Zimbabwean Asylum Seeker Wins Test Case

President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe denounced President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain

In Rome yesterday, during a speech at a conference on hunger to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe denounced President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain as “unholy men” and “international terrorists.” (Photo: Filippo Monteforte / AFP-Getty Images)

Three judges in Britain’s Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled, in a test case on Friday, Oct. 14, that a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, who cannot be named for legal reasons, would be at risk if he were sent back to Harare.

The judges criticized the Home Office’s policy on deportations to Zimbabwe and said the lack of interest of the home secretary in how Zimbabwean authorities dealt with returned nationals was “alarming.”

Tribunal chairman Mark Ockelton said that the man had a “well-founded fear of persecution” if he was returned to Zimbabwe. He said that although the man had been “fraudulent” and “deliberately dishonest” in his dealings with the British authorities, the fact that he had now spent so much time in Britain would put him at risk if he returned to Zimbabwe.

“The fact that the appellant made a false claim, so generating the risk which would otherwise not have existed, does not alter the fact that the real risk of serious harm exists now,” the ruling went on.

The tribunal criticized the home secretary, Charles Clarke, for his department’s research into conditions in Zimbabwe and for the lack of evidence uncovered by a fact-finding delegation sent by the government last month.

Evidence from the home secretary appeared to show that deportees were escorted on planes with British officials handing their papers over to the aircrew.

“At that point, it appeared to us that the respondent [the home secretary] ceased to have any very clear interest in what happened. We find the respondent’s lack of interest in the process by which individuals that he returns to Zimbabwe are received by the Zimbabwean authorities rather alarming.”

The British government delegation that investigated conditions in Zimbabwe had been made up of civil servants involved with policy matters, Ockelton said.

“The way in which the investigation was conducted, and the way in which the results were presented to us, gives rise to the possibility — we say no more than that — that the investigators may have had existing policy in mind rather more than the discovery of new facts.

“Despite the facilities available to the investigation and the level at which it was conducted, it reveals nothing of the actual process which returned asylum seekers go through on their arrival at Harare airport.”

Steven Kovats, for the Home Office, told the earlier hearing that a delegation from the British government had visited Zimbabwe between Sept. 4 and Sept. 12 to determine whether there was evidence of systematic abuse of returned Zimbabweans. The home secretary had concluded failed asylum seekers were generally not at real risk of ill treatment or persecution, he said.

Campaigners told the court earlier this month that people returned from Britain are regarded as “spies” and “traitors” by President Robert G. Mugabe’s regime.

The tribunal was told that British ministers had failed to assess properly the risk to failed asylum seekers sent back to Zimbabwe.

Mark Henderson, for the Refugee Legal Center, said the Zimbabwe authorities considered those returned by the British government to be “agents of regime change.” He added that Charles Clarke now seemed to accept that Zimbabweans were subjected to “in-depth questioning” by Mugabe’s secret police, the C.I.O.

“The evidence suggests that anyone associated with the British authorities and in particular someone who has sought their protection from Mugabe and Zanu-PF and their forces will be viewed, to say the least, with suspicion,” Henderson had told the tribunal. “Indeed, the evidence not only as presented by ourselves but also presented by the secretary of state, refers to Zimbabwean authorities viewing such people as traitors, guilty of treachery and betrayal.”

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—From The Observer (liberal weekly), London, England.

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the ruling was “sensible and humane.”

She said: “The ruling backs up what the Refugee Council has said all along — the government has failed to recognize the real dangers faced by people forced to return to that country. There has been plenty of evidence that they are subject to further abuse on their return because they are regarded as traitors by the Mugabe regime. Even if someone is not accepted by our government as being a refugee, we must not send them back into the sort of danger they would face in Zimbabwe.

“Ministers will have to look very seriously at the judges’ frankly scathing comments about how the government monitors the safety of people returned to Zimbabwe. We hope also that the government will understand that the dangers faced by people being forcibly returned to Zimbabwe are also faced by those removed to other countries with vicious regimes and unstable governments — and we call on them to always put the safety of people above beating targets for removals.”

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture said: “The judgment emphasizes the absolute nature of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights that no one should be exposed to the risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Reacting to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal decision that it is unsafe to return the unnamed asylum seeker to Zimbabwe, Amnesty International said:

“Amnesty welcomes [the] decision because we know the human rights situation in Zimbabwe is now catastrophic — hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless by the government’s evictions program, and there is systematic persecution of all government critics.

“The Tribunal recognized that Zimbabweans who seek asylum in the U.K. are at special risk. This is correct. These people are presumed to be supporters of “regime change” for Zimbabwe.

“Amnesty hopes the Home Office will recognize today’s judgment when making future decisions about the claims of Zimbabwean asylum seekers.”

The high court is considering a judicial review of enforced returns to Zimbabwe but postponed the case on Aug. 4 pending Friday’s decision of the tribunal. Deportations are currently on hold until both cases conclude.