They knocked on his door at 3am on a Tuesday in October 2013. The police had come with two vans to Joseph Koroma’s apartment at Heilbronner Straße 2 in the town of Walheim, in Southern Germany. An officer told Koroma that he was being deported to Nigeria and should go pack his suitcase. Koroma has been living in Germany since 2006 and has never been to Nigeria.

He panics. ‘I was beside myself,’ he told US journalist Cooper Inveen at a meeting in December 2016 about that day. He remembers that the police told him to calm down and pack the things he would need most urgently. ‘I can’t go to Nigeria. I come from Sierra Leone,’ he says. The officers reply that they have their orders. Koroma has to leave behind everything that does not fit into his backpack. The police officers take him to the Foreigners’ Registration Office. They hold him there for three hours and confiscate his German ID. His lawyer does not answer the phone.

Koroma was one of about 33,000 people registered nationwide by the German Ministry of the Interior in 2012 as ‘obliged to leave the country immediately.’[1] Yet only about one in six could actually be deported in that year. Such was the complaint of AG Rück, a work group of German federal and state-level officials dealing with deportations. The group listed roughly two dozen reasons why deportations were so difficult. At the top of the list: ‘Procurement of passports (or replacement papers).’ In second place: ‘Cooperation behavior of the countries of origin.’[2] As in Joseph Koroma’s case.

Koroma had arrived in Germany in May 2006. At the time, he was 42 years old. From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was engulfed in civil war. As many as 300,000 people may have been killed and 2.6 million displaced. But when Koroma reaches Germany, the war is over. His asylum claim is denied after just five months. This decision takes effect in 2008. In 2011, the regional authority in Karlsruhe orders Koroma to present himself at his national embassy, which does not issue him passport.

It emerged back in 2006 that Foreign Minister Steinmeier had furiously complained to several diplomats, because 29 embassies (which his ministry had placed on a secret ‘list of problem states‘) were making deportations difficult. Sierra Leone is also on the list. The work group AG Rück states reasons why embassies often cause deportations to fail. Some will only issue passports if the person involved consents. Koroma did not. The embassies wished to protect their citizens from the German authorities, writes AG Rück; it also lists corruption, arbitrariness and a lack of ‘political interest in deportations’;[3] some countries even wanted to extort concessions or money from Germany.

In order to get around the balking embassies, in previous years the Federal Police had come up with the scheme of flying in West African state officials. In 2008, officials from Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, came to Hamburg for one of these special visits. The Süddeutsche Zeitung later found that they were paid €250 per deportation paper and a ‘daily flat rate’ of €200, plus a per diem allowance.[4] The Federal Police gave them tickets to a soccer game of Hamburg’s team HSV; for a €63.50 fee, they even had a locksmith service make an official stamp for the Sierra Leonian officials, who had come without their national insignia. Unlike the embassy, this delegation issued deportation papers to two-thirds of all denied asylum applicants presented to them. A smashing success for the Foreigners’ Registration Office and the Federal Police, who could now deport dozens of backlogged cases in one blow. The media and courts, however, were not too happy about this affair. It smelled too much of corruption. Some time later, the federal police halted the practice.

The regional authority in Karlsruhe cannot deport Joseph Koroma, although he is ‘obliged to leave the country immediately’, because they have no passport for him. However, the officials are not easily discouraged. Koroma comes from Africa, and Africa is a big continent. Sierra Leone is not the only country there. Early on 10 April 2012, they pick up Joseph at his apartment and take him to Karlsruhe, where a delegation of the Nigerian embassy in Berlin is waiting for him. The delegates are supposed to examine the possibility that Joseph Koroma might come from Nigeria rather than Sierra Leone. Koroma tells them he will sue if they make him a Nigerian, so the embassy people send him and the German officers away. But the Foreigners’ Registration Office will not be deterred. On 25 June 2013, they come for Koroma at his apartment and take him to Karlsruhe once more. The same Nigerian delegation from Berlin is there. This time, it decides that Koroma is Nigerian.

Hence, five months later, Koroma sits at the Federal Police office of Frankfurt Airport, waiting to board the deportation plane. He is allowed to keep his mobile phone. ‘My lawyer said he would write letters to the court and the Foreigners’ Registration Office,’ Koroma says. ‘That was the last time we spoke.’ At 11:10am, Lufthansa flight LH 568 takes off for Lagos, Nigeria.

In Lagos, police officers take him to officials at the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS). Koroma tells them that he is not Nigerian, knows nobody in the country and does not know where to go. A short time later, a man from Togo, who lives in a suburb of Lagos, presents himself to the officials. He wants to take Koroma with him. He is the brother of a friend of Koroma’s from the German town of Kornwestheim, where they played table tennis together. The news had reached the club, so the friend asked his brother to take in Koroma.

Koroma stays with this man for one month, rarely leaving the apartment. He mostly sits at the computer, writes emails and makes phone calls to his family in Sierra Leone and his table tennis buddies in Kornwestheim. Freetown is over 1,550 mi from Lagos, and the bus passes through rebel territory. A flight would cost several hundred euros and Koroma has nothing. A month later, he receives a payment through Western Union. His friends in Kornwestheim collected it for him.

When Koroma gets off the plane in Freetown in November 2013, he is grateful to his friends in Germany for enabling him to see his family. But Sierra Leone is no longer the place he left seven years earlier. Back then, he worked at a small mine in the east of this mineral-rich country famous for its diamonds. Whatever he could save, the family invested in his journey to Europe. Now he looks for steady work but finds none. Soon afterwards, Ebola breaks out. His family is spared from the epidemic but not from the economic crisis that follows. The money his friends collected does not keep paying for his small apartment long.

His relationship to his relatives has ‘changed completely’ since he returned, says Koroma’s wife Mariama. ‘When you have been out in the world and get deported, it is a scandal. They despise you instead of offering a helping hand. People say: “That man did not try hard enough when he was in Europe.” But they don’t understand how things work there.’[5]

Koroma is jobless and his family is threatened with eviction. His son Emmanuel is 17 years old. ‘It’s a gift from God that he’s smart enough to go to university next year,’ Mariama hopes. But this is unlikely. The entrance examination costs almost $200, and the average wage in Sierra Leone is under $2 per day. There is nobody who would help the Koromas.

So the son passes the time just like his father: playing table tennis. Joseph earns a bit of money by training a youth team. Soon, together with his son, he wants to open a youth training center. Young people should have opportunities that he did not. ‘If my friends in Germany taught me anything, it was that you should always help people whenever you can,’ he says. ‘The world works better that way.’

It reeked of corruption

A man deported by Germany to a country not his own: Joseph Koroma is not the only case. But he is one of the few to be documented. Rex Osa, an activist in Stuttgart who is originally from Nigeria, made sure of that. Shortly after Koroma’s deportation, he followed him all the way to Sierra Leone and recorded his statement, as well as others from similar cases in which deportees suddenly became Nigerians.

The Nigerian embassy in Berlin had fixed fees, as Osa’s research found: the Foreigners’ Registration Offices had apparently been charged €250 per hearing since 2005.[6] Then, suspicion arose that the embassy was making money off deportation papers. Criticism mounted; this practice also reeked of corruption. In response, the embassy officially eliminated the fees in 2011. Activist Rex Osa is certain that embassy workers were taking bribes; in Koroma’s case, they even pocketed a double fee. That was also why they had themselves invited to Karlsruhe twice. ‘It is an absolutely corrupt system. They’re dealing in deportations,’ says Osa.[7]

In 2015, Berlin journalist Daniel Mützel asked the Federal Police officers responsible for Koroma’s deportation if this could be true. Did the Federal Police offer ‘incentives’ to turn Koroma and others into Nigerians in order to deport them? The Federal Police headquarters in Potsdam near Berlin replied: ‘No incentives are offered by the Federal Police. Regarding the embassy’s motivation, no statement can be made from here.’

So is Koroma telling the truth? Does he really come from Sierra Leone? It certainly seems so. In any case, on 6 November 2013, shortly after his arrival, the authorities in Freetown issue him a passport numbered E0143344, which he has shown to the authors. According to this document, he was born on 7 December 1964 in Freetown, as he had told the authorities in Germany. When Osa visits him in 2014, they meet in Freetown at his family home. So does journalist Cooper Inveen in November 2016, on assignment for the German ​tageszeitung.[8]

The reason why Koroma and a succession of other deportees landed in Nigeria is that many consulates do not cooperate with the German Foreigners’ Registration Office, but Nigeria’s does. It is a dubious procedure: expensive, laborious, lengthy and, for those affected by it, torturous.

Yet it seems that the Foreigners’ Registration Office may not need to rely on such cooperation for much longer. The future of deportations could be different. Soon, everyone could be doing it just like Arne Sahlstedt, a police inspector in Gävle, central Sweden, a city of 70,000, a two-hour drive from Stockholm. Sahlstedt was also supposed to deport a man without a passport in October 2016. The man’s name is Fulani Camara, age 29, from Mali, an orphan.

The Migration Agency in Gävle had expelled Camara after his asylum claim was denied, the same as had happened in Germany to Joseph Koroma. Like him, Camara did not leave the country. The Malian Embassy in Stockholm would not issue him a passport either. When the German tageszeitung inquires why not, the Gävle police do not want to give a reason, citing only ‘data protection’.[9] Mali is probably also listed as a ‘problem state’.

For the past two years, Sweden has had a directive to tell people like Sahlstedt what to do in cases like this. ‘RPSFS 2014:8 FAP 638-1’ states that Sahlstedt can issue a travel document himself, if the embassy does not. It is a simple, standard letter-sized page with the EU flag printed at the top; Sahlstedt has to merely fill in a person’s name, height, Swedish registration number, date of birth and ‘presumed nationality’. In Camara’s case, Sahlstedt wrote ‘Mali’. On 24 October 2016, Sahlstedt stamped and signed the paper.[10] Three days later, Fulani Camara was on a plane.

On the day of Camara’s flight, a mobile phone rang in Mali’s capital Bamako for Ousmane Diarra,[11] an activist with the Malian Association for Deportees (AME) (L’Association Malienne des Expulsés). For years, he has been going to the airport to wait for the 7:55pm arrival of the one daily direct flight from Paris, whenever there are people on board who were taken by the police from their homes somewhere in Europe that same morning because they lost their right to remain. Most of these people have no idea where to go; very few have any money. The airport personnel are glad that the AME takes care of them, so they call Diarra whenever deportees get off the plane.

Diarra waits for them outside the airport police office and then takes them to the office of the AME. A place to sleep for the first night, a meal – Diarra has little more to offer. Each time, however, he asks about the circumstances of their deportation. Diarra has heard possibly thousands of these stories by now.

Camara’s case was special, however, because of that paper with the EU flag, signed by Swedish police inspector Sahlstedt – the Malian authorities do not recognize it at all. Back in 1994, the EU had expressed its ‘recommendation’ for the use of such deportation papers. The problem of uncooperative embassies is an old one. Yet until now, all African states – with the exception of the island state of Cape Verde – have refused to officially accept these papers. If they did, their embassies would lose the possibility to examine whether a person is actually a citizen of their countries – and also the chance to earn bribes from this sideline. Unofficially, however, there have been cases where these so-called EU laissez-passers were used.

Diarra asked Camara to stay for a few days. On 5 November 2016, the AME celebrated its 20-year anniversary. It rented a room for the occasion in Bamako’s National Museum, which lies between the soccer stadium and the city hall. It was a big day for the association. Mali’s citizens traditionally go elsewhere for work. Most go to other West African states, some to Europe. For this reason, the country has a long-standing ‘Ministry of Malians Abroad’. This department has been under pressure throughout its existence. Several countries, France especially, want to deport many Malians. Mali’s government is not keen on this plan.

An internal strategy paper of the EU Commission from January 2016 in preparation for a readmission agreement with Mali describes the situation thus: Views on migration between the EU and Mali ‘do not coincide’. In Mali, migration has a ‘cultural dimension … as a model of success’; ‘the economic importance of remittances has to be taken into consideration.’ The Malian government viewed even irregular migration as a ‘resource’. Therefore, the paper says, Mali was opposed to readmission agreements with the EU.[12]

The AME had invited the ‘Advisor to the Minister for Malians Abroad’, Broulaye Keïta, to its anniversary celebration to speak about how the government would handle the growing pressure from Europe. The AME wanted to know the government’s position on the current deportation agreement, in which the EU was offering states like Mali hundreds of millions of euros. The agreement also supposedly stated that Europe would be able to issue its own deportation papers from now on.

Filmmaker Hans-Georg Eberl of Vienna was present at the celebration. He reports that Keïta said the government would be staying the course: No deportation to Mali without a Malian passport. There would be no exceptions. Diarra had scanned Camara’s paper just for this moment: In front of all the assembled guests, he projected the image of the EU laissez-passer from the Swedish authorities onto a big screen. Keïta claimed to know nothing about it. The ‘Haut Conseil’, the high council of his ministry, he promised, would open an investigation into the matter.

Keïta was probably lying. Just three days after the celebration, an EU delegation landed in Bamako: Italy’s Foreign Minister and future head of government Gentiloni, secretary of state Domenico Manzione and EU Commission representative Franco Lucani were among them. They met with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. As the EU described it, the exchange focused primarily on issues of migration.[13]

In 2008, 7,605 Malians were ordered to exit the EU, yet just 1,750 of them followed the orders or were deported in that year – a rate of 23.1 percent (Table 1). By the time of the AU-EU summit in November 2015 in the Maltese capital Valletta, this rate had sunk even lower, to 11.4 percent. The rates looked similar for deportation rates of citizens of other African states. Raising these rates was a top priority for the EU. To Mali alone, the Europeans offered €145 million immediately and even more in the following year – if it could give ‘specific and measurable results in terms of fast and operational returns of irregular migrants’,[14] as one Council paper states.


Yet this cooperation is highly controversial in Mali, as in many other African states. In these countries, migration is a promise for many who seek something better. It is also vital for many Malians with family members in the diaspora. And so, shortly after Camara’s arrival, Mali backed out of the deal.

To Bamako and back

On 29 December 2016, two jets approached Mali’s capital Bamako: Air France flight AF 914 and Aigle Azur flight ZI 521, both from Paris-Orly. Each flight had a man on board whom France wanted to deport to Mali. Neither man had a passport. This was a test run. The EU wanted to know whether Mali would officially give way; to see whether it would do what Brussels had been trying to wrest from the African states in the preceding year’s marathon negotiations: the unlimited, unconditional readmission of African refugees and migrants. However, on the evening of 29 December, the Malian border police at the international airport in Bamako did not allow the two Malians into the country. The accompanying French police officers and representatives of both airlines protested this decision for hours. The Malian officials held firm. On the following morning, both Malians were back in Paris.

Within hours, the international media spread the news across the globe. Mali, the desperately poor desert state, a jihad-wracked ex-colony of France, had defied the EU on its most crucial current political issue. Newspapers wrote about the ‘tension’ and ‘conflict’ between Bamako and Brussels. The EU’s boldest political offensive toward Africa thus far – on that day, it ended in a fiasco.

At the Valletta II summit in February 2017, Olawale Maiyegun, AU Department Director of Migration and Social Affairs, told the Europeans to their faces: ‘At the start of the Valletta Process in late 2015 you said that it should be a partnership with no strings attached. But then, bit by bit, all the strings came back into play.’ The laissez-passers, for example: he considers them to be flatly illegal. ‘This is unacceptable to us, and it violates international law. So far, the EU has not gotten away with them, but it makes them into a condition for talks about paths to the legal migration of people from Africa to Europe.’ He does not criticize the obstinacy of the often-corrupt embassies.

Yet the EU continues to negotiate with Mali, as well as with Senegal, Nigeria, Niger and others. Should they succeed, all of the AG Rück’s problems would be solved. What happened to Fulani Camara or Joseph Koroma could become the fate of many other Africans. States like Germany or Sweden would no longer depend on the unpredictable, sometimes corrupt embassies. In principle, they could deport every denied asylum applicant to any country that accepts the EU papers – regardless of the person’s actual country of origin. The European Commission’s External Action Service (EEAS), which is responsible for the criteria for issuing this paper, will disclose nothing on the subject. The national authorities seem to have free rein.

As of early 2019, no African state has officially accepted the laissez-passers.

However, the EU finally wrested its first deportation agreement for expelled refugees from one country, Ethiopia. The agreement, signed in December 2017, states that Ethiopian embassies must issue deportation papers within three days of receiving a request from a European immigration office. If the deportee lacks a passport, European authorities are permitted to provide documents to the Ethiopian secret services – renamed in the agreement as ‘the intelligence and security services’ – from which a person’s nationality can be inferred, such as a copy of an expired ID card. The Ethiopians must respond within two weeks.

If no such documents exist, the immigration offices can present the presumed Ethiopian to the embassy for questioning. The embassy must hold the interrogation within two weeks and decide whether the person is an Ethiopian.

The agreement further permits EU states to have officials flown in directly from Ethiopia by request for special missions. The EU presumably wants to keep this possibility open in case the embassies issue too few deportation papers. The officials are to interrogate the potential deportees in order to determine their nationalities. Such agreements are very controversial.

The EEAS praised Ethiopia in a September 2017 report for its progress in combatting human trafficking networks. This is why the number of irregular migrants to reach Europe from the Horn of Africa has fallen, the report claims. However, the report continues, cooperation for readmission from the EU – that is, for deportations – was unsatisfactory and the rate of readmission was one of the lowest in the region. The conclusion states that political involvement at the highest level must be transformed into operative cooperation.

Amnesty International is concerned about the planned cooperation with the Ethiopian secret service NISS to determine people’s identity. Within the past year, Amnesty International has heard repeatedly of asylum procedures in which the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) doubted asylum seekers’ Eritrean nationality and presumed them to be Ethiopian nationals, says Franziska Ulm-Düsterhöft, Amnesty’s specialist on Africa.

She says the EU document has no fixed criteria at all for how the NISS will establish a person’s Ethiopian nationality. For Ulm-Düsterhöft, this raises the question how to ensure that Eritreans, some of whom speak the same language, will not be wrongly declared Ethiopian citizens and deported to Ethiopia. Further, she says, Amnesty was fundamentally opposed to bringing people to the direct attention of the NISS, which was known for repeatedly persecuting and jailing critics of the government and for human rights violations. This procedure required no assurance from Ethiopia to protect the human rights of readmitted individuals, she concludes.

  1. Bild (2014) ‘Mehr als 131 000 abgelehnte Asylbewerber immer noch da’, Bild, 13 February |
  2. Vollzugsdefizite – Ein Bericht über die Probleme bei der praktischen Umsetzung von ausländerbehördlichen Ausreiseaufforderungen, Report by AG Rück, Clearingstelle Trier, April 2011
  3. Bewarder, Manuel (2015) ‘Der gesetzestreue Ausländer ist der Dumme’, Die Welt, 18 May |
  4. Süddeutsche Zeitung, (2011) ‘Besonders Sierra Leone stellt bereitwillig Papiere aus’, 7 November |
  5. Jakob, Christian (2016) ‘Dann ist er halt Nigerianer’, tageszeitung, 17 December |
  6. The Voice Refugee Forum (2011) Nigeria Embassy In Germany Corruptly Collects € 500 On Each Deported Nigerian, 15 August |
  7. Personal interview, December 2016
  8. Jakob (2016) |
  9. Ibid.
  10. Document held by the authors
  11. Personal interview, January 2017
  12. EU Commission and European External Action Service (EEAS) (2016) ‘Joint Commission-EEAS non-paper on enhancing cooperation on migration, mobility and readmission with Mali’, 24 February |
  13. Jakob (2016) |
  14. EU Council (2016) ‘General Secretary of the Council—Draft conclusions’, 28–29 June |


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