Yemane Teferi has waited 25 years to be a free man.
For most of that time, he’s been stuck in refugee centers in Norway, whose government says he doesn’t qualify for asylum and should be deported back to East Africa.
His advocates say he is being treated like a criminal in country where even violent offenders are rarely sentenced to more than 21 years in jail and prisoners are sent to islands that have reminded some visiting journalists of vacation spots. But because his home country of Eritrea and Norway do not cooperate on deportations, Teferi might be forced to spend the rest of his life in Norway – without ever being granted asylum. He might never be allowed to have a job, a family or access to full health care services.
“The immigration authorities are legally entitled to expelling him from Norway. However, the problem arises when, as a consequence, he spends most of his life in limbo because deportation is and will never be possible,” said Rune Berglund Steen, the director of Norway's anti-racism center who has advocated for Teferi.
He remains stuck in Norway, where he lives in the western town of Bømlo Sunnhordland and spends his days at the asylum reception center. Although he could legally move around in Norway, the money granted to him is insufficient to pay for transportation. He relies on clothing donations because the budget paid to asylum seekers is based on calculations that assume monthly waiting times, not decades. Meanwhile, the Norwegian government plans to cut the budget even further in the coming months. The camp in Bømlo Sunnhordland itself was never made to host a life-long asylum seeker: The sparsely populated town, with its nearly empty reception center, offers few opportunities to help Teferi to assimilate in a country he has lived in for more than a decade now.
"I have started to lose hope that I will ever be able to walk the streets of Norway freely," he said in a recent phone interview. "I have spent so many years being not allowed to do anything: no work, no family, no privacy. What have I done to be treated like this?"
Teferi’s case is an example of the many things that can go wrong in the asylum process. And while extreme, it highlights the challenges that more asylum seekers and governments could have as hundreds of thousands of people arrived on the continent from not only from war-torn Syria but other countries in the Middle East and Africa too.
The reason Teferi might never be able to call Norway his home country -- although he has spent the last 17 years there as an asylum seeker -- goes back even further. He originally arrived in Sweden about 25 years ago, but later moved to Norway.
"The central issue in Teferi’s case is that he originally gave different asylum explanations to authorities in Sweden and Norway. He also operated under two different identities," Ellen Kveine Evensen of the Norwegian Appeals Board explained in an e-mail to The Washington Post. "Despite numerous requests for reconsideration of his case, the Norwegian Immigration Appeals Board still believes he doesn’t qualify for protection."
Back in 2006, the appeals board decided unanimously that "there were no grounds to reverse earlier decisions to reject his asylum application."
Berglund Steen acknowledged the inconsistencies in the case. "Of course, by the time he came to Scandinavia he had already been living as an unrecognized refugee for many, many years, and he was desperate for a solution," Berglund Steen said. "This is held against him indefinitely. There seems to be no maximum time limit for how long he should suffer in limbo because of this mistake."
"The case is extremely sad. Yemane's life is wasting away for no good purpose. I am afraid that he will spend the rest of his life like this."
Berglund Steen believes that the case is an extreme example for Norway's dealings with refugees. "In a country known for its humanitarian façade, this case is at the other end of the specter. This case marks the bottom. We are willing to waste a man's life for the sake of immigration control," he said.
Oil-rich Norway has become one of Europe's most skeptical nations toward immigration and refugees. As WorldViews reported earlier, it has taken in far fewer refugees than neighboring Sweden, for instance, though the government said Tuesday that it would be willing to take in its share, the AP reported. When Syrian refugees attempted to cross into the country from the Arctic Circle, Norway threatened to charge anyone who supported them on their journey with human trafficking.
Meanwhile, Norwegian authorities are pushing forward with the deportation of one of the few Muslim victims of a terror attack that killed 77 people at a summer camp on the island of Utøya in 2011. Mubarak Haji Ahmed and his older brother Khalid narrowly survived the attack, while another brother was killed.
The family originally came from Djibouti but later lived in Yemen. Khalid and their father had made false statements about their identity when they arrived in Norway and were deported two years ago. But human rights advocates are outraged that Norwegian authorities are in the process of also deporting Mubarak, who was 10 years old when he entered the country with his parents.
Yemane Teferi is facing a similar fate. At the age of 17, he fled Eritrea, where he says he was a courier for the Eritrean Liberation Front -- a guerrilla group and now a rival of the current regime. According to the Norwegian anti-racism center, the country's Immigration Appeals Board did not view that affiliation as a potential threat for Teferi.
Human rights campaigners, however, say that it could endanger his life if he returns to Eritrea. On its Web site, Human Right Watch states that "forced labor during conscription, arbitrary arrests, detentions, and enforced disappearances" are common in Eritrea. "Other abuses include torture, degrading treatment in detention, restrictions on freedoms of expression and movement, and repression of religious freedom," the organization concluded.
"The response from the Immigration Appeals Board is almost Kafkaesque in its lack of understanding of the basics of the political situation in Eritrea. And this is the kind of nonsense answer we received after waiting a very, very long time for a new decision," Berglund Steen said. In its statement, the appeals board did not respond to a specific question about whether the committee had taken into account potential threats Teferi might face in Eritrea.
"I am old now," Teferi said by phone. For years, he has been suffering from severe headaches and depression. "It's impossible for me to go back. But here in Norway, people usually don't speak to me either. Maybe in church, they sometimes do."
Activist Berglund Steen has collected money to take his case to court again. But chances that previous decisions will be overturned are low.
"If he dies like this, he will finally - for the first time - have a plot of ground in Norway where he can stay legally," Berglund Steen said.