The Home Office is to be challenged in court over its practice of inviting foreign government representatives to interview political asylum seekers after The Independent exposed the “corrupt” exercise.
It emerged last December that people who had fled political persecution in Zimbabwe and claimed asylum in the UK were ordered by the Home Office to attend meetings where they were asked “distressing” questions by Zimbabwean officials.
The move was believed to have been part of an agreement between the two governments that Britain would “repatriate” at least 2,500 failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe providing that officials from the country could “vet” them beforehand. The Home Office did not deny these allegations.
The High Court has now granted permission for the practice to be challenged in court, with the evidence uncovered by this newspaper forming part of the basis for the challenge.
The judge expressed concern about the alleged policy of collaboration with the Zimbabwean authorities and the fact that the Home Office had failed to provide any details about the practice.
If successful, the judgement could force the UK government to reconsider the claims of hundreds of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers who may have been subject to this policy.
Failed asylum seekers who have been subjected to the practice described being “terrified” when they discovered that officials from their country were to interrogate them.
One woman, who has been in the UK for 16 years and had her initial asylum claim rejected, was invited to one of the meetings in Sheffield last December. She refused to be questioned without her solicitor and was permitted to leave. In August, she was granted refugee status.
Recalling the meeting, the woman, who did not want to be named, told The Independent: “The man had my file on the table. He started speaking to me in my native language. He said the British government and the Zimbabwean government had agreed to send some of the Zimbabwean people back to their country.
“I was frightened, and very angry. Why was the British government allowing this person to be in their office? We are hiding here and they bring someone who I’m running away from. How can you say Zimbabwe is okay now when people are being kidnapped, tortured?”
Another asylum seeker, a man in his fifties who did not want to be named, said he was “highly suspicious” when he saw the Zimbabwean official in the meeting room.
“He was asking for more information about myself to confirm my identity. He wanted to know about my parents and relatives in Zimbabwe,” the man said.
“I refused to give him information about myself. I was afraid – if they confirmed it was me, what would they do with that information? He wasn’t even concerned about whether I was an asylum seeker.”
The claimant bringing the court case, a woman known only as AG, was refused asylum on the grounds that while the Home Office accepted she was an anti-government protester, she was not of sufficient profile to attract adverse attention from government officials if returned to the country.
She and her legal representatives argued that the alleged Home Office policy of sharing information about failed asylum seekers with the Zimbabwean authorities “fundamentally undermined” this, as it would alert authorities to their cases.
Her barrister, Rowan Pennington-Benton, said that if successful the case could force the Home Office to reassess the cases of at least 2,500 failed asylum seekers, and called on the department to provide clarity on the policy.
“We need a proper explanation, and thereby appreciation, of the nature and scope of the agreement reached between the UK and the Zimbabwean governments,” he said.
“There are many failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe whose cases were believed, in terms of them being anti-government protesters and activists, but who have been told that they can be returned effectively because they will slip under the radar.“
“Yet this policy appears to put them above the radar; indeed slap-bang in the middle of it“. ”On the face of it“ he suggested ”this is irrational, dangerous and ill-thought out“.
Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central, who raised concerns about the policy earlier this year, said the policy contravened the principle of fair treatment of those seeking refuge and put individuals at risk of persecution.
“I have received many disturbing reports from constituents over the way that the Home Office is coordinating with the Zimbabwean government, by allowing their officials to interview asylum applicants in the UK,” he continued.
“All removals to Zimbabwe should be to be postponed while this political situation continues, and there are real concerns about the safety of returnees. The current Zimbabwean government should not be given this access to vulnerable asylum seekers.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Re-documentation interviews are a standard part of Home Office process where an interview is required by the receiving country to confirm identity and in order for a travel document to be produced.”
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