In early March, Joram Nechironga was put on a bus from Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre in west London destined for Heathrow airport.
The father of two, who served in the British Army from 2002 to 2007, including time on the front line of the Iraq war, was about to be forced to board a plane to Zimbabwe, the country where he was born. He left for Britain in 2001 and the last time he visited Zimbabwe, in 2006, he was tortured as a suspected British spy on account of his army ID.
Only last-minute interventions by his lawyer and Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South who raised her constituent’s case in parliament, stopped him being deported. “It was scary for me because I wasn’t expecting treatment like that with my PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and the way they wanted to deport me,” Nechironga, 42, said.
“It was a very anxious moment and very stressful for him,” said Andrew Nyamayaro, Nechironga’s lawyer. “The minister had made a promise to the MP that he was not going to be deported.” On 28 February Sultana had raised Nechironga’s case with the Home Office minister Tom Pursglove, and was assured by the Home Office later that day that his deportation had been deferred, only for him to be put on the bus two days later because of an “error”.
Nechironga is facing removal from the UK as a “foreign national offender”. He was convicted of drink-driving offences and an assault on a family member for which he served two years in prison until 2019.
He and his lawyers contend that these offences were a result of untreated PTSD that developed during his time in the army. He has been rebuilding his life ever since being released from prison.
“I suffered from flashbacks, depression, nightmares, sleeplessness, night sweats, palpitations and outbursts of rage. I developed [a] drinking problem as a coping mechanism for my PTSD,” Nechironga said.
Jeff Harrison, head of the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, said: “While most servicemen and women have a successful career and transition back into civilian life, some can develop military-related trauma that can have a devastating impact on their life.” The criminal justice system, he said, should take this “into consideration”.
Since his release Nechironga, who lives in the Hillfields suburb of northeast Coventry, has been working as a labourer, painter and decorator. He was focusing on his recovery and paying maintenance for his two children, who also live in the city.
Nechironga says that on 17 February he was taken without notice to Colnbrook to be deported. Following the 11th hour decision not to deport him, and with the assistance of his lawyers, he was granted immigration bail on 10 March.
This does not end the threat of deportation, however, and Nechironga told the New Statesman he is also restricted from daily activities. “I was given conditions of reporting every week in Solihull and I was told I cannot work, I cannot study or claim benefits and I’m on 24-hour monitoring,” he said.
The requirement to travel every week to Solihull is a stress on his finances, particularly now he has been told he is not allowed to work, and being stuck at home for longer periods has made his flashbacks more frequent. “I was able to pay my bills and trying to better my life after my prison sentence,” he said. “I was busy dealing with my PTSD, looking for help paying for my own medication every month. Now I’m not working and I have to pay for my treatment and medication. Now I have bills to pay, I have gas and electricity to pay and I don’t know how I will put up with all that.”
Nechironga added that he does not want to be a “burden” to his family in the UK. “At the moment, I am pleading with immigration to please allow me to work so I can stay on top of my bills and medical expenses.”
Nyamayaro, his lawyer, is still fighting the deportation order, which remains in place. He added that he is seeking expert psychiatric evidence to help make the case that untreated PSTD was behind Nechironga’s criminal offences.
He is also concerned about the lack of appropriate support at Colnbrook for Nechironga’s mental health, as he had been receiving counselling before he was detained. “In the detention centre there was not much he was receiving, if anything at all,” he said.
For Nechironga to be able to stay in the UK he would need to be given leave to remain or a visa. As long as the deportation order is there, the Home Office could detain and deport him at any time.
“People who’ve made the UK home, and indeed served in our armed forces, should not be facing exile to a country they barely know — not least to a country where their lives could be put at risk,” said Minnie Rahman, campaigns director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. “The fact that he has a criminal record is irrelevant — he has served his time, and deportation is a cruel double punishment.”
Sultana said: “The Home Office’s treatment of Joram has been shocking. Not only are they trying to deport someone whose whole life is here in Britain and who was scarred while serving in our armed forces, they have even nearly deported him in ‘error’ — exacerbating his PTSD.
“Deporting him to Zimbabwe wouldn’t just tear him from his friends and family, it would put him at risk of torture as well. Instead of just whipping-up division as usual, for once Priti Patel and the Home Office should do the decent thing and cancel this deportation.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government makes no apology for removing murderers, rapists and child abusers and those with no legal right to be in the UK. Since January 2019, we have removed over 10,017 foreign criminals.”
The spokesperson said that all claims were “fully considered and decided upon before removal”, adding: “The new plan for immigration will fix the broken immigration system and stop the abuse we are seeing by expediting the removal of foreign national offenders and those who have no right to be here.”
Nechironga is now living with the impact of his experience of detention on top of his PTSD. “I feel hopeless every time I hear a knock on my door; I just feel weak because of the way they came and picked me up,” he said. “Now I can’t sleep.”
He is still seeking help for his mental health, which has deteriorated significantly, and he is now experiencing suicidal thoughts. “I have been contacting my doctor every week looking for help with my mental health,” he said. “I did make mistakes and I sought help but I didn’t get help from the NHS for my mental health. Now I am suffering due to the service I did for the country I love so much.”