High Court to rule on deporting failed Zimbabwe asylum-seekers

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Britain's policy of deporting failed Zimbabwean asylum-seekers was suspended in July, pending today's hearing, after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock led protests and about 40 Zimbabweans went on hunger strike at detention centres. Dr Williams said it would be "deeply immoral" to return failed asylum-seekers to a country where they could face persecution and torture.

The Home Office is expected to present to the court the results of a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe undertaken for the hearing. This will form a significant part of the Government's submission in several "country guidance" test cases.

Lawyers for the asylum-seekers will argue that all Zimbabweans with links to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party would face risks of violence if deported. The UK's unwillingness to acknowledge this threat has been illustrated by the decision to refuse asylum to Crispen Kulinji, a high-profile MDC member who has become the human face of the political battle between the Government and those who want the ban on deportation reinstated. His removal was suspended after the intervention of the Labour MP Kate Hoey.

The court is also expected to hear that members of the Ndebele tribe would be at risk if returned to Zimbabwe. A 40-year animosity between the Ndebele and Mr Mugabe's Shona tribe has allegedly resulted in their persecution.

A source close to the asylum-seekers' defence teams indicated yesterday that the plight of those Zimbabweans who have the HIV virus will also be presented to the court. The Independent has detailed the case of a 37-year-old man who has been refused asylum despite his dependence on antiretroviral drugs, which have not been available in Zimbabwe since its descent into chaos amid President Mugabe's urban clearance policy. A middle-aged woman is also known to be in the same position, with the Home Office having refused her all right to appeal against deportation.

"We now know that the medical infrastructure in the country has collapsed, and that means antiretroviral treatment is not even available to those who have the means to buy it," said the source. "Deportation in HIV cases means death."

The Government has argued that a restoration of the ban on deportations (lifted in 2002) might encourage more Zimbabweans to try to reach the UK. It has also stated that there are "no substantial reports" of abuse of those who have been returned - a claim disputed by the MDC, Zimbabwean churches and Amnesty International.

The asylum-seekers' case will draw on the work of Sir Terence Ranger, one of Britain's most eminent Zimbabwe experts, who has argued repeatedly against the removal of individuals to "an unstable Zimbabwe in a state of economic collapse and with continuing human rights abuses".

Lawyers acting for the asylum-seekers suspect the Home Office delegation to Zimbabwe has returned with mixed messages about those who seek refuge in the UK. "Even among MDC members there is jealousy and resentment about people who have managed to escape," said a source. "The Home Office report [may] show the same bias."

'Edmore was frightened. He was out of options'

In a last telephone call to his family, Edmore Ngwanya agonised over the outcome of today's High Court hearing. "He had read that the Home Office had sent a delegation to [gather evidence] for the hearing," said the relative who took the call. "That frightened him. He thought they would use it to deport him."

Mr Ngwanya, 26, made the call on 11 September and four days later he was dead. He jumped into the Manchester Ship Canal and drowned, resisting attempts by local police officers to save him.

He fled to Britain in 2002 during a four-month period of leave from the Zimbabwean Army where he was involved in Robert Mugabe's Congo campaign, which was deeply unpopular with soldiers. A dispute may have arisen with an officer who allegedly stole money from him and amid the recriminations there were accusations that Mr Ngwanya had links to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Mr Ngwanya faced desertion charges if he went back - a predicament made worse because he was one of Zimbabwe's Ndbele people, who have been at odds with Mr Mugabe's Shona tribe for decades. But he launched himself into British life, undertaking an IT course in West Yorkshire and when housed with other Africans in Salford, Greater Manchester, he secured a job as a car valet. He followed Arsenal football club.

Fearing the consequences of returning, he was unable to attend the funeral of his mother, Simemthini, 44, who died last year. Then, against all his expectations, his asylum bid was rejected in March. He soon found himself locked out of the room he had been allocated and his solicitors indicated they had run out of legal-aid funding.

His relative offered money for his legal case but Mr Ngwanya declined. "He said he had run out of options," said the relative.

Mr Ngwanya had become noticeably thinner by August, and after making his compulsory weekly visit to immigration service offices on 14 September, he rang his employers to say he was not feeling well. He made for the canal, raised his arms above his head and jumped in.

Ian Herbert