From Mugabe's thugs to a life of poverty in Britain

Ministers are urged to allow refugees to support themselves through work. Emily Dugan reports

The Government faces growing pressure to allow Zimbabweans living in exile in the UK the right to work, as those with failed asylum cases are forced to live in a poverty-stricken state of limbo.

All deportations to Zimbabwe have been on hold while the violence continues there, leaving thousands whose claims have been rejected choosing to stay in the UK in destitution rather than return.

Unable to work or claim benefits, they have escaped Robert Mugabe's clutches only to find themselves living a life of poverty in Britain. Now the Independent Asylum Commission – the impartial body analysing the UK asylum system – has demanded that the Government show compassion.

Senior politicians and public figures have lent their weight to the cause, calling on the Home Office to re-examine its policy. On Friday, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, will lead a rally in London to demand that Zimbabweans be allowed to seek employment in the UK until it is safe for them to return.

There are thousands of Zimbabweans living in the UK, with as many as 11,000 believed to be blocked from employment because their asylum claims are undecided or have been turned down. Without jobs or benefits, they are living on handouts and forced into a life of penury.

Sir John Waite, chair of the Independent Asylum Commission, said the Government needs to look to itself before criticising Mr Mugabe for the treatment of his people. "There has been much justified criticism in the UK of Mugabe's use of employment as a tool to encourage supporters and discourage opponents," he said. "Before we are too critical of that, we need to look at home and examine the fate of the thousands of Zimbabweans who are in the UK and are unable to return to Zimbabwe but are nevertheless denied employment in this country.

"If they were allowed to work, they could learn new skills which would be of value to them and enormously to their country when they return. The same skills, in the meantime, could help the British economy. What a shame it is that this golden opportunity should be denied by a policy which compels them to accept bare sustenance and very basic accommodation."

Baroness Williams described the policy of leaving asylum-seekers without work as "crazy and terribly short-sighted".

"I've always thought a situation in which refugees are not able to receive benefits or work was ridiculous," she said. "In the particular case of Zimbabweans, where it must be patently obvious that they cannot be returned and where there would be international uproar if they did, they must be allowed at least to receive benefit or, better, to work."

"A lot of the asylum-seekers and refugees that I've spoken to are people who intend to go back to Zimbabwe and are highly qualified. If they were allowed to work and pick up the best and latest practice from the UK, they would go back as much more constructive citizens than if they spent time behind bars. Shouldn't we start building up men and women to be the basis of a new democratic society in Zimbabwe, which they'll have to build from the ground up?"

Kate Hoey MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe, said that Britain was "squandering the skills and expertise of people who can't possibly be returned to Zimbabwe". "The Government say they're not enforcing returns, so why do we deny them the ability to support themselves? We can't invest development aid in Zimbabwe while Mugabe is in power but we can and should develop the human resources of Zimbabweans in this country ready for when they return home. They are Zimbabwe's greatest resource," she said.

By law asylum-seekers whose claims have been rejected are denied the right to work or receive benefits, but there are signs that the Government might be persuaded to make an exception for Zimbabweans. Last month, Lord Malloch-Brown said that the Government was "looking at the support we may need to give Zimbabweans, particularly at the ban on refugees taking up work".

But many are sceptical at the likelihood of the Government making a U-turn on asylum policy. "We need more than words; we need a genuine commitment," said Lady Williams.

'I hoped I'd feel safe here, but it's been the opposite'

Chipo was working as an accountant in Mutare for three years before her support for the opposition party, the MDC, made it too dangerous for her to remain in Zimbabwe. The 32-year-old, who was beaten and subjected to death threats by Zanu-PF thugs, sought sanctuary in the UK in 2002.

In Zimbabwe she earned enough money to support herself and many of her extended family, but her life in Britain has been one of abject poverty. Her asylum claim was rejected, meaning she was barred from work and not entitled to benefits. Too afraid to return to Zimbabwe, she now relies on handouts from her sister, who is also supporting the two children that Chipo had to leave behind.

"In Zimbabwe I had a beautiful, very comfortable home and financially I could do anything I wanted; I never felt I didn't have enough money. I can't go back there because I'm scared I would be killed, but I had expected more from Britain. I hoped that when I came here I'd feel safe and protected, but it's been the opposite. Here you're denied every basic need that you require.

"I can't provide for myself and that's really damaging psychologically. I do voluntary work, but it's very dehumanising not being able to work properly. I want to contribute, to work and pay taxes but I can't. The Government could at least let us start our lives again until Zimbabwe is safe to go back to.

"I live with friends, family and well-wishers, but it's very difficult to rely on other people as an adult. It's humiliating to have to ask for a pound to buy sanitary towels or food to eat. We talk about poverty in Africa, but there's poverty here in Britain, too. People think asylum-seekers are sponging off government money, but we're not doing that; we're constantly struggling."

'I don't want benefits – I just want to work'

Mercy, 24, fled Zimbabwe in 2002 after she was beaten and tortured for supporting the MDC. Since then her father has been killed and her house burnt down. Her asylum claim was turned down.

"I only have £10 to spend on food. I was expecting that I would get help if I came to the UK, but I haven't been able to study or work at all. I do nothing all day. I just wish I could do something. I don't want benefits. I just want to work."

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