Illegal at home: Are Deportees and Non-Admitted Travellers Criminalized in their Countries of Origin? – Maybritt Jill Alpes

Jill’s research combines anthropology with law focusing on different aspects of the governance of migration. She has recently published on consulate officers in Social and Legal Studies, migration aspirations in Identities and flows of information on migration risks in African Diaspora. In this post, Jill investigates how migration control in Europe changes the position of foreign-nationals vis-à-vis their own state authorities. You’re invited here to contribute to the discussion on the insecurities and threats that deportees and non-admitted travellers face upon landing at the airport of their country of nationality.

When they catch you there with a problem, no matter whether small or big, they will just frighten you to send you to prison.’ Miranda is talking about the police post at the main international airport in Douala, Cameroon. She had been deported from Germany after one month of visiting her family. I met and talked with her at the airport upon her arrival back to Cameroon in January 2014. ‘There are some people that when you arrive at the airport, they allow them to go,’ she tells me. ‘They do not trouble them,… but sometimes if they catch you, then you have to spend some money before you go.’ As Miranda didn’t have money on her when she was suddenly forced to return to Cameroon, she relied on her sister to generate the necessary financial means to buy her way out of the airport.

From November 2013 to January 2014, I regularly went to the police post at the airport in Douala, Cameroon. As much as possible, I tried to talk there with travellers who had involuntarily returned to Cameroon and were now waiting at the police post to be allowed to leave the airport. On an average morning, the police post would fill up overnight with at least four or five people. These were deported migrants, participants in (voluntary) return programmes or what in airport jargon is referred to as ‘non-admissables.’ People in this last category had successfully gone through the different exit controls at Douala airport and had flown to their respective country of arrival, but were then rejected as ‘non-admissables’ by immigration officers at the airport of their destination. Immigration officers at control posts at airports of destination can refuse entry to travellers on grounds of accusations of fraud, as well as on more formalistic grounds, such as a disrespect of a specific regulation concerning overlays or insufficient documentation to prove means of subsistence during travel. Since the introduction of carrier sanctions in Europe in the 1980s, airline companies are responsible for immediately returning – at their own expense – such not admitted travellers to their respective countries of origin.

Amongst the different involuntarily returning travellers, ‘non-admissables’ are the most vulnerable to state authorities when returning to Cameroon. Robert, for example, became a ‘non-admissable’ when he attempted to return to Turkey where he’d been working without a residence permit for several years. He had chosen to visit Cameroon for a few weeks to attend the funeral of both his father and his sister. Although he hadn’t been granted a visa, he endeavored to return to Turkey by obtaining a visa for Dubai and purchasing a Turkish Airline flight with a layover in Istanbul. His passport and visa adhered to all requirements as he exited Cameroon. During his layover in Istanbul, however, he attempted entry into Turkey with the passport of a Cameroonian friend of his who had a residence permit. The Turkish police noticed that Robert wasn’t the official owner of the passport with which he attempted to enter and thus refused him entry. Turkish Airlines had to return Robert to Douala where the police persecuted him for the offence of ‘having attempted to emigrate illegally.’ This offence is based on national law that defines the legal exit and entry of nationals and foreigners, as well as on a definition of fraud in the Cameroonian criminal code.

I met Robert in prison and followed his court proceedings. His cousin spent 50€ on officers at the judicial police, 50€ on the state council’s secretary, 150€ on the State Council himself, and 200€ on the Judge. During his imprisonment, Robert relied on money from his cousin to avoid the prison meals that caused digestive problems. For Robert to have a bed in a separate cell, his cousin had to spend 150€. When the prison guards added other inmates to his cell, however, Robert started sleeping on the ground in the open courtyard with everyone else. In the Cameroonian prison system, preventive detainees are held with convicted criminals. Inmates can become subject to rape, murder, or other acts of violence. After three months of imprisonment, the cousin’s financial contributions led to a court sentence of three months, meaning that Robert had already served his sentence by the time it had finally been pronounced.

2014-01-10 11.03.17-PR

Prison convoy arriving at the court where Robert’s case will be heard. (Credit: M J Alpes)

As a deportee, Miranda wasn’t put into prison. She did, however, have to spend three nights and three days in preventive detention upon arrival back to the country of her nationality. During three days in detention at the airport of Douala, Miranda was allowed to wash herself once. She was able to eat because her sister brought her food. Miranda told me how a female police officer lent her a private phone so that she could call her sister: ‘[My sister] was doing all the negotiations. Otherwise I believe they would have sent me to prison.’ After three days, the police commissioner asked Miranda’s sister for the equivalent of €1,000 for her release. Her sister first brought the equivalent of €300 and then later added another €150. Miranda refused to buy an additional bottle of whiskey to encourage the release of her passport. With another note of €10, Miranda was eventually able to retrieve her passport a few weeks after her release.

Miranda and Robert had to negotiate their exit from the airport and prison with police officers and judges who considered it an important part of their work to combat fraud. The European Union and its member states are involved in this combat against fraud by mobilizing migration and development funds to finance civil registry reforms and police trainings. Furthermore, France has two international liaison officers in Cameroon, who amongst others regularly patrol both the international airport of Douala and Yaoundé. When I interviewed these two liaison officers, neither showed an interest or awareness of how Cameroonian state actors receive national deportees or not-admitted travellers upon their return. Their priority lay with the confiscation of fraudulent French civil registry documents.

Kadengui F. Djoukouo

Courtyard of prison in Yaoundé (Credit: F. Djoukouo)

The Cameroonian case raises questions about how deportation and non-admission in the European Union can transform relations between involuntarily returning third-country nationals and authorities in emigration countries. What happens to deportees and non-admitted travelers upon their return from Europe to their countries of nationality? How do police officers in emigration countries receive these failed travelers? What are the responsibilities of the European Union and its member states when collaborating with police forces of emigration countries?

In the follow-up of fieldwork findings in Cameroon, a group of colleagues and students from Sciences Po Paris[1] and the VU Amsterdam set up a collaboration to better investigate the human insecurities that deportees and non-admitted people can face in the hands of state authorities upon return to the countries of their nationality. The project is exclusively concerned with direct air travel between emigration countries and EU member states. In particular, we seek answers to the following questions:

  1. In which countries are (i) deportees and/or (ii) non-admitted people subjected upon arrival at the airport in their country of nationality to (a) monetary extortions, (b) threats of imprisonment, and/or (c) imprisonment?
  2. Which emigration countries persecute their nationals for having attempted to emigrate illegally?

I welcome any comments, feedback, and recommendations for sources via email.


 This post was originally published at Border Criminologies on the 26th November 2014” and can be accessed at the following link:
we publish the following post with the kind permission of M.J. Alpes-

Maybritt Jill Alpes, a ‘Migration Law as Family Matter’ researcher at the VU Amsterdam. (

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