THE United Kingdom Border Agency estimates that there are as many as 70,000 failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe, the House of Lords heard on Thursday.
Contributing to a debate on Immigration, Detention and Deportation in the upper chamber of Britain’s parliament, Lord Richard Best warned that plans by the Home Office to lift a moratorium on deportations to Zimbabwe would result in “prolonged legal battles in many cases”.
Lord Best, chairman of the Phoenix Fund for Zimbabwe (visit website) which was set up to assist Zimbabwean refugees and asylum seekers to undergo vocational training and placements, said ministers’ desire to clear a backlog of unresolved so-called “legacy cases” should not be used to justify “swinging to the other extreme and implementing draconian or inhumane policies”.
Quoting a March 2009 report on research conducted by the Phonix Fund (see report), Lord Best said UK Border Agency “estimates that there may be living here as many as 70,000 failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers or Zimbabweans without valid leave to remain.”
“This figure suggests those potentially eligible for removal to Zimbabwe could present the UKBA with a huge task, with concomitant strain on pre-removal detention centres,” he said. “If the so-called normalisation of returns policy to Zimbabwe is pursued, I suspect there will be prolonged legal battles in many cases.”
Britain’s Immigration Minister Phil Woolas announced on October 29 that Britain was reviewing its moratorium on the removal of failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe because “indiscriminate violence which marred the elections of 2008 has abated.”
Woolas said the Home Office had carefully considered its position on enforced returns to Zimbabwe in the light of developments since the formation of a government led by the Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
"The UK Border Agency will therefore be starting work over the autumn on a process aimed at normalising our returns policy to Zimbabwe, moving towards resuming enforced returns progressively as and when the political situation develops," Woolas said.
But Lord Best told the House of Lords the Home Office’s position on Zimbabwe was at odds with the Foreign Office’s, insisting that political reforms “are not yet sufficiently embedded” in Zimbabwe to guarantee the safety of returnees.
“I detect an inconsistency between the approach of the Home Office and the UK Borders Agency, and that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development,” he said. “The latter organisations’ approach to Zimbabwe suggests that the political reforms are not yet sufficiently embedded for the Department for International Development to normalise development aid.
“Support is restricted to humanitarian assistance and through channels not susceptible to abuse by Zanu PF. It would seem premature to normalise enforced returns of vulnerable asylum seekers while the political atmosphere remains highly charged and human rights organisations report a resurgence in politically motivated violence.”
He said the Foreign and Commonwealth Office judges that it is not yet time for the European Union to consider lifting sanctions on Zimbabwe. “This would certainly suggest that the Home Office is acting hastily in considering it is time to normalise enforced returns,” he added.
In response, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office Lord West of Spithead said: “We take seriously the points made by the noble Lord Best on Zimbabwe. The situation there, we believe, is improving under the new, inclusive Government.
“I think that we treat people with respect, so I am not surprised that there are millions, if not billions, of people who would love to be here. However, we need a system that is proportionate in handling the demand.
“We have to remember always, as I have said previously, that each case, even if the person concerned is not meant to be here, is a personal tragedy, and we have to try to deal with it like that. In general, bearing in mind what we have to achieve, I think that the government do that.”