As he sat on the chair last Monday evening, Prince Ugochukwu brought out a white handkerchief from his pocket with his right hand, wiping off the small tear drops that clouded his red eyes.
If he had known, he wouldn’t have accepted his friend’s invitation to visit him in Switzerland. Ugochukwu said he would have stayed back in Madrid, Spain, where he worked and lived. He would have renewed his residence visa in Spain and become a citizen. Of course, that was his dream that has now been cut short brutally.
He had planned to spend just three days in Switzerland but that journey quickly turned out to be a nightmare, leading to his eventual deportation to Nigeria.
He said he had visited Switzerland back in 2014 without any problem. But his second trip to the country was the beginning of his sad experience. They declared him an illegal immigrant.
The 35-year-old Ebonyi State indigene had been living and working in Madrid, Spain, since 2003. He visited Nigeria in September 2015 and left the Murtala Mohammed Airport happy and feeling great, only to return to the country like a destitute.
Ugochukwu cried briefly when he first met our correspondent, but he composed himself and told a story that left many questions than answers.
“On September 9, few days after I got back to Spain, I bought a ticket with Swiss Air to visit my friend in Switzerland. We are close and I was free at work. So, I decided to go and spend three days with him. I left Madrid and arrived in Geneva, Switzerland later in the night of that day. On getting to the Geneva Airport, the immigration officials there checked my documents,” he said.
But after checking all his documents, the officials said he would not be allowed into the country.
He said, “I asked them what the reason was because I had all my documents intact. I have a residence visa in Spain and by European laws, I am permitted to visit any other European country and stay for three months, not to work, but to visit.
“I told them I was not coming to work, but to visit a friend for just three days. Meanwhile, I had an appointment to go for the renewal of my residence visa on October 5 because the one I was holding would expire on September 26, so I had planned not to stay for more than three days with my friend in Switzerland.
“They said I had to go back to Spain. After much effort trying to explain, I stopped arguing with them. I asked them how soon they would allow me to go back to Spain and they said as soon as possible. I believed them — only to see them packing my luggage and collecting my Spanish residence visa. I also had my Nigerian passport, which would expire in January 2017. They collected everything; the documents, my tablet and phone and wristwatch. They made an entry for all of them and asked me to acknowledge them by signing, which I did. Then they asked me to wait.”
But later that night, rather than put him back on a flight to Spain, Ugochukwu said they transported him from Geneva Airport to a location in the city which he didn’t know. That night, he said they locked him in a confinement that had no windows.
He continued, “I was kept in there for three days without committing any criminal offence. I didn’t know why they did that to me. They didn’t allow me to communicate with anybody. I didn’t know when it was night or when it was day. On the third day, they brought me out and asked me to come and see one lady in an office.
“She was explaining something to me, but she was speaking in French. I told them I didn’t understand French and demanded they should bring someone who could speak English or Spanish which I understand.
“So they brought an old man who explained to me that they were setting me free on that day and that I was going back to Spain. The man told me that they said I shouldn’t come back to their country till December 17. I was at least happy. They asked me to sign a statement to that effect and I did so. After signing the paper, I asked them how soon I was going to be taken to the airport and they said a vehicle would be coming to pick me up later.”
The vehicle indeed came, only to carry him to another detention facility in a place called Sion. In that place, another suffering began for him.
But Ugochukwu did not imagine what would happen later.
He said he spent two months and three weeks in that facility without any explanation.
He said, “I had no access to lawyer and no medical facility. I was there when my Spanish residence visa expired. All through the period, I kept asking them when I was going back to Spain. I told them I was working in Spain and I had two kids and dependants. ‘You couldn’t just keep me here,’ I told them. They refused to listen. When I was there, my health condition started deteriorating because of the poor water they gave me. There were rashes all over my body. The pain was severe. At nights, I couldn’t sleep because I was feverish. I complained to them and demanded they should take money from my wallet and buy me bottled water. I also demanded they should take me to the hospital. All these fell on their deaf ears.
“They said they were going to talk to their director; they were just lying. Instead of taking me to the hospital, they gave me paracetamol tablets which I took for one month and 10 days. I requested that they should allow me see the Nigerian Consulate in Geneva because I just couldn’t understand my situation. They didn’t take me to the consulate. I was kept in that confinement till November 19.”
Around 1am on November 29, 2015, Saturday PUNCH learnt that while he was sleeping, four hefty men with masks entered his room. Before he could know what was happening, they had pinned him on the floor and handcuffed him.
Ugochukwu said the unknown men sprayed some kind of gas on him, which made him lose consciousness. By the time he regained consciousness, he found himself inside an aircraft, his hands and legs tied to the seat with chains.
He said, “I looked around and saw other passengers. They were not chained like me. A security official sat beside me. I asked him where he was taking me to. He said we were going to Nigeria. I remember the plane got to Italy first, and from there it landed in Greece. As passengers were disembarking from the plane, others were embarking. I was the only one who couldn’t move. Then we got to Nigeria. Before we landed, the security man removed my chains and when we got to the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, I demanded to speak to Nigerian immigration officials. I was taken to an immigration officer who was the head of the department there. I told him I was not an illegal immigrant as the people who brought me back claimed. I told him I had been living in Spain since 2003 and I even had permanent residence visa, which I had been using for 10 years. If I had renewed it on October 5, I would have become a citizen of the country.
“I told him I worked in a factory which produces carts used at shopping malls. I had also worked at construction sites, bakeries and others. I asked the immigration officer to ask the man who brought me to release my documents and other items. He said I should wait and that he would get back to me. I waited, only for him to tell me I should come back two days later, on a Monday. When I got there, I was given my documents, only to realise my Spanish visa, my bank card and hospital card were not included. The immigration officer said that was all they gave him.”
Since then, Ugochukwu had been traumatised, brought back to Nigeria empty, and has been enduring the shame any other person who were in his shoes would have felt. All his efforts to seek redress to his “unjust” treatment have not yielded any fruit.
“I went to the departure hall at the airport to meet some officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I explained everything to them and they asked me to produce copies of all necessary papers, including the ticket I bought to go to Switzerland. They said they would look into it for me. They have yet to do that up till now,” he said, showing the said documents to our correspondent.
He said, “Since January 2016, my children have not been going to school. I have no money. I am stranded in my own country. I had to relocate my family to my village in Ebonyi State. I have been squatting with friends in Lagos and it’s not easy. If I had renewed my visa, my family would have been able to join me in Spain. I wasn’t married when I first got the residence visa, but on expiration of the former visa and application for a new one, I would have indicated I am married and they would join me. But look at what has happened to me.
“Right now, I walk around like a lunatic, which I’m not. Everything I have — my money and other things — is in Spain. I have gone to the Spanish Consulate in Lagos. I presented all my documents for verification, but their argument is that they wouldn’t be able to do anything for me because they were not the one who brought me back to Nigeria, but Switzerland. They said they don’t have any hand in this matter. Why should Switzerland do this to me? I am a confused man right now.
“In 2014, I lost my job and went to Switzerland to solicit for social benefits, which is not a crime. After five months of application, they denied me, saying that I could only apply for that in Spain where I came from. I didn’t argue with them. I left the country. I didn’t fight with anyone and I have never been a terrorist suspect.
“It was the second time of visiting the country and they did this to me. I want them to tell me what my offence is. My life has turned upside down. Since December 2015, I don’t have any means of income and I have not been feeding my family. Why should I be treated this way? I have not been able to overcome this shock.”
Meanwhile, a human rights activist and constitutional lawyer, Evans Ufeli, who has taken up Ugochukwu’s case, said it was wrong for the Swiss authorities to have detained his client without any explanation to him.
He said, “This level of human right violation is gravely repulsive. This horrific case must not go forgotten. There is no country in the world where a legal immigrant will be wrongfully detained for up to two months without being charged to court or allowed access to a lawyer.
“This is a case of gross infringement of our client’s fundamental right and we hereby call on all the relevant authorities through this medium — the Presidency, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Nigerian Immigration Service and Switzerland High Commission in Nigeria to come to the rescue of this young man whose apartment is still in Spain but cannot return because the Swiss immigration authorities are still with his Spanish residence permit and vital travel documents.
“The Swiss government through its High Commission in Nigeria should issue a re-entry visa to our client forthwith, to enable him to find his way back to his abode in Spain. The Swiss citizens in Nigeria are not treated this way here. We cannot allow the kind of abuse to go unchecked in our land. Our client deserves some level of dignity as a human being.”
When contacted on Friday, an official of the Switzerland Embassy in Abuja, Andreas Jolanda, told our correspondent on the phone that Ugochukwu’s case would be investigated.
The spokesperson for the Nigeria Immigration Service, Mr. Ekpedeme King, said something might be “fishy”about Ugochukwu’s story, and promising to look into the matter.
“It might be that his documents are irregular or an illegal immigration issue,” he said.