Home Office to lift ban on deporting failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe
By Alan Travis
The Guardian (London), October 14, 2010
The four-year-old ban on sending more than 10,000 failed asylum seekers back to Zimbabwe is to be lifted, the immigration minister, Damian Green, has announced.
The Home Office minister said the time was right given the improved situation in Zimbabwe after the formation of an 'inclusive' government in 2009.
The decision has been criticised by the Zimbabwe Association, which warned of the dangers of enforced returns. The Refugee Council has expressed concern.
Among those who could be affected by the decision is Gamu Nhengu, the former X Factor contestant whose family fled Zimbabwe eight years ago and now face deportation. The UK Border Agency has refused to extend the family's visas.
The forcible removal from Britain of Zimbabweans was halted in autumn 2006 after a high court ruling that those who were unable to demonstrate their loyalty to Robert Mugabe's regime would face persecution.
Ministers first considered lifting the ban on removals in the wake of the presidential election of Morgan Tsvangirai in March 2008 but Mugabe's Zanu-PF followers unleashed a whirlwind of violence in which more than 180 people, mostly supporters of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, were killed.
Green's announcement comes before an immigration and asylum tribunal test case on the general safety of Zimbabwe. 'We expect the case to reflect the improvements in Zimbabwe since the previous country guidance case was decided in 2008,' said Green. Ministers said they would not send anyone back to Zimbabwe until the case was settled.
'Those who have no right to remain in the UK, and who choose not to return home voluntarily, will then face enforced return, in exactly the same way as failed asylum seekers of all other countries,' said the minister. The new policy did not reflect any change in the British government opposition to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, he said.
The current Foreign Office advice to British travellers says the situation in Zimbabwe has improved from the violent low point of 2008, but 'remains unpredictable and could deteriorate. You should avoid demonstrations and any areas where incidents of violence are taking place.
'Human rights abuses and instances of political violence continue, particularly in agricultural and mining areas.'
The decision to declare Zimbabwe a safe country for returns partly rests on the report of a UK fact-finding mission in August. That was based on interviews with seven people who had voluntarily returned from Britain, who officials said faced no significant problems at Harare airport or in resettling in Harare or Bulawayo.
The mission's report said Harare and Bulawayo were considered to be relatively safe from violence, especially for ordinary MDC supporters. However several human rights organisations said small urban centres such as Bindura and Chiredzi and the rural heartlands of Zanu-PF were subject to the risk of sporadic violence.
'Someone walking around in an MDC T-shirt would be putting themselves at risk anywhere in Zimbabwe,' it adds.
Sarah Harland of the Zimbabwe Association in London said it was too soon to resume forced returns. 'We remain keen to work with the UK government around a sustainable and stable voluntary return programme, as most Zimbabweans wish to go home and rebuild their country when the time is right.
'ZA does not believe that this is the right time for enforced returns, with control of the state security forces (police, army, CIO) remaining in the hands of the perpetrators of violence. A recent international report on the state of the rule of law in Zimbabwe after the Global Political Agreement (GPA), recognises 'there has been no improvement and quite possibly a further decline in respect for the rule of law since the signing of the GPA'.'
Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: 'We are concerned the government plans to resume forcibly returning Zimbabwean asylum seekers to their country, however it is encouraging that they recognise each individual case needs to be carefully considered before deciding whether to send them back.
'The government must ensure there is substantive evidence to prove these individuals will not be under personal threat of persecution or human rights abuses if returned to Zimbabwe. Moreover it is imperative the government offers support to the people they have returned and to monitor their safety, so they can be sure they are not sending people to further harm.'