Stop deporting Zimbabweans, Blair told

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is under mounting pressure to reimpose a moratorium on deporting failed asylum-seekers back to Zimbabwe.

Tony Blair is under mounting pressure to reimpose a moratorium on deporting failed asylum-seekers back to Zimbabwe.

The Government was accused of ignoring the brutal crackdown by Robert Mugabe's regime against his political opponents and putting lives at risk after it blocked demands for a halt to deportations.

The Home Office said 57 Zimbabweans were on hunger strike in detention centres across the UK after having applications refused, although campaigners put the figure at closer to 100.

But ministers, who resumed sending failed asylum-seekers back to Zimbabwe last November, promised to keep the issue under close review and may yet be forced into a U-turn. The crisis in Zimbabwe threatens to overshadow Mr Blair's decision to put Africa at the top of the agenda at next week's summit of G8 leaders at Gleaneagles.

Mr Blair made clear that he opposed a policy change at this stage for fear that it would send a signal that Britain was again a "soft touch" for asylum-seekers. "If we engage in a generalised moratorium, our fear is that we would literally be back in the situation we were two or three years ago where people were hammering us for not getting the asylum system under control," he said.

The Prime Minister told his monthly Downing Street press conference that he was not unsympathetic to the plight of the Zimbabweans but insisted some of the claimants for asylum had turned out not to be from the country. "We will look into this very carefully. This country is a tolerant country. I would not want it on my conscience if people are sent back to be tortured," he said.

As the impact of Mr Mugabe's demolition and displacement programme, which has cost 400,000 people their homes and livelihoods, emerges, Mr Blair urged African countries to declare the policy "a disgrace". The International Monetary Fund issued a statement yesterday warning the policy will worsen food shortages and push the country further into recession. Yesterday's Independent revealed estimates that the death rate in the already famine-stricken country will soar, with deaths outstripping births by 4,000 a week.

"As the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates, it damages the cause of Africa, which is deeply unfair," Mr Blair said.

In the House of Commons, the Home Secretary Charles Clarke came under pressure to stop deportations. After he refused, the Tories demanded a temporary suspension. Liam Fox, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "Until we have a rigorous method of monitoring the continuing safety of those returned to Zimbabwe, we believe it would be prudent to halt deportations for a short time."

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said the Government's policy on Zimbabwe was "a miserable failure" and said it had a duty to act because the repression had worsened.

The hunger strikers include Crispen Kulingi, 33, an election organiser with the leading opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who said he was interrogated for days on end before fleeing to Britain in September. He said he was lucky to escape with his life, and fears certain torture if he returns. Mr Kulingi was due to be deported on Saturday, but after widespread protests, the Home Office has granted a reprieve. Dumi Tutani, 35, a musician and MDC activist, said he had been frequently detained without charge, and received electric shocks and beatings. He insists he will be killed if he is returned.

The Labour MP Kate Hoey, who visited Zimbabwe covertly last week, asked Mr Clarke: "What is the difference between last November, when you did have a policy of stopping, and now when Zimbabwe is going even worse with more human rights abuses and destroying livelihoods?"

Mr Clarke said: "We will keep the situation under very close review." He promised each case would be considered on its merits, adding: "We will not remove anyone we believe at risk on their return." He insisted that a complete halt to deportations would encourage "those seeking to get round controls".

* A hunger strike began at Campsfield House detention centre in Oxfordshire after a Turkish inmate was found hanged.