Britain Urged to Exercise Caution Over Zimbabwe Deportations

Deportations, suspended in October, can now be resumed. (Photo: Alessandro Abbonizio / AFP-Getty Images)

A Home Office spokeswoman said the British government could start deporting failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe within weeks.

Her comments come after the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (A.I.T.) ruled, on Aug. 2, that asylum seekers turned away from Britain would not automatically face a "real risk of being subjected to persecution or serious ill-treatment" on return to Zimbabwe.

Justice Hodge (Sir Henry Hodge), president of the A.I.T., emphasized that in assessing applications for political asylum, each case must be considered on its own facts and he reaffirmed an earlier ruling on Zimbabwe, which said, "The fact of being a white Zimbabwean does not of itself put an applicant in danger."

His ruling means that the deportations can now be resumed. They were suspended in October when the A.I.T. ruled in favor of a Zimbabwean asylum seeker, known as A. A., who had argued that Zimbabwe was unsafe for failed asylum seekers.

Initially, the A.I.T. had ruled in favor of A. A. The Home Office successfully appealed to the High Court against this decision and, in April, the High Court subsequently ruled that the A.I.T. had "erred in law" in its initial decision. The court referred the case back to the A.I.T.

Immigration Minister Liam Byrne said deportations would be resumed because asylum seekers were abusing the system.

"Enforcing the return of those who have no right to remain here is a key part of upholding a robust and fair asylum system.

"We recognize that there are Zimbabweans who are in genuine fear of persecution and that is why we have granted them asylum, but it is only right that we remove those who seek to abuse our hospitality," Byrne said.

Tim Finch, director of communications for the Refugee Council disputes the minister's assertions and urges the government to exercise caution.

"We still think it's not safe to remove anybody to Zimbabwe in the present circumstances," Finch said.

He stresses that while Justice Hodge's ruling restores the legal right to enforce removals, it also makes it clear that a lot of people are at real risk if they are sent back to Zimbabwe.

"We are very concerned to hear that the government is signaling plans to carry out removals this month on the justification that there has been a rise in applications. The judgment doesn't give a green light to mass removals at all and we hope the government will tread very cautiously and put safety first. In the end, one person sent back who faces persecution or worse, is one person too many," Finch said.

Between 2000 and 2005, an estimated 15,000 Zimbabweans sought asylum in the United Kingdom but only a few hundred were granted refugee status. Between July 2005 and April 2006, there were 595 initial asylum decisions. Only 55 received refugee status.

In the first three months of this year, there were 755 new asylum applications by Zimbabweans but the Home Office judged 9 out of 10 of the claims to be unfounded.

In his ruling, Justice Hodge pointed out that there are failed asylum seekers in the U.K. who could still be in danger if returned to Zimbabwe.

He said there was a great risk of serious mistreatment during interrogation by authorities in Zimbabwe "for teachers with an actual or perceived political profile of support for the M.D.C." and for asylum seekers linked with Zimbabwean opposition parties or with military or criminal records.

"There does continue to be a real risk of persecution for those who are or are perceived to be politically active in opposition to and for this reason of serious adverse interest to the present regime …

"Some categories are more likely to be at risk than others such as M.D.C. activists and campaigners rather than supporters but we do not exclude the possibility that in exceptional cases those with very limited political involvement could in their particular circumstances find themselves at real risk," Justice Hodge said.

He emphasized that the current atmosphere of hostility in Zimbabwe towards failed asylum seekers deported from Britain reinforces the fact that "asylum claims must be considered with care and where there is any uncertainty, any doubts must be resolved in the applicant's favor."

At present, on arrival at Harare International Airport, all persons identified as deportees are questioned by Zimbabwe's dreaded secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization (C.I.O.). Those found to have a military history or outstanding criminal records or a political profile considered adverse to the Zimbabwean regime face further interrogation away from the airport.

"This second stage interrogation carries with it a real risk of serious mistreatment sufficient to constitute a breach of Article 3. If the reason for suspicion is that the deportee has a political profile considered to be adverse to the Zimbabwean regime that is likely to be sufficient to give rise to a real risk of persecutory ill-treatment for a reason that is recognized by the Refugee Convention," Justice Hodge said.

He added that objective evidence on Zimbabwe suggests that "the police and the C.I.O. are capable of acting in a seriously abusive manner towards those they perceive to be dissident or in some way an enemy of the state."

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