A photo of Jimmy Thoronka appeared this week in local British papers. An undeclared refugee he went missing after competing in last summer’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The 20 year old was a star sprinter but fell apart as Ebola took his uncle, then his adoptive mother and four siblings. He had already lost his birth parents in the country’s civil war.
Scared to go back, he decided to stay on after his visa ran out.
Thus began a seven-month spell of ‘living rough” on the streets. There were days without meals, sleeping in parks or night buses in London. When his whereabouts emerged last week, he was arrested for overstaying his visa. He was finally released Saturday night after an interview with immigration officers.
His plight, on the heels of the huge loss of life in three West African countries, now over 9,000, sparked an online campaign in his name . Thousands took part, including the comedian Russell Brand, the actor Samantha Morton and the model Lily Cole. More than 30,000 dollars was raised.
The collection took Thoronka by complete surprise. “I am amazed that people all over the world have offered to help me after they read my story. I don’t know how to thank everyone. If I can make a success of my life as a sprinter my plan is to go back to Sierra Leone and help homeless people. I know how much suffering there is when you are homeless. Last week I had no hope but now maybe I will make it.”
Thoronka’s case put a spotlight on the UK’s use of immigration detention. A recent report from an all-party parliamentary group called for detention to be limited to 28 days and used only in exceptional circumstances.
“Immigration removal centres are places where many detainees languish in indefinite detention despite not being accused of any crime, and this has a tremendous negative impact,” Emma Mlotshwa, coordinator of Medical Justice told the Guardian. “We have seen detainees’ mental and physical health deteriorate in immigration detention and we fear for this man’s wellbeing, given his existing reported vulnerabilities.”
The fund appeal for Thoronka was started by a Cambridge University student, whose PhD is on how social networking can be used for social good. The money will be put in a trust and will pay for fees and some living costs of a year at a residential athletics training facility.
Meanwhile, the death toll from the virus in Sierra Leone is more than 3,500 and in the most recent development, Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana put himself in quarantine after the death from Ebola of one of his security guards. He is set to become acting president when President Ernest Bai Koroma leaves Sierra Leone to attend a European Union conference on Ebola in Belgium. Sam-Sumana is expected to carry out the presidential duties from his home.
He is the highest ranking African official to be quarantined in West Africa.