Please don't let this become Brokedown Palace
October 17, 2007 7:34 PM   Subscribe

My fiance just got arrested in Malawi for an expired visa, what can I do?

She is in the country for an extended volunteering position (personally organized through in-country contacts), and was told when she went though passport control that she had been given a 90-day visa. It has been 35 since she landed - apparently she was only stamped for 30 days.

Pertinent info:

--As far as I know, she hasn't broken any laws, other than the visa violation.

--I've contacted the American Embassy in Malawi, they are working on the case, are getting the consular involved, and will "get back to me in a couple of hours."

--I've called her mom.

I'm sorry if this isn't much to go on, I'm just freaking out and don't know what else to do!

Confounding problem - her cell phone is dying!
posted by i less than three nsima to Law & Government (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You have done the right things. You may now be in a position where you wait to hear back from the embassy. Breathe, drink some water, stay calm for her.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:50 PM on October 17, 2007

-Does she have the info of your in-country contacts, and contact info for the US Embassy? Give that to her before the phone dies.

-Do you have as much info as you can get about where she is, and where your in-country friends are? Get that.

-Can you contact any friends on the ground there, so they will be standing by in case there's anything they can do (like pick her up if she gets released)?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:54 PM on October 17, 2007

Wow, I'm really sorry, but at the same time don't totally panic. I got "detained" for an expired visa in SE Asia once, but I was able to pay a "fine" to two cops and things didn't escalate beyond that. I'm guessing things have escalated past the point where she can bribe her way out however. I have however heard of people bribing entire police stations to get their kids out of jail, but that is a move not for the faint of heart and I have absolutely no clue if that sort of thing is done in Malawi. However, one thing to remember is in situations like this sometimes corruption is your friend, if you are given an opening to bribe someone I would take it. But this my own view and may be supremely stupid advice, so take it for what you will.

If you know anyone in the Foreign Service I'd give them a call. I don't know if they will be able to do anything, but start trying to pull some strings with the Embassy if that's possible and don't stop calling Embassy.

Also get in touch with her contacts in Malawi and if she is in anyway associated with some sort of international organization, I would be calling them non stop too. You need to learn how this sort of thing works in Malawi. You need to know if she is being validly held or if something else is going on. Is she involved in anything politically sensitive? Is she connected to any religious institution? You need to know if this has to do with more than an expired visa.

Sorry this is all so vague and probably only minimally helpful but basically just call in every favor you have, if you know someone who knows someone, etc in the State Department or at an Embassy I would pursue that relentlessly. Getting an advocate for her is probably your best bet. Also, don't panic there is a pretty good chance they'll just let her out with a fine or deport her.

Good Luck!
posted by whoaali at 7:59 PM on October 17, 2007

You've probably already thought of this, but could the Embassy get her a new cell phone, or charge the current one somehow? Or could they facilitate this somehow?
posted by amtho at 8:40 PM on October 17, 2007

Yeah, in a lot of places the standard procedure here would have been to pay a "fine" to the arresting cops. Now that it has escalated I think the consulate is your best bet, and you've already started proceedings there. Try to be calm and let them help you.
posted by Justinian at 10:25 PM on October 17, 2007

The whole point of her detention is that she has "overstayed" her time allowance, thus the worse likely outcome is that she will have to pay a fine and / or leave the country. If the embassy/consulate is already involved and there really is no other angle, I would expect it to be over very soon.
posted by magullo at 12:28 AM on October 18, 2007

Talk to American and European expats in Malawi about what lawyers can handle bribes. Is the objective to come home, or to finish her volunteer stint?
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:45 AM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: Well, she is due to appear before court in a few hours, with deportation (now or within a few days) being 2 out of the 3 possible outcomes. The other is that she'll be fined and given a chance to renew passport.

Thanks for the help so far. The advice about contacting in-country friends was a head-slap obvious thing that I just hadn't thought of, and it was definitely nice for her to be able to see a friendly face at the police station, I think. It has been a frustrating night of dropped calls, oblique government officials, and holes-burning-through-the -stomach worrying, but hopefully we'll have more definite answers in the coming hours.

While I appreciate the suggestions for bribes (hell, I've gotten myself out of more than one scrape in Africa with a gently greased palm), they weren't really an option at the point I was informed. Apparently "illegal immigration" is a big problem in Malawi, and she was arrested by a police sting at 3:30 in the morning in her hostel dorm room.
posted by i less than three nsima at 1:43 AM on October 18, 2007

Embassy embassy embassy. That's what they're for.
posted by rokusan at 7:40 AM on October 18, 2007

A friend of mine has been in that jail (she's done extensive work in Malawi). She reports that the Embassy is definitely the right way to go, and that the inmate will probably be out very soon (if not already).

She also asked me to pass along the following:

Consular services, US Embassy : +265 (1) 773-166. Press 1 for an emergency (out of hours). They open 7:30am, and Malawi is 9 hrs ahead of us (California).

Good English-speaking lawyer: Alan Chinula +265 1 770 003

Also, poster... check the email in your profile page.
posted by toxic at 9:23 AM on October 18, 2007

First off, yay! that this sounds like it's all going to work out and that nothing particularly bad is going on.

It's great that all you mefites automatically assumed that everyone in Malawi (or any other 3rd world country) is corrupt and hostile and you can buy your way out of a bind. Obviously Freaking out was not the answer. Your fiance should have paid attention to her papers/receipts. The authorities weren't holding her hostage, they were doing their jobs, so why the hell would they accept a bribe. Jeeez.

I would really love to have the luxury of this sort of self righteous indignation. I'd love to live in a world where I could safely assume that everyone has the best of intentions and could be counted on to be "just doing their jobs" when they pull you out of your hotel room at 3 am for having a visa that is 5 days overdue. One where ex pats are never targeted, where charges are never made up, where human rights abuses don't happen, where truth, justice and liberty are the norm and not the exception.

The thing is for a good deal of the people in this world, this is just not reality. Their governments are partly or largely corrupt. Bribery is understood as just being part of the cost of doing business. Penalties are severe. Enforcement is discriminatory. Due process largely non existent. Now this is not a reflection on the people of that country, but on the government that exploits them. The kind of oversight and transparency that exists in the western world is basically non existent in many countries. Now just stop for a second and think, the US is hardly without its due process and human rights abuses. Imagine what it would be like if we had minimal infrastructure, no oversight, no checks and balances, etc etc.

So of course you pay bribes. You do whatever the hell you need to do. You go to another country, you are playing by their rules. It isn't racist. It isn't imperialistic. It's just reality.

(I am not talking about Malawi here, I've never been there and I have absolutely no idea what their justice system is like.)
posted by whoaali at 11:15 AM on October 18, 2007

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