The callous hypocrisy of our asylum system

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Gordon Brown has been accused of failing to match words with deeds when it comes to standing up for refugees fleeing some of the world's worst tyrannies.

At the Labour Party conference last week, Mr Brown promised to stand up for those suffering persecution in Burma, Darfur and Zimbabwe, singling those regimes out as the world's "darkest corners" and adding that "human rights are universal".

Yet the Home Office is continuing to reject applications for refuge from Burmese dissidents and is embroiled in protracted court battles to enable the enforced removals of Zimbabweans and Darfuris.

The double standards have been exposed in interviews with asylum-seekers from all three countries and have provoked fury among refugee groups and MPs.

Lay Naing was jailed for several years in Burma for speaking out against the junta that has put down protest so brutally over the past week. Abdul Ismail Mouamen lost his brother, father and cousin to the violence sweeping the Sudanese region of Darfur. Lynn Gambese (her name has been changed to protect her identity) fled Zimbabwe after learning that President Robert Mugabe's henchmen were coming for her. If the Home Office got its way, all three would be sent home to face the threat of repression, brutality and even death.

Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "From Burma to Darfur to Zimbabwe, people who have suffered persecution are coming here and asking for safety. Instead of protecting them, we are turning them down and forcing them into destitution. This must end. Apart from anything, what kind of message does it send out to oppressive regimes? If the Government is committed to protecting people who are persecuted, it should not forget those who seek sanctuary on our shores."

Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said: "There's a degree of hypocrisy in government which shouldn't be tolerated. When the public knows what's happening in places like Burma how can even the most right-wing person say people should be returned there?"

Only a handful of Burmese asylum-seekers arrive in Britain each year, although last week's bloody scenes could increase the numbers escaping from the country. Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, said: "The Government has led condemnation of the regime but when people come here to claim asylum they are not treated with respect or kindness. They are turned down, face delays or are dragged to airports fearing torture or death. The regime has spent people to prison simply for claiming asylum."

The Home Office was forced to suspend enforced removals to Zimbabwe two years ago after the Court of Appeal ruled that removals were not safe. Ministers insist that applications should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Campaigners counter that the very fact of having sought refuge in Britain would make a failed asylum-seeker a target for the Mugabe regime. A fresh ruling from the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal is imminent. Some 1,000 Zimbabwean asylum-seekers lost their applications last year and face deportation if the Government wins.

The House of Lords hears a test case this week over deportations to Sudan. The Home Office is appealing against a ruling in April by the Court of Appeal that removing people to Khartoum would be "unduly harsh". But campaigners warn that asylum-seekers returned to Khartoum are regarded as spies and say there is evidence that they could face harassment or torture.

James Smith, the chief executive of the Aegis Trust, which campaigns against genocide, said: "What is important is the political messages that are given by the Government to the governments of Sudan and Zimbabwe. You can have all the rhetoric from the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary but on a day-to-day basis you have the Home Office working with Sudanese officials."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "It would be an utter disgrace for a government which pays lip service to the idea of human rights even to consider deporting someone to Burma, Sudan or Zimbabwe. No government which really valued human rights would even consider such a measure."

John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and chairman of the party's Socialist Campaign Group, said: "The system is brutal, inhumane and puts people's lives at risk. There is a deep contradiction between the Government's statements of concern for the people of countries like Burma and Darfur, and the brutal way in which we treat asylum- seekers from such countries."

The UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, insists people should not be deported to Zimbabwe, citing evidence of human rights abuses. Its latest report on Sudan argues that "no non-Arab Sudanese originating from Darfur should be forcibly returned until such time as there is a significant improvement in the security situation in Darfur." The UN's latest resolution on Burma condemned "ongoing systematic violations of human rights" in the country.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The Government has grave concerns about the appalling human rights situation in Zimbabwe, Darfur and Burma and continues to press for an end to abuses. We will continue to provide protection through the asylum system for people from these countries with a well-founded fear of persecution.

"But this does not mean everyone is at risk of persecution. Each case must be considered individually. That is what we do and will continue to do, ensuring that those who need our protection receive it, while those who do not can be returned."

Victims of persecution

Abdul Ismail Mouamen, Darfur

The 29-year-old farmer watched as Janjaweed militiamen killed children and raped women in his home town of Mistriah, Darfur.

Mr Mouamen told yesterday how he watched soldiers forcing children into a house before setting it alight. He lost his brother, father and cousin and has no idea whether his wife is alive.

Now he fears he too will be killed if he is deported from Britain and sent to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Campaigners say Darfuri people returned to Khartoum are regarded as Western spies and face harassment, imprisonment or death. Mr Mouamen, who lives in Middlesbrough, has twice had claims for asylum rejected since he fled Sudan in 2003.

"I'm a black African man and if I go to Khartoum they will realise who I am ... Everything I have said is all true."

Lay Naing, Burma

Lay Naing has paid a terrible price for his involvement in Burma's underground movement. He endured "torture and humiliation" in prison and was forced to flee the country with his pregnant wife in fear of his life. Now he is fighting to stay in Britain after having his asylum application turned down twice. "I am very upset that the authorities in Britain don't seem to believe my story," he said. "If I was forced to go back I'm sure they would put me in prison or kill me." Mr Naing, 34, became involved in "guerrilla-style" protests by activists who would make impromptu speeches about the repressive regime. He was arrested and thrown into jail. "They put me in a room with a very dim light and kept asking me so many questions. They wouldn't let me sleep. They were trying to break our minds and our souls." After his house was raided, he said: "I had decided to run as I had no choice."

Lynn Gambese, Zimbabwe

The teacher is surviving on charity while the Government makes the case for deporting her. If she was forced to return, "I would be going to back to face death," she said.

"I thought I would be considered and be given refuge in Britain," she said. "I never dreamed I would have these problems – it was like I was a beggar or criminal."

Ms Gambese fell foul of the Zimbabwean authorities after she refused to join raiding parties invading farmers' land or groups beating up supporters of the opposition MDC. She took the "heart-breaking" decision to flee the country and arrived at Gatwick five years ago. She has lost contact with her husband and children.

Her lowest point came when she was locked up in Yarlswood immigration removal centre, Bedfordshire, awaiting possible deportation. "I can understand why people commit suicide in those conditions," she said.

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