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Zimbabwean Asylum Seekers on Hunger Strike: Britain Wants to Deport Them to Malawi

Ambrose Musiyiwa, Dudley, West Midlands, September 14, 2007

The asylum seekers fear that the Malawian government will pass them on into the hands of the Zimbabwean authorities. (Photo: Peter MacDiarmid / AFP-Getty Images)

On Monday, Sept. 10, I received an e-mail alert from the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns that said five female detainees from Zimbabwe, currently in Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Center in Britain, had began a hunger strike. The five were given as Maud Lennard Kadango, Zandile Sibanda, Pauline Chitekeshe, Rose Phekani, and Faina Pondesi.

The e-mail alert said the five were demanding to be released from detention.

"They all need support/solidarity, so give them a ring. There should be a written statement from them tomorrow. However, if someone with a fax machine can ring Maud Lennard Kadango, she will fax it straight away."

I called and spoke to four of the five women. I spoke to Faina Manuel Pondesi, Maud Kadangu Lennard, Zandile Sibanda, and Rose Phekani.

They reported that there are eight Zimbabwean women currently being held at Yarl's Wood.

Faina read to me the petition that the women who are on hunger strike had sent to the Home Office on Sept. 9.

The petition was dated Aug. 9 and read:

"We are failed asylum seekers and given the very desperate situation in Zimbabwe which has been commented upon by the United Nations plus all major countries including South Africa, we cannot condone the return of us at this time. Please can you release us or hunger strike on 10 Sept. 2007."

Maud, Zandile, and Rose, in separate telephone conversations, all confirmed that this is what the letter said and that they, together with Pauline Chitekeshe, signed the petition. They also confided that they had started the hunger strike on Monday, Sept. 10, and were going to stay on hunger strike until they were released from detention.

They all complained that they did not receive adequate legal representation during the fast track process under which their applications for political asylum were considered.

Faina, Rose, and Maud are Zimbabwean nationals who used Malawian passports to travel to Britain. They have no family, friends, relatives, or support networks in Malawi, where the Home Office is planning to send them. They fear that the Malawian government will pass them on into the hands of the Zimbabwean authorities.

The three women reported that on Monday evening they were called, separately, to meetings with Home Office representatives and were given removal directions and a letter that read:

"I refer to your letter of 9 Aug. 2007 in which you request temporary admission/bail for yourself.

"You are all detained because your asylum applications have been considered under fast track procedures at Yarl's Wood. You have all, already had your asylum applications refused and can be in no doubt that the Secretary of State does not accept your claims. These decisions to refuse you asylum have all been upheld by the AIT at every stage of the appeal process. You therefore have little incentive to respond to any terms of bail/temporary admission.

"With regard to your specific fears of the country situation in Zimbabwe, your concerns are noted and supported by objective evidence. The Home Office published policy means that removals of failed asylum seekers are not enforced to Zimbabwe and so I would like to allay your fears of being forcibly returned. However, as the Home Office plans to return you to Malawi (as your IS82's or 151A/B's) show, the country situation has no bearing in your situation."

The letter was signed by a D. Smith with the designation "CIO/HEO."

After talking to the women, I conducted a telephone interview with Matthew Nyashanu, secretary for information and publicity (U.K. and Ireland) for the Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.), concerning the eight Zimbabwean women.

Matthew Nyashanu said:

"It's very dangerous to send them back to any country in Africa. The fact that they fled Zimbabwe and went into neighboring countries and again had to run away from those countries explains that they felt unsafe in those countries as well. Most Southern African states support Robert Mugabe. Sending a Zimbabwean to Malawi or South Africa, especially if that person has been targeted by the C.I.O. [Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organization] is to give the Malawian and South African governments the green light to send that person back to Zimbabwe. That person will not be protected.

"What we need to put across is that Zimbabwe is a dangerous political terrain. To send anyone back there is to put an end to that person's life. Countries that have championed democracy should protect those that have slipped from the despotic regime. If they are sent back to Zimbabwe or wherever, these people will never be heard of again.

"There is no follow-up to check on their safety. The Zimbabwean government has passed so many laws to curtail the work of journalists and human rights organizations. The democratic space has been squeezed so much that journalists and local human rights groups are not able to track these people and report on what happens to them.

"If the British government acknowledges the repression being perpetrated against Zimbabweans, it would be simple reasoning that the same government cannot send people back to that despotic and oppressive regime.

"Many Zimbabweans we have here love their country. They are highly skilled. They had good jobs and professions. Being here does not mean they want to stay here forever. People cannot go back to a country where their lives are being threatened. When it is safe for them to go back to Zimbabwe, many of them will do so voluntarily."

One of the hunger strikers, Rose Phekani, has been forcibly removed from Britain. She was taken from Yarl's Wood at around 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 12, and was bundled onto the 8:00 p.m. Kenya Airways flight KQ101 to Nairobi. She was handcuffed and escorted to the airport by five agents from the Home Office, two of whom accompanied her to Nairobi. The information I have received is that the Home Office did not have Phekani's Malawian passport and used photocopies of the document. I have since lost contact with her.

Another of the hunger strikers, Maud Lennard Kadango, a known M.D.C. activist, has been told she is going to be deported next week, on Wednesday. Removal directions she has received from the Home Office say she has been booked onto flight KQ101 to Nairobi. The flight leaves Heathrow Airport on Sept. 19 at 8:00 p.m. and connects with the 8:30 a.m. flight KQ424 to Lilongwe, Malawi, on Sept. 20.

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