ICE Detention Is “Soul-Destroying”: Eritrean Immigrant Dies by Suicide During Deportation

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An Eritrean man took his own life after being deported from the United States earlier this month. Zeresenay Ermias Testfatsion died by suicide at the Cairo International Airport. He was 34 years old. Testfatsion sought asylum in the United States in 2017, fleeing violence in Eritrea. He spent more than a year detained in South Florida and Ohio before he was deported. Friends and family are demanding to know why he was deported to Eritrea despite his fears that he would be tortured or even killed there. We speak with Christine Ho, founder of a volunteer visitation program that provides support for immigrants and asylum seekers inside Broward Transitional Center, the immigrant detention center in South Florida where Testfatsion was jailed for more than a year.

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AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the story of Zeresenay Ermias Testfatsion, who took his own life at Cairo International Airport earlier this month after being deported from the United States. He was 34 years old. Zeresenay was detained in the United States for more than a year, after fleeing his home country of Eritrea, seeking asylum here in the U.S. He spent more than a year in immigration detention, first in South Florida, then in Ohio, before being deported this month. Zeresenay was in transit back to Eritrea when he died by suicide at Cairo airport more than two weeks ago, but his family has yet to locate his body. Friends and family are demanding to know why he was deported to Eritrea despite his fears he would be tortured, even killed, if he returned home.

On Tuesday, I spoke to Zeresenay’s friend Bereket Sibhatu. Bereket met Zeresenay as a volunteer translator at the Broward Transitional Center, an immigrant detention center in South Florida where Zeresenay was jailed. Bereket was not alerted when Zeresenay was transferred to Ohio a few months ago, nor was he told his friend was going to be deported. Here is Bereket speaking Tuesday about his friend, Zeresenay Ermias Testfatsion.

BEREKET SIBHATU: Zeresenay, he was very—he had a hope, and he was a very nice guy. He’s very—he becomes friends right away like you. And then he even had his friends, they were there with him in detention. He always give them encourage. He told them, “Oh, one day, it’s going to be over. We’re going to be OK. We are in the right country. We have peace right now, peace of mind. And just wait for the day to come out from here. Then one day we’ll be—get together, and then we’re going talk about this, what happened in the story.” That’s why he was—had a dream.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he tell you what he most feared if he were deported to Eritrea?

BEREKET SIBHATU: What he said in his testimony is he said if he—they asked him, the lawyers, what would happen if he go back to Eritrea. He said, “I might go jail or tortured, might be even get killed.”

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe that the U.S. deporting Zeresenay was a death sentence for him?

BEREKET SIBHATU: That’s what I believe, because if they know—if they know Eritrea is not the right place right now, you cannot deport to Eritrea, why Zeresenay has to get deported? For that situation, he ended up killing himself.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it make you feel, Bereket?

BEREKET SIBHATU: I feel very sad. And at same time, the family want to find out how it could happen, how he could hang himself in the Cairo airport. The loved ones, they want to find out how it would happen kill himself, who give him to hang in the bathroom. At the same time, I just talked yesterday to one of his cousins why his body remain—body is still in Cairo. Mommy is waiting every single day in the airport.

AMY GOODMAN: In the airport where?

BEREKET SIBHATU: In the airport of Eritrea, in Asmara, to get his remain body.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bereket Sibhatu, speaking about his friend Zeresenay Ermias Testfatsion, who took his own life at Cairo International Airport earlier this month after being deported from the United States to Eritrea.

Human Rights Watch reports Eritrea is one of the, quote, “world’s most oppressive governments,” unquote. According to a 2016 report, Eritreans are often required to serve in national military service indefinitely. Those who try to flee the country are considered traitors. The Guardian reported this week at least three Eritrean teenagers have died by suicide in Britain in the last six months. The teenagers came to Britain from the Calais migrant camp.

For more, we’re joined by Christine Ho, founding director of Friends of Broward Detainees, a volunteer visitation program that provides humanitarian support for unauthorized immigrants and asylum seekers inside the Broward Transitional Center, the immigrant detention center in South Florida. She visited Zeresenay Ermias Testfatsion in detention.

Christine, welcome to Democracy Now! We only have a few minutes. Talk about what happened. He so clearly had real fear that he would be killed for leaving military service in Eritrea, if he were returned, as so many are fearful of doing. How did he end up dead at Cairo airport?

CHRISTINE HO: Thank you so much. I’m very honored to be invited here today. I can only guess that he felt hopelessness and despair, which is actually quite common in immigration detention, which is not a picnic for anyone, not only not for children, but also for adults. It’s highly stressful, which is well documented by a body of psychological research. And it basically—one of the reasons why detention is so—takes a psychological toll is because they have no idea how long they’re going to be in detention. So the suspense kills them, in a sense.

In his case, I think he had high hopes of being released, because I visited one of his friends in Broward Transitional Center a couple of weeks ago, and he told me he had received a letter written in Ohio by Zeresenay, who mentioned in the letter that he expected to be released in a week or two. And so, it must have—I mean, he must have been just struck.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you feel, Christine Ho, that this deportation was a death sentence for Zeresenay?

CHRISTINE HO: It could very well be, in the sense that it must have filled him with such hopelessness and despair, as well as fear of what he might experience if he actually did return to his homeland.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine, in the last minute we have, can you talk about the psychological effects of long-term detention? You’ve visited hundreds of detainees at the Broward County facility.

CHRISTINE HO: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Zeresenay had been there for about a year.

CHRISTINE HO: Yes. It takes a tremendous toll. First of all, it’s especially difficult for asylum seekers, because the process of processing asylum claims takes a long time—months, sometimes years. And they feel—and because they have no idea how long it’s going to be, it really takes a psychological toll. It’s been described by others as soul-destroying. And it’s also a very difficult experience on a day-to-day basis—daily indignities, daily humiliations and also pettiness. It’s in addition to the medical issues that were discussed by Clara Long.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Ho, we have to end the show here. I want to thank you for being with us, founding director of Friends of Broward Detainees, and we’ll continue to follow this case and see if Zeresenay’s body is returned.

We want to wish Karen Ranucci a happy birthday.

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