Zimbabwe refugees are returned home despite asylum policy

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Indy Politics

Refugees fleeing to Britain from Zimbabwe, one of the world's most despotic regimes, are ending up back there because of a loophole in the asylum system.

The Home Office has a policy of not returning asylum-seekers directly to Zimbabwe, but investigations show some of those refused a safe haven in the UK end up there after initially being sent to Malawi.

The situation has emerged because many opponents of Robert Mugabe's regime have acquired Malawian passports as a way to facilitate a swift exit from Zimbabwe. Many are so desperate that they obtain the travel documents fraudulently.

So those rejected by Britain find themselves on the wrong side of the law when returned to Malawi. And for them the long road to freedom simply leads back to the country they were fleeing.

Maude Lennard is so desperate to avoid being sent back to Zimbabwe that she has spent 44 days on hunger strike in Yarl's Wood detention centre. Her flight to Malawi is due to leave tonight, but she says she will not stop fighting to stay.

The 36-year-old, who was brutally tortured and gang raped for her work as an activist for the MDC, the opposition party, paid to get a Malawian passport so she could escape quickly. She fears that being sent to Malawi will be tantamount to a death sentence. "The moment I get there the Malawian government will just send me to the Zimbabwean authorities," she said.

Since 2004 the Home Office has sent at least 11 Zimbabwean asylum-seekers to Malawi. Of those at least five ended up back in Zimbabwe. Also claiming to be in danger is 37-year-old Faina Pondesa, who has been on hunger strike for the same length of time. She was due to be removed to Malawi on Tuesday night. Her passage was cancelled after the pilot deemed her too ill and malnourished to fly.

Amnesty International says that "people fleeing persecution often resort to using forged documents as they are unable to approach their authorities in order to obtain valid travel documents". But these tools of escape are now being used to send asylum-seekers to danger and a place they have never known.

Patson Muzuwa, chair of the Zimbabwe Association – a campaign group based in the UK, said: "The British government are just trying to meet their targets on migrants. Malawian passports obtained over the age of 22 will be seen as fraudulent documents when they are returned to Malawi, as you cannot take up citizenship after that age. So when they arrive they are sent to prison. Because of these fraudulent documents, the fate that awaits those Zimbabweans sent back to Malawi is simply another deportation to Zimbabwe."

"These people are activists, if [Maude Lennard] is sent to Zimbabwe the government will have a big party. They will say 'this woman is dead'. She is in grave danger: it is just death that is waiting for her. The people at the Malawian embassy take so many bribes; it's not right that these Zimbabweans should be sent to Malawi."

Among those who have already been returned is the anti-Mugabe activist Francis Asima. After being captured and tortured in Zimbabwe, he escaped and travelled to the United Kingdom on a Malawian passport for which he had paid a bribe at the Malawian embassy in Harare.

On arrival in Britain the 24-year-old explained that he was a Zimbabwean, showing his Zimbabwean ID card, as well as his MDC party membership card and a letter from the MDC secretary general. But throughout his hearing and appeal the Home Office maintained that he was Malawian, because of his passport. This is despite the fact that his brother, also an activist, was granted asylum in Britain as a Zimbabwean.

After resisting removal on several occasions, he was finally taken to Malawi in November 2006. Once in Malawi he was arrested for the false declaration of a Malawi passport, and after two months in prison he was deported to Zimbabwe. Since arriving in Zimbabwe he has already been tracked down by the government, and narrowly escaped arrest. The last anyone heard from him was that he had gone into hiding.

Undule Mwakasangula, director of the Centre of Human Rights in Malawi, has worked closely with Zimbabweans who have been sent to his country from the UK. He said: "Malawi does not want to keep these people, so they are sent back to Zimbabwe. It's not speculation, it's happening."

David Banks, co-ordinator of the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe, said that the root of the problems lay in the Home Office being target-driven. "Zimbabweans now fleeing to the UK to escape the persecution and tyranny of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe often feel that they are treated as criminals. They hope for freedom and understanding in the UK but find themselves at the mercy of Home Office officials who have little understanding of their plight and who seem to be motivated primarily by meeting targets for refusal and removal of asylum-seekers."

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