Thursday, January 17, 2008

Zimbabwe: UK's treatment of asylum seekers questioned

Asylum seekers try and lay low

The British government's loud condemnation of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe led many Zimbabweans to assume they could find easy refuge in the United Kingdom: the reality for asylum seekers has been far less straightforward.

According to Home Office figures, around 20,000 Zimbabweans sought asylum in Britain between 2000 and 2007; of those, 4,807 applications were successful - 944 of that total making it on appeal.

In 2000 - a year of state-sponsored election violence and land seizures in Zimbabwe - 95 percent of 1,010 asylum applications were refused. In 2002, after European governments condemned the conduct of presidential elections held in March, 62 percent of 7,655 applications were rejected.

The number of asylum applications by Zimbabweans fell sharply from 2002, but in 2006 began to rise, reaching 1,650 requests; the trend continued in 2007, according to the Home Office. Successful applications, in terms of initial asylum decisions made before appeals are heard, were stuck at just 8 percent between 2004 and 2006, but rose to 19 percent in the last quarter of 2007.

A Home Office spokesperson, speaking to IRIN on condition of anonymity, denied that the immigration department was setting the bar unfairly high for Zimbabweans. "We know that the human rights situation is bad in Zimbabwe, but not everyone is at risk," she said. "Every case is treated on its own merits and those who need protection will get it; the remainder would be encouraged to go back voluntarily, failing which they will be removed forcibly."

No safety guarantees

The Refugee Council, the largest organisation in the UK working with asylum seekers, insists that deporting failed Zimbabwean applicants heightens their risk of persecution when they get home. "At the moment it's not safe to return anybody to Zimbabwe, as their safety cannot be guaranteed," said council spokesperson Hannah Ward. She alleged there were "anecdotal stories" of people ill-treated once back on home soil.

For the past two years, forced removals of Zimbabwean asylum seekers has been suspended due to a court case, but late last year the government won an appeal against that decision, "and we are now in a legal limbo", said Ward.

"We've called it hypocritical that in countless statements the government has condemned the Zimbabwean regime, but in the last two years the government has been pursuing a really expensive court case fighting to be able to remove Zimbabwean asylum seekers back to Zimbabwe," she argued.

Those caught up by the current legal dispute are denied the right to work or claim benefits. According the Refugee Council, between October 2006 and September 2007, 210 Zimbabweans opted to join a voluntary return programme, qualifying them for a free bed and three meals a day. "We're worried people agreed to go home to get that support," said Ward.

Aside from Zimbabweans seeking refugee status, there are many more believed to be living and working in the country illegally. Chipo (not her real name) spent six months in prison for using false papers to work as a child carer. After completing her sentence she has spent a further seven months in Yarl's Wood, a detention centre for immigration offenders and failed asylum seekers. "They lock the door behind you wherever you go," she complained. "The food is terrible and you cannot afford to buy any alternative with the 75 pence (US$1.50) they pay you per day." Chipo is awaiting an immigration appeal hearing.

Gill Butler of the Yarl's Wood Befrienders, a group that visits and supports the 400 people held in the facility, is blunt in her criticism of the detention centre. "This should not be happening in a country that claims to be civilized, human beings should not be treated like this," she told IRIN.

The criteria for asylum status is already extremely strict, but with media coverage in Britain demonising refugees, "I think there is a concerted policy effort to look for reasons to deny people asylum and to find ways to remove them from the country," said Ward. "From our point of view, it's not just Zimbabweans but asylum seekers in general."

Published with the permission of IRIN
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations, its member states, or Mike Hitchen Consulting
Photo: Copyright