Being of a broken home and seeking to leave an impoverished mother for a rich, licentious father, a young Nigerian pursued Commonwealth dreams of a college degree and better life in Australia.
Benjamin Okoro, the youngest member of his family, was to be its breadwinner as he departed Lagos for Brisbane in July 2018.
He never reached Australia to fulfill his dream. Instead, he endured a protracted nightmare in Fiji.
Okoro’s journey was cloaked under an entry in the Suva Marathon, and ended in a marathon detention as Fijian immigration and prison officials wrongfully held him without charges or a hearing for more than 15 months.
Two years ago Okoro was awarded $FJ20,000 in constitutional redress for the protracted detention, and he finally received the funds in August 2021.
But the now-29-year-old man said the compensation pales to his hellish experience, and he wants his story told so both the Fiji immigration and prison systems are forced to change.
He said no one, whether a citizen or foreigner, should have to endure such conditions.
“We were treated less than human,” Okoro recalled. “I had thoughts of taking my life due to the silent torture and inhumane treatment I went through. I was brutalized and humiliated by prison staff and beaten by inmates.”
“There was no proper health care or food,” he added, noting some 60 prisoners shared an open dormitory space.
“We were fed like pigs and dogs. Regularly I was stripped for the entertainment of prison wardens, in the name of ‘search’.”
During an election year in Fiji, Okoro wants immigration and prison reform to be addressed, and he has the support of Fijian human rights attorney Aman Ravindra-Singh.
“There is strong evidence of human rights violations in Fiji prisons,” said the attorney.
“Prisoners have been subjected to beatings and torture, and there have even been recorded cases of prisoners having died as a result of the brutality.”
“Benjamin witnessed many human rights violations while in prison, and was also subjected to human rights violations.,” said Ravindra-Singh.
“Benjamin was never meant to be in prison. This was an innocent man who had committed no crime. He was never subjected to any form of prison sentence, and yet he was kept in a prison facility with convicted criminals.”
Okoro said while Fijians also were mistreated in prison, he was targeted because of his race and nationality. He said racism was the major factor in his long imprisonment, with Fijian Indian officials even more hostile than their indigenous colleagues.
“I was discriminated against because I am African,” he said. “What the Fiji immigration and corrections services did was deliberate.”
What was to have been a new life for Okoro in Australia was aborted in Fiji.
After participating in the 10K competition at the 2018 Suva Marathon, Okoro, with the help of an older brother back home, his return ticket was refunded and he purchased one for Brisbane.
When he attempted to board the flight, his visa to enter Australia was deemed fraudulent. Immigration officers were called to the Qantas Airways counter, and Okoro was detained.
Rather than promptly deport Okoro, Fiji immigration officials allowed him to leave the airport to obtain funds from family or friends to pay for his flight home.
He was given two weeks, but two months passed with Okoro unable to purchase his own ticket.
Immigration officials then went to the Salvation Army church where Okoro had taken refuge and detained him as an overstay.
He was held in a detention house until, after complaining about conditions there, he was sent to prison.
Okoro charged there is systemic racism in Fiji immigration and prisons because three other Nigerian men were detained and then imprisoned under circumstances like his.
The other three men were in prison, also without charges or hearings, until Okoro filed for constitutional redress in the High Court.
When immigration and prison officials learned of Okoro’s legal action, two of the Nigerians whose passports were still valid were promptly deported.
Okoro and the third man were deported after new passports were obtained through the Nigeria High Commission in Canberra.
During Okoro’s redress hearing, Immigration Western Division Manager Deepak Karan stated the Nigerians’ detentions were prolonged because of Fiji Airways’ security concerns and its demand the deportees be escorted by an immigration officer.
Karan gave no reason why the men were deemed security risks, and said the airline eventually relented on the need for escorts.
Justice Alan Stuart found there was extended inaction by immigration officials and long gaps in their communication with airlines regarding the deportations.
He ruled Okoro’s constitutional rights had been breached by immigration officials detaining him for more than 15 months, failing to bring him before a court within 48 hours of his detention and restricting his freedom of movement.
Writing from his home last week, Okoro made it clear he still dreams of Australia.
“Honestly, I would be so happy and fulfilled relocating to Australia someday,” he stated. “Most importantly, studying law to become a human rights activist to help young Africans in the diaspora.”