Ministers are preparing to expel hundreds of failed asylum-seekers back to the brutal regime of Robert Mugabe, seriously undermining Gordon Brown's publicly declared tough stance on Zimbabwe.
The Government has started a mass removal programme that could affect more than 1,000 Zimbabweans who have enjoyed protection in the UK under a moratorium on deportations.
Letters sent by the Home Office to failed asylum-seekers last week inform the recipients that they are at "no general risk" in Zimbabwe and encourage them to leave the UK voluntarily.
One of the letters, seen by The Independent on Sunday, says: "Your claim for asylum has been refused... I am now writing to make sure that you know that the Border & Immigration Agency [BIA] is expecting shortly to be able to enforce returns to Zimbabwe. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal [AIT] has now found that there is no general risk on return for failed asylum-seekers."
It adds: "You have exhausted your rights of appeal and have no other basis of stay in the UK. You should now make plans to return home."
Groups advising asylum-seekers in the UK said the change of policy follows an immigration appeals court ruling in 2006 that paved the way for mass deportations.
The first phase of the new asylum removal drive will target 500 failed asylum-seekers from Zimbabwe living in the north-west of England. In all, more than 1,000 people are likely to be affected in the near future, out of some 7,000 Zimbabwean asylum-seekers in the UK.
News of the letter could prove embarrassing for the Prime Minister, who has made political capital out of a possible Zimbabwe cricket tour ban and refused to sit next to Mr Mugabe at an international summit. Gordon Brown now faces accusations of hypocrisy over his dealings with the African state.
In his first speech as leader to the Labour conference last year, Mr Brown promised to stand up for those suffering persecution in Zimbabwe. He made direct reference to Mugabe's regime, saying: "The message should go out to anyone facing persecution anywhere from Burma to Zimbabwe: human rights are universal and no injustice can last for ever."
Last night Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, said the deportations could not be justified: "With elections due to be held on 29 March, the timing could not be worse. Unfortunately the situation in Zimbabwe has if anything deteriorated. There is no justification for returning Zimbabweans into the hands of the Mugabe regime. It is typical but depressing that Gordon Brown can seek to gain the moral high ground by refusing to attend a summit with Mugabe, while his own Home Secretary seems desperate to deport Zimbabweans at the earliest opportunity."
Kate Hoey MP, Labour chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe, said it would be "ridiculous" if the Home Office tried to force mass returns of asylum-seekers. "The situation in Zimbabwe is worse than ever, and to send people back in a blanket way like this is not something that anyone with an understanding of the country would support."
Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, said: "I do not believe it is safe to return asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe. The country is considered by many, including Amnesty, to still be in political turmoil. Opposition to Mugabe's regime is still prohibited and political opponents vulnerable to excessive police force. I condemn the Home Office's habit of sending people back to unsafe countries just to look tough."
Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "We do not think it is morally acceptable for the Government to force people to return to Zimbabwe. There has been no improvement in the human rights situation there, which remains dire.
"We know most Zimbabweans want to return when it is safe and to contribute to rebuilding their country. We should be offering them a form of temporary status here allowing them to work and retain their skills so they're fully equipped when the situation has improved."
Beatrice Masina, 26, one of the 500 Zimbabweans who received a Home Office letter last week, faces being sent back – along with her seven-month-old baby, Leeroy – to people she said have already attacked her previously in Zimbabwe.
A supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), she distributed T-shirts and leaflets at party rallies. Early one morning in May 2003, a gang of 10 Zanu-PF militia kidnapped her. The men, armed with machetes and clubs, took her to a secret location, raped and then beat her. A day later, they dumped her by the road.
She sought protection at her uncle's house but soon began to get threatening letters. "The letters said they knew where I was, and that they would come and get me," said Ms Masina. It was then that she decided to flee, arriving in the UK in September 2003.
"If [Zanu-PF] know I'm back they might attack me again, and I might be killed," she said. "I'm scared my baby would not survive the persecution. They [the Home Office] are being very unfair. I don't think they're looking at the dangers I'll face. They just want to send people back regardless. If anything happens to me, they'll have my blood on their hands."
Patson Muzuwa, chair of the Zimbabwe Association, said it had called an emergency meeting with solicitors to look at ways of fighting this change in policy. He said: "How come the Foreign and Commonwealth Office says Zimbabwe is bad on human rights, yet the Home Office wants to send people back?
"There doesn't appear to be a link between the departments; the Home Office just wants to boast about how many people they've deported. There are continuous human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, and this seems to be deliberate timing by the Home Office ahead of the elections."
David Banks, co-ordinator of the parliamentary group on Zimbabwe, said: "It's baffling; the BIA doesn't seem to put what it is doing into any context of developments in the country from where the asylum-seekers have come. I think these letters highlight the astonishing insensitivity of the Home Office. Most of their people have no understanding of the sense of fear and threat that people in this country live under."
A spokesman for the BIA said last night: "The Home Office had agreed at a High Court hearing on 26 September 2006 to defer the enforced removal of failed asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe pending the outcome of the country guidance litigation. This position will be maintained until any application for permission to appeal the AIT's determination is dealt with. We expect to be in a position to resume enforced returns of failed asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe very shortly."
He added: "We will continue to do everything we can to ensure a better future for Zimbabweans: a democratic and accountable government, respect for human rights and the rule of law, and policies that ensure economic stability and development, not humanitarian misery. However, not every Zimbabwean in the UK qualifies for asylum and we believe it is vital that we continue to operate a fair and robust system, enforcing the removal of those not entitled to be in the country who refuse to leave voluntarily."
A family at risk: 'If I go back to Zimbabwe, they'll kill me'
When Rose Moyo (a pseudonym) fled Zimbabwe in 2002 she thought she had secured a safe future. But now a letter from the Home Office has shattered the 35-year-old's dream of life away from Mugabe's militia.
Rose worked as a farm manager with her husband just outside Bulawayo when gangs of men from Zanu-PF began targeting them. The couple were well known for being MDC members, and visits became more frequent.
After the most violent of these attacks in October 2001, when the militia began whipping MDC activists, her husband disappeared. Rose has not heard from him since and fears he is dead. A month later the men came back again: this time they raped and beat her. "That was the worst day of my life," she said. "And I will never be able to forget it."
After more death threats, she decided the only option left was to flee, and her two children were forced to stay behind with her mother-in-law. But last year her mother-in-law also went missing and is believed dead.
Relatives managed to get her two children, Lucia, 11, and Blessings, nine, on a flight to the UK at Christmas, and for the first time in six years the family is reunited in safety. But now her dream of them living in peace is destroyed.
Choking back tears, Rose said: "When I got the letter I couldn't believe it. If I go back to Zimbabwe they'll kill me. The Home Office is just being cruel. Instead of helping people like me they are making our lives harder.
"If the Government doesn't believe what I'm saying they should go there and see for themselves how bad it is."
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