Solomon Yitbarek was given a split second to make a decision that ultimately saved his life.
Having been deported by the Home Office back to his home country despite being in the middle of an asylum claim in Lancaster, the 27-year-old knew his life was in danger as soon as he landed at Ethiopia’s Addis Abbaba airport.
Miraculously, he managed to escape and is now safely back in the UK and waiting for his bid for asylum to begin again.
The Home Office was forced to return Solomon after his solicitor successfully claimed in court that the Home Office had acted illegally.
Solomon had been living in Lancaster since 2016, having arrived in the UK legally on a spouse visa in 2013.
However, his subsequent separation from his partner meant he needed to apply for asylum on safety grounds to remain in the UK, having been warned that an arrest warrant had been issued for him in Ethiopia for his peaceful democracy activities, and that his brother had been arrested and imprisoned for his political opposition activities.
He came to Lancaster in 2016 when his claim for asylum began, and had been volunteering at Global Link for the last six months.
Despite having his claim refused by the Home Office, a fresh case was in the process of being looked at when he was detained.
Solomon’s new girlfriend also came to Lancaster as an asylum seeker from Eritrea, and now has leave to remain in the UK.
Solomon’s nightmare began when he went to Lancaster police station on May 2 for his usual visit to sign in as an asylum seeker.
He said: “I went to sign in just like normal and they told me to stay and so I started getting very worried.
“Two policemen said they had been ordered to detain me by the Home Office. I said I had an ongoing case, but I was taken to a cell and they started searching me and my bag.
“I was kept in the cell for nearly three days, and then I was taken by the Home Office to a detention centre near London.”
While Solomon’s solicitor tried desperately to sort out the misunderstanding and get bail for Solomon, the Home Office moved him to a holding centre near Heathrow.
“I was still wondering why I was there and why it hadn’t been sorted out,” he said, “but I still didn’t believe I would be deported becasue of the ongoing case.”
However, suddenly on May 13 Solomon was told he was being sent back to Ethiopia.
“I was in shock because I knew my life would be at risk and they knew that too,” he said. “I kept telling them I had an outstanding case for a judicial review.
“It was a Sunday so I couldn’t get hold of my solicitor so she didn’t know what was happening.
“They said I had no outstanding case, and then they put a belt around my waist and strapped my hands in.
“I wasn’t resisting them at all but they said it was procedure.
“That was the point when I knew I was going to be taken to a place where I was afraid I would be killed.
“I was very scared and I started telling them about my story.”
Having been put in a van to Heathrow Airport, Solomon even showed the Home Office officials stories about him on the Lancaster Guardian website on his phone.
“I was very scared and trying to tell them all the way that I had an outstanding case,” he said. “I wasn’t screaming or shouting, but I just kept repeating everything in the hope that they would listen.
“I knew my story was out there so I told them to look online. They actually looked at it and realised what I was saying was true.
“I was scared and crying and panicking. I started telling them that my life is here, my girlfriend is here, but they put me on the plane.
“They spoke to the captain and the crew, and then they sat each side of me and held my arms and legs down, and put handcuffs on me.
“I was very scared and crying.”
Solomon’s fears for his safety came as a result of longstanding political unrest in his home country.
Since late 2015, security forces in Ethiopia have killed more than 1,000 people and detained tens of thousands during widespread protests against government policies.
Solomon is an activist in a pro-democracy opposition group called Patriotic Ginbot 7, who have been labelled a terrorist group by the Ethiopian government.
His family has a history of political activism. His father was tortured so badly by the Ethiopian regime 18 years ago that he died almost immediately on release.
His mother fled to Sudan as a refugee, taking nine-year-old Solomon with her.
Solomon’s brother, who had remained in Ethiopia, was also arrested in 2016, was sent to prison for his opposition activities, and hadn’t been seen or heard of since.
After a seven hour flight to Addis Abbaba, Solomon was led into the airport before being left by the Home Office team.
“I just felt tired and hopeless and scared about what might happen,” he said. “I had all my documents with me, which said about the political party I am a member of, so I said to the Home Office people to take it and send it home, and I asked them to delete everything on my laptop.”
It was at this point that Solomon knew he had to make a life or death decision.
“The security guard at the airport in Ethiopia took my passport and said I had to go with him,” he said. “I knew I would be arrested and I saw my life going the same way my brother’s did so I just ran.”
Fortunately for Solomon, a friend had arranged for him to be met outside the airport, and he was taken and hidden at a house.
Over the next few days, Solomon discovered to his shock that his brother Demsse had passed away in February.
“He had been released from prison and he died two days later from the torture he had received in prison,” Solomon said. “I was shocked and crying, and I knew it wasn’t safe for me to stay any longer.”
Solomon’s next move was to try to get to Sudan, where his mum still lived. Having been driven to the border, he then spent the next two weeks attempting to cross into Sudan undetected.
“I just kept trying and trying until I got through,” he said.
However, unable to trace where his mother was now staying, Solomon stayed with a close friend.
“We just kept praying and kept the hope,” he said. “Knowing that my story was out there gave me more motive to continue; I just wanted to be safe.”
Meanwhile, back in the UK Solomon’s solicitor was working hard to have him returned.
Latta & Co solicitors of Glasgow charged the Home Office with an ‘illegal deportation’, saying they did not correctly follow their own procedures.
The solicitors also said they had not been told about the removal process.
“My solicitor kept me up to date all the time which gave me hope,” Solomon said. “I knew they were trying their best for me. It was keeping me motivated but I still didn’t think I would be able to return.
“When I got the message from the British Embassy that the judge had ordered my return I couldn’t believe it.
“I was so excited, it was unbelievable. The woman at the Embassy was very kind. They said they were sorry and it was not my fault.
“They knew I had entered Sudan illegally without a passport so they had to get a Home Office document for the journey, and they gave me some money while I waited for the exit visa.”
On July 4, Solomon was finally able to travel home – to his surprise and delight on a business class flight – via Nairobi to Heathrow.
“When I arrived they said I was free to go, so I went outside and called a friend to send me some money to take the train.”
Solomon has since visited his solicitor in Glasgow and is in the process of submitting a statement for a fresh asylum claim.
“I don’t know what will happen so I am still afraid,” he said, “but I am hoping that this time they will consider my case properly and grant me the protection that I deserve. That’s all I hope for.”
Solomon thanked everyone who has been helping him in some way over the last few months.
“I can’t say thank you enough to everyone around me who has helped me in all this,” he said.
“Putting my story in the news helped not only me but a lot of other people,” he said. “If there is no voice speaking for us then that’s not good.
“You don’t know how many other people might be deported like I was.
“There are a lot of other people like me that are struggling so just knowing that my story was out there was helping.”
Solomon is now being supported both financially and with accommodation by Gisela Renolds, centre manager at independent charity Global Link, and other individuals in the Lancaster community including Lancaster Quakers, after having his asylum seeker allowance of £37.50 a week stopped until his new claim is submitted.
“I have got a family here in Lancaster now,” he said. “Everyone is lovely here, and I feel like it’s my home. The people are amazing.
“It would be a dream to stay here; because of my safety and it would mean I wouldn’t be scared any more, and I could work and continue my education and support my family.
“I would also be free to support my party and my country with no fear. And I could be a part of the community here and do something for the community as well.
“Now I hope things are going in the right direction, so I am trying to be positive.
“It’s very difficult being an asylum seeker, but this is like a new chapter for me.”