay in one place.”

After a few days, he met a group of Eritrean lorry drivers.

They put him in the back of a lorry and took him to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

His aunt lives in Khartoum and his family kept him safe for a few weeks.

He was put in touch with an agency who arranged for a false passport and flight.

Yonas was put on a plane and claims he had no idea where his destination was until he walked out of an airport in London.

A short time after his arrival, Yonas says he contacted the Home Office and applied for asylum and was sent to a hostel.

But he was later detained for giving false information.

Yonas said: “I was just scared. I know it was wrong – but I didn’t know what to do.”

After absconding from the detention centre, Yonas claims he was given legal advice and reapplied to the Home Office under a real name, only to be told he should not remain in the UK. He then launched an appeal against the decision.

Upon his release, and awaiting the result of his appeal, he was given a house in Hastings, where he met his Eritrean-born wife, Yordanos, 28, who was living in Stockton.

The couple married and as he now had a wife, the Home Office gave the couple a house in Hartlepool, where they have lived for nearly three years.

They had their two children, the oldest being Nardos who attends the town’s Playmates Nursery, and have another baby due in early September.

Unable to work because he is seeking asylum, Yonas volunteers in the community and carries out free work for various groups in the town and the family are given financial support from the state, as well as receiving charity assistance.

Yonas said: “I am so grateful to be here and for all the support me and my family have been given. We are very happy here.”

The family are also members of Hope Church in Stranton and Yonas can now practice his faith. He added: “It is all I’ve ever wanted to do and I was persecuted for it.”

In December 2008 Yonas’ appeal was dismissed by an asylum and immigration tribunal and solicitors launched a further appeal, a decision for which was deferred in March last year. He is still awaiting a decision and could still face deportation.

His wife had also applied for asylum and is also still awaiting a Home Office decision.

He said: “They just can’t send me back. It can’t happen. They know what will happen to me. We have built a life here.”

A Home Office spokesman confirmed asylum applications had been made but added: “We cannot discuss individual cases.”