There might be widespread agreement that mental illness should be de-stigmatised, but that does not make it any easier for courts dealing with people who show signs of serious psychological ill-health and who are liable to mistreatment because of their illness. In this case, the UK courts were faced with the problem of a man from Sierra Leone, who believed he was the son of legendary Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley and had absolutely no understanding of his mental condition. He has been fighting to stay on in the UK, saying the government of Sierra Leone would victimize him on his return because Marley, his father, had started a local war there. The government would also ‘want to recruit him’, again because Marley was his father.
Initially FC came to the UK in 2002 when he was 26. He has been fighting his deportation back to Sierra Leone virtually from the time he arrived. One court after another has turned down his plea not to be returned, including his more recent efforts to claim asylum.
Then, in November 2018 a court found that FC would have difficulty in obtaining suitable mental health treatment on his return, and was likely to suffer mistreatment. The judge said that there was a lack of treatment for mentally ill people in Sierra Leone and so FC would not be able to access hospital-based psychiatric care. He would also ‘suffer societal stigma and harm due to his mental illness’ and his return would thus be in breach of the Human Rights Convention.
In an appeal against this decision, FC argued that he should be given asylum because he would be victimized by the government of Sierra Leone on account of being Bob Marley’s son. Since that argument was a ‘delusion’, said the appeal court, were there other grounds on which he might be allowed to stay?
As far as the UK government was concerned, there would be adequate treatment available for FC in Sierra Leone, an argument that was strongly challenged by various reports and witnesses.
The psychiatrist who examined FC said the man believed he was in a relationship with the singer Rita Ora and he lived in fear of the Freemasons. He had ‘an entire set of elaborate delusional beliefs’ related to his ‘exalted birth’. He had been conceived when Marley was in Sierra Leone. Marley was the ‘cause of the war in Sierra Leone’ and as a result FC believed the government and the people now targeted him (FC) and made his life miserable. Marley had left a lot of properties including the building now being used as the official residence of the President of Sierra Leone, and this also created hostility between FC and the government of Sierra Leone.
The doctor said the FC ought to be in a psychiatric hospital with 24-hour monitoring. Even the government’s doctor did not disagree, saying that it would be difficult for him to advise that FC would be ‘fit to fly’, given his ongoing psychotic disorder.
Updating the earlier reports, the first doctor said FC now feared he would be put to death if he returned, and this fear could cause a complete collapse of his mental health state.
The appeal court said it took into account that if he were to return there would be no family to protect and help him and that he would not cope given all the ‘upheavals’ in the country since he left. He would be unlikely to ask for medical help since he did not recognize he was ill. Specialist reports before the court indicated that Sierra Leone had little capacity to deal with the needs of people like FC. There seemed to be two options. One was the sole psychiatric hospital providing 24-hour care in which patients were ‘shackled by their hands or feet without proper clothing or beds’. The only alternative was the ‘City of Rest’ – a rundown building that housed 40 patients crammed into small rooms. They were chained by the ankle when they arrived.
The reports also noted that people with several mental illnesses in Sierra Leone and in many other West African countries were socially ostracized with public taunts and harassment. Despite more than 20 years of effort to combat such ‘stigma, cultural mores and harm’, threats to people with mental illness remained 'pervasive regionally and globally’.
In response to these reports the court said it concluded that FC would be at risk on return of ‘significant ill-treatment’ because of his mental state.
‘He has no idea that he is in need of help.’
‘For this combination of reasons, I conclude that there would be no sufficiency of protection for (FC) in Sierra Leone. I am satisfied that the risk … would exist wherever he were in Sierra Leone as is clear from the medical reports before me.’
FC has ‘a well-founded fear of persecution in Sierra Leone on account of how he would, as a person suffering from mental ill-health, be treated. … Accordingly, I allow the appeal on Refugee Convention and Human Rights Convention grounds.’
* Though they are often distressing, cases about those threatened with deportation to their home countries can provide an opportunity to see through the eyes of others. And, as in this case, to realise how much work still remains to improve the conditions of some of the continent’s most vulnerable people.