Zimbabwe tension mounts, but UK deportation resumes

Deportation flights taking failed asylum seekers back to Zimbabwe are set to resume, the British Government announced today, just one day after a UN torture investigator was prevented from entering the country and a leading human rights organisation warned it was “on the brink of sliding back into violence”.

The forcible return of refugees from the UK to Zimbabwe was halted three years ago after the High Court ruled that opponents of President Robert Mugabe risked persecution on their return.

But yesterday Phil Woolas, the Immigration minister, said he was looking at “normalising” returns – claiming that the situation had been “improving” since Morgan Tsvangirai was appointed Prime Minister in February, following Mr Mugabe’s acceptance of a power-sharing agreement.

In a written statement to Parliament, Mr Woolas said: “The UK Border Agency will ... be starting work over the autumn on a process aimed at normalising our returns policy to Zimbabwe, moving towards resuming enforced returns progressively as and when the political situation develops.

“While a great deal remains to be done ... the indiscriminate violence which marred the elections of 2008 has abated. And the formation of the inclusive government has led to improvements in the economy, schools and the availability of basic commodities.”

He also announced that money and aid repatriation packages worth up to £6,000 would be offered to failed asylum seekers. Those accepting the incentives to return home voluntarily will be entitled to £2,000 in cash and £4,000 worth of benefits “in kind” – such as vocational training, help with setting up a business or meeting the cost of the flight.

The change of policy was met with outrage by human rights groups and refugee organisations, who insisted that Zimbabwe was still dangerous. On Wednesday, Amnesty International reported that the initial stability of the unity government had been undermined, and that the human rights situation in the country was “worsening”.

The agency drew attention to the recent arrests of two prominent civil leaders, and said it had received reports that supporters of Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party had been threatening members of Mr Tsvangirai’s MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) with violence.

Cracks in the two parties’ power-sharing agreement were further highlighted when a UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, was prevented from entering the country by officials in Harare on Wednesday.

Mr Nowak had been invited to visit Zimbabwe for eight days by Mr Tsvangirai, but his clearance was withdrawn at the last minute and he was detained overnight. After returning to South Africa, the furious UN official said his treatment proved parts of the Zimbabwean government did not want him to assess “the current conditions of torture”.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, described the timing of Mr Woolas’s statement as “straight out of Yes Minister”. She said: “Just as the UN torture monitor is kicked out of the country and Amnesty warns of increasing violence, the Home Office says that Zimbabwe is getting safer. The only people who won’t be laughing are Zimbabwean asylum seekers in the UK. They will now be terrified that they could soon be returned to a country where MDC supporters are once again living in fear of violence.”

Caroline Slocock, Chief Executive of Refugee and Migrant Justice said: "Once again the Government is jumping the gun by suggesting it is safe to start forcibly removing people to Zimbabwe, just as it did recently in carrying out a botched removal to central and southern Iraq. The UK courts have said that Zimbabweans would be at real risk of serious harm if they went home, unless they could demonstrate allegiance to or association with Mugabe's Zanu-PF party; and the Government should wait until the courts take a different view."

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