Make Zimbabwe's tyranny history
Published in: Daily Mail
Throughout the great controversy over asylum-seekers, it has always been an article of faith that genuine refugees should be admitted to this country. The Huguenots, the Jews, the Ugandan Asians - Britain has often sheltered those who genuinely fear persecution. Yet Labour - of all governments - is now shamefully slamming the door on them.
The deportation of one such asylum-seeker, Crispen Kulingi, was stopped at the weekend at least temporarily after outraged protests from Labour MP Kate Hoey and others. For this man is the organising secretary and election co-ordinator for the Movement for Democratic Change opposition movement in Zimbabwe, and his proposed forced removal to neighbouring Malawi would almost certainly result in his being delivered into the tyrannical hands of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.
Although the removal of Mr Kulingi has been halted, the government has refused to reverse its policy of deporting Zimbabweans to whom Britain has refused asylum, which has triggered hunger strikes by dozens of such asylum-seekers who are being held in detention.
This is a truly extraordinary situation. Britain appears either unable or unwilling to deport thousands of failed asylum-seekers who arrive here each year and simply vanish into Britain, many of them patent economic migrants from eastern Europe or elsewhere. And yet the very same immigration system appears to find no difficulty in rounding up Zimbabweans and forcibly removing them to a country that has descended into one of the most terrifying and brutal tyrannies on the planet.
This is sometimes being done with indecent trickery and haste. A number of Zimbabwean couples who were told that they had to retake their marriage vows in a British register office to prove that they were indeed married were promptly arrested at the ceremony along with their guests and sent back to Harare within hours.
Yet Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe is committing horrifying and systematic atrocities, with deliberate killings, physical assaults and the torture of political opponents. He has razed to rubble tens of thousands of homes and businesses in poor communities that provided the base for the political opposition to his regime - an operation which claimed the lives of two toddlers bulldozed along with these miserable shacks. These forced removals of people are being likened to the murderous clearances in Cambodia under Pol Pot.
At a meeting of G8 ministers on Thursday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw expressed 'profound concern' about Zimbabwe and urged African leaders not to turn a blind eye to the actions of President Mugabe. Yet at the very same time that the Foreign Secretary is hectoring other countries for ignoring Mugabe's tyrannical behaviour, the Home Secretary is sending political opponents of his regime back to face his fury.
Ministers claim that Zimbabweans will not be returned if the government believes their lives are at risk. The Immigration Minister Tony McNulty insisted that the government had received 'no substantiated reports of abuse of any person returned to the country'.
But these are weasel words, since campaigners say that dozens of people who have been returned have simply disappeared - which means that by definition there cannot be any 'substantiated reports of abuse'.
A number of Zimbabweans whom Britain has forcibly removed have been sent to Malawi - for reasons which are unclear, unless it is to pretend that they are not being sent back to Zimbabwe itself. But since Malawi has links with the Mugabe regime, several of these deportees have ended up in the hands of Mugabe's thugs anyway. Simon Phiri, an asylum seeker who was deported from Britain earlier this year, was picked up by the Zimbabwean authorities when his plane touched down in Malawi. His whereabouts now are unknown. No doubt Mr McNulty would regard his fate, too, as evidence of 'no substantiated reports of abuse'.
The government doggedly maintains that these are not genuine refugees - by which it presumably means they do not conform to the criteria laid down by the Refugee Convention that they have a 'well founded fear of persecution'.
It is pointed out that each of these asylum-seekers has been judged by an appeals tribunal not to be a genuine refugee. Of course, not everyone claiming to be a Zimbabwean refugee is what he or she purports to be.
But in the case of Mr Kulingi, it is hard to see how an immigration appeals tribunal could have come to this conclusion. He says he was tortured and left for dead before being transferred from hospital to a safe house, from where he fled Zimbabwe for the UK in 2003.
This account appears to have been corroborated from two sources. The Home Office was sent a letter from the MDC confirming Mr Kulingi's role in opposing Mugabe; Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, had even taken the unprecedented step of asking the British government not to send Mr Kulingi back. The Home Office was also aware that the US State Department had produced a report detailing what had happened to his family.
Days before the British government ordered his removal, bulldozers had razed his hometown district of Mabvuku, a hotbed of opposition to the Mugabe regime. Several of Mr Kulingi's family lost their homes in the assault.
So how can the immigration tribunals be getting this so wrong? According to Kate Hoey, the system is so chaotic that decisions in general often appear to be arbitrary. People who are transparently not genuine refugees are being allowed in or disappear into the country, while others who have a well-founded claim are treated as bogus and detained.
Removals to Zimbabwe were stopped for a time because of the descent into tyranny; but last November the government resumed deportations after a two-year ban - presumably using the fiction that democracy was returning with last spring's election, in order cynically to bump up its removal figures to quell the asylum controversy.
Now the government is frightened that ending forced removals will trigger another flood of asylum claims from Zimbabwe. But this is wholly unacceptable. It mean sending people back indiscriminately into Mugabe's terror, regardless of whether or not they are genuine refugees, merely to stop more coming.
There is, however, a real dilemma here. Under the Refugee Convention, only those who are individually singled out for persecution are considered to be genuine refugees. But such is the random, even unhinged nature of the terror being unleashed upon Zimbabwe, the country is clearly unsafe for many more souls that would be covered by the terms of the Convention.
Moreover, given the paranoia of the regime it is likely that anyone returned from Britain will be regarded as a political opponent. In these circumstances, returning anyone is to turn a blind eye to terror.
The root of the problem, however, is that nothing is being done to address these crimes against humanity. We have a particular responsibility to Zimbabwe. Maybe for that reason we appear reluctant to face up to what has happened there.
Africa is now the focus of Tony Blair's idealism. But the government sees it as the victim of white western colonialism, rather than facing the unpalatable truth of the horrors being wreaked by the end of colonialism in Zimbabwe- more than 20,000 people now burnt or bulldozed out of their homes, mass starvation and unspeakable terror.
The government was quick enough to intervene to end tyranny in Bosnia. What about making Zimbabwe's tyranny history? What's holding it back?