Charles Clarke’s policy on deportation to Zimbabwe was severely criticised today in a court ruling which found that a failed asylum seeker had a “well-founded fear of persecution” if he was sent home.
The asylum and immigration tribunal said the lack of interest of the home secretary in how Zimbabwean authorities dealt with returned nationals was “rather alarming”.
The man, who cannot be named, would be at risk of harm if he was sent back to President Robert Mugabe’s regime, the tribunal chairman, Mark Ockelton, said.
Although the failed asylum seeker had been “fraudulent” and “deliberately dishonest” in his dealings with British authorities, the fact that he had spent time in the UK would put him at risk at home, the tribunal said.
“The fact that the appellant made a false claim, so generating the risk which would otherwise not have existed, does not alter the fact that the real risk of serious harm exists now,” the ruling said.
The tribunal criticised the home secretary for his department’s research into conditions in Zimbabwe and for the lack of evidence uncovered by a fact-finding delegation sent by the government last month.
Evidence from the home secretary appeared to show that deportees were escorted on planes with UK officials handing their papers over to the air crew.
“At that point, it appeared to us that the respondent (the home secretary) ceased to have any very clear interest in what happened. We find the respondent’s lack of interest in the process by which individuals that he returns to Zimbabwe are received by the Zimbabwean authorities rather alarming.”
The British government delegation to investigate conditions in Zimbabwe had been made up of civil servants involved with policy matters, Mr Ockelton said.
“The way in which the investigation was conducted, and the way in which the results were presented to us, gives rise to the possibility—we say no more than that—that the investigators may have had existing policy in mind rather more than the discovery of new facts.
“Despite the facilities available to the investigation and the level at which it was conducted, it reveals nothing of the actual process which returned asylum seekers go through on their arrival at Harare airport.”
The decision will force the government to rethink its deportations policy to the southern African country.
“We are disappointed with today’s determination,” a Home Office spokesman said. “The tribunal has decided that, unlike claimants from every other country, the individual merits of Zimbabwean asylum claims do not count when assessing whether it would be safe for them to return to Zimbabwe.
“Our view remains that only on the basis of such individual consideration can we be confident that the correct decisions are taken—whether that decision is to grant asylum or to refuse it.”
He added that the government had “repeatedly stated its grave concerns about the appalling human rights situation in Zimbabwe” and continued to press for an end to abuses.
Campaigners told the court earlier this month that people returned from the UK are regarded as “spies” and “traitors” by Mr Mugabe’s regime. The tribunal was told that ministers had failed to properly assess the risk to failed asylum seekers sent back to Zimbabwe.
Mark Henderson, for the Refugee Legal Centre, said the Zimbabwe authorities considered those returned by the British government to be “agents of regime change”.
He added that Mr Clarke now seemed to accept that Zimbabweans were subjected to “in-depth questioning” by Mr Mugabe’s secret police, the CIO.
The high court is considering a judicial review of enforced returns to Zimbabwe, but postponed the case on August 4 pending today’s decision of the tribunal. Deportations are currently on hold until both cases conclude.
“The evidence suggests that anyone associated with the British authorities and in particular someone who has sought their protection from Mugabe and Zanu-PF and their forces will be viewed, to say the least, with suspicion,” Mr Henderson had told the tribunal.
“Indeed, the evidence not only as presented by ourselves but also presented by the secretary of state, refers to Zimbabwean authorities viewing such people as traitors, guilty of treachery and betrayal.” Steven Kovats, for the Home Office, told the earlier hearing that a delegation from the British government had visited Zimbabwe between September 4 and 12 to determine whether there was evidence of systematic abuse of returned Zimbabweans.
The home secretary had concluded failed asylum seekers were generally not at real risk of ill treatment or persecution, he said.