By Dale Street
As we go to press on 6 July around a hundred Zimbabwean asylum-seekers held in British detention centres are about to begin the third week of their hunger strike in protest at the government’s plans to remove them to Zimbabwe.
To the best of our knowledge two hunger strikers have, for different reasons, been given temporary reprieve. But the campaign to save other Zimbabwean asylum seekers must continue.
In January of 2002 the UK government adopted a policy of not returning asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe even if their asylum claims had been unsuccessful. Initially, this was intended to be a temporary policy, pending the outcome of the Zimbabwean elections being held in March of that year.
Through a combination of violence and fraud, Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF party won the March 2002 elections, and the UK government’s suspension of the removal of failed asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe remained in force.
The government therefore found itself in the hypocritical position of presiding over the refusal of asylum claims by Zimbabweans (on the grounds that it was safe for them to return), whilst simultaneously not removing them (on the grounds that it was not safe for them to return).
At the same, and against a background of a steadily deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe, the UK government imposed a “visa regime” on Zimbabwe. This meant that Zimbabweans had to obtain a visa from the British Embassy in Harare before they could travel to the UK. And visas are not issued for the purpose of applying for asylum.
This added a further layer of hypocrisy and inhumanity to the government’s position.
One the one hand, it issued statements condemning the worsening human rights situation in Zimbabwe (which led to more people having to flee the country). On the other hand, it operated a visa regime (which made it more difficult for people to flee the country).
In November of last year the government announced that it was lifting its policy of not removing failed asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe.
The government claimed that the policy had resulted in an influx of bogus asylum-seekers from Zimbabwe who were “exploiting” the policy of not returning failed asylum-seekers. In fact, under the impact of the visa regime, the number of Zimbabwean asylum-seekers in the UK fell from 7,965 in 2002 to 3,280 in 2003, and then to 2,045 in 2004.
The announcement was made shortly before the start of campaigning in Zimbabwe for the parliamentary elections held in March of this year. Apart from being wrong in principle, the lifting of the suspension could not have occurred at a worse time.
Repression of the opposition in Zimbabwe (and of the population in general) is at a permanently high level. But there is also a cyclical element to it: violence becomes even more intense in the run-up to an election (to intimidate people into voting for ZANU-PF) and just after an election (when retribution is meted out to those who failed to vote for ZANU-PF).
The asylum-seekers being removed to Zimbabwe from the UK quickly became a target for ZANU-PF politicians and the state-controlled press in Zimbabwe.
The renewed removal of the asylum-seekers was denounced by the Mugabe governemtn as a plot by the UK to infiltrate a “third force” into Zimbabwe to commit acts of violence which would be attributed to ZANU-PF so as to discredit the regime. Zimbabweans who had claimed asylum were denounced as unpatriotic and as denigrating their own country and government.
Zimbabwean Information and Publicity Minister Jonathan Moyo claimed that Britain had been “luring young Zimbabweans (to the UK) to train some in all kinds of sabotage, intimidation and violence, to be deployed in Zimbabwe for political purposes when convenient to do so.”
The Zimbabwean Herald and Sunday Mail both claimed that the UK government was preparing to despatch 10,000 Zimbabwean oppositionists (in the guise of failed asylum-seekers), trained in sabotage and intimidation, in order to destabilise the country both before and during the March 2005 elections.
Following the pre-election violence, Zimbabwe is now in the grip of the post-election violence. The massive wave of “clearances” carried out in urban areas since mid-May has focused on districts which back the opposition MDC. Up to a million people have been “displaced” (i.e. seen their homes and businesses demolished, and then driven out of the cities), and over 30,000 people have been arrested.
This post-election upsurge in mass violence added further to the risks faced by asylum-seekers — supposedly UK-recruited terrorists — returned to Zimbabwe from the UK.
The opposition MDC – which, in previous years, had been fairly non-committal about the issue of asylum-seekers — declared that it was not safe for any asylum-seekers to be removed to Zimbabwe, and began compiling a list of recent deportees who had been detained, interrogated and beaten on their return.
According to MDC spokesperson Paul Themba Nyathi: “The trouble with the British government is that it doesn’t know how paranoid Mugabe is. This government believes that anyone who has been to England and is deported later is either a British spy or an informer who has been sent back home to do espionage.”
The UK-based Zimbabwe Association issued a statement describing the “heightened hostility” among Zimbabwean officials to anyone being returned to Zimbabwe from the UK: “We have evidence that returning Zimbabweans are being accused of having been trained to subvert the government there.”
Right-wing UK newspapers — the Telegraph, the Times and the Daily Mail — have all carried reports of the ill-treatment of asylum-seekers who have been removed to Zimbabwe. (They may not like asylum-seekers, but they make an exception when the repressive government in question is run by a black man who attacks, amongst others, white farmers.)
To date, the Home Office has refused to re-instate its previous policy of not returning Zimbabwean asylum-seekers — despite the fact that it has been unable to answer the obvious question: if it was not safe to return Zimbabwean asylum-seekers in the period early 2002 to late 2004, why now, when the situation is even worse, is it safe to do so?
Pressure on the government to end the removal of Zimbabwean asylum-seekers and to recognise them as refugees needs to be maintained and stepped up. We must also not lose sight of the thousands of asylum-seekers of other nationalities who also need our solidarity.
Support the campaign!
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns the Zimbabwean hunger strikers are in the following removal centres:
Harmondsworth Removal Centre (Hillingdon), Colnbrook Removal Centre (Hillingdon), Yarl's Wood Women's Removal Centre (Bedford), Campsfield House Removal Centre (Oxford) and Dover Removal Centre.
What you can do: