The Home Office has been accused of deliberately ignoring the national identity of failed asylum seekers in order to return Zimbabwean nationals to their homeland, despite the High Court’s suspension of removals of Zimbabweans subject to a reappraisal of the situation.
Immigration lawyers have claimed that Home Office officials are choosing not to investigate false passports used by individuals to gain entry into the UK and are refusing to accept evidence, including birth certificates, which proves that the asylum seekers are in fact Zimbabwean, in order to get around the ban. Many failed asylum seekers rely on false South African passports, but without investigation they are being returned to South Africa, where they face immediate removal to Zimbabwe. Deri Hughes-Roberts of the Refugee Legal Centre, who has represented a number of Zimbabwean clients, has commented on the persistence of officials who claim that these people are South African ‘despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary’, suggesting that the government is veiling its true intention of deporting Zimbabwean nationals under the guise of adhering to British law. He revealed that his organisation ‘would have very grave concerns if the Home Office is disputing nationality as a way of getting around the ruling’.
The ban on all deportations to Zimbabwe was enacted by Mr Justice Collins following the hearing of a test case in August by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal and the ensuing judicial review by the High Court. The tribunal agreed with the Refugee Legal Centre, which provided evidence that failed asylum seekers were in danger of being persecuted in Zimbabwe for claiming asylum in the UK. This evidence was countered by the Foreign Office and the Home Office, which had sent a team of individuals to Zimbabwe when the legal challenge was launched, in order to identify the threat to those deported. Yet in a carefully worded statement, the tribunal criticised the organisation of this trip, hinting at the dangers of selecting a team consisting of civil servants involved in policy. ‘The way in which the investigation was conducted, and the way in which the results were presented to us, gives rise to the possibility that the investigators may have had existing policy in mind rather more than the discovery of new facts.’
The tribunal heard that Zimbabwean individuals claiming asylum in the UK were branded traitors in their homeland and that in Zimbabwe, deportations were regarded as ‘a cloak for an attempt to infiltrate Blair’s spies’ into the country. Tim Finch, of the Refugee Council, revealed his belief that security services in Zimbabwe target people who are failed asylum seekers, stating that ‘Coming to Britain and claiming sanctuary here is regarded as treason by the Mugabe regime’. The test case found that the removal of the unnamed Zimbabwean national would be a breach of the Refugee Convention and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, determining that: ‘The Tribunal is satisfied in the light of the statements made by the Zimbabwean authorities that returnees are regarded with contempt and suspicion on return and do face a very hostile atmosphere.’ Worryingly, the tribunal condemned the government for ‘an alarming lack of interest’ in the fate of deported Zimbabwean refugees, which marked perhaps the greatest victory for anti-deportation campaigners in the trial. The tribunal chairman Mark Ockelton said of the individual facing deportation: ‘He has a well-founded fear of persecution.’ Whilst acknowledging that this individual had been ‘fraudulent’ and ‘deliberately dishonest’ in his dealings with the British authorities, leading them to believe that he had fled from Zimbabwe out of fear of political persecution, the tribunal concluded that the fact that he had spent time in the UK paradoxically meant that ‘the real risk of serious harm exists now’.
Yet despite this High Court ruling, the Home Office has attempted to deport eight Zimbabwean individuals by allegedly feigning knowledge of their origins and arguing that they were South African. The Refugee Legal Centre has successfully argued in the High Court that all eight are in fact Zimbabwean nationals. Tauhid Pasha, the Legal and Policy Director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, has commented that the government ‘should not be returning people to South Africa on the basis of what is allegedly a fraudulent document, without the permission of the South African government. In this type of case where someone is saying that they are not a genuine South African, the Home Office should be asking the South African government if the individuals concerned are South Africans passport holders or not. Otherwise the South Africans may move them onto Zimbabwe where they are definitely going to be at risk.’ He summarised the perceived lack of governmental interest in the fate of the deported Zimbabweans in a frank statement: ‘If the Home Office was returning them directly to Zimbabwe, that would be a breach of a court order. I think that they just want to get rid of people and they are not considering the consequences of their actions.’