With the UK government issuing strong condemnations of Robert Mugabe, ninety-seven Zimbabwean asylum seekers, in detention centres across England, have gone on hunger strike to protest against the increasing number of deportations to Harare.
Zimbabwean asylum seekers in detention centres across England have launched a mass hunger strike to draw attention to their plight. Ninety-seven Zimbabweans, detained at Harmondsworth, Dover, Colnbrook, Yarl’s Wood and Campsfield, have not eaten food since midnight on Tuesday and plan to continue till at least Saturday morning.
One of the hunger-strikers, Tafara Nhenghu, told IRR News that the aim of the hunger strike was to raise public awareness about both Mugabe’s regime and Britain’s asylum system. ‘We need British people to know about this’, he said. ‘The immigration authorities just grab you in the morning and take you to the plane, without you even having time to contact solicitors or make arrangements. Detainees are affected psychologically by having to wait for weeks and months, without being told what is happening. There is widespread anxiety and tension.’
Tafara is being held at Harmondsworth detention centre, where asylum seekers’ applications are ‘fast-tracked’. He faces deportation back to Harare in the next few days. ‘It is dangerous for any deportations to take place right now’, says Tafara. ‘In Zimbabwe, it is hard to know what is happening to returned asylum seekers. We are asking for a review of the deportation policy.’
Patricia Mukandara is one of thirty women at Yarl’s Wood who has chosen to go on hunger strike. She has been taking only fluids for over two weeks now and says that she will continue for as long as it takes. ‘The only way out for us is to take action’, she told IRR News. ‘We have tried to explain what has happened to us but they do not listen to anything. They did not hear my story.’ Patricia came to Britain five years ago and claimed asylum. She has been detained at Yarl’s Wood since last December and has now been given a deportation date of 2 July. Deportation, she says, has already led to the death of her brother, who was tortured and killed after being deported to Zimbabwe from South Africa.
The dangers in Zimbabwe are acknowledged by the British government. The statement issued last week by foreign secretary Jack Straw could not be clearer. ‘Over the last three weeks the Mugabe regime has launched a brutal crackdown on some of the most vulnerable Zimbabweans’, he said. ‘Over 30,000 have been arrested, with over 40,000 households (approximately 200,000 people) affected with their homes and businesses callously destroyed. There are also reports of children being detained in prison and separated from their parents. The crackdown continues to spread across the country to many urban and some rural areas. Armed police have swiftly crushed any resistance with teargas.’ Straw went on to call on the international community to maximise the pressure on Mugabe to ‘end this brutality’.
For Zimbabweans in Britain, many of whom are recent asylum seekers and refugees, such statements of support for Mugabe’s victims are undermined by the government’s own policy of increasing deportations to Harare. In spite of the ‘brutality’ of the Mugabe regime, the Home Office resumed deportations to Zimbabwe last November after a two-year suspension and ninety-five Zimbabweans were removed in the first three months of this year. According to the Zimbabwean Community Campaign to Defend Asylum Seekers, those returned to Harare were handed over to the authorities on arrival and detained for questioning. Their families had to pay bribes to have them released, says the campaign.
In recent weeks, the rate of deportation is thought to have increased. Zimbabweans, who have been reporting each week as required to immigration officials, have been put in detention without warning and told that they are to be deported. The result has been a growing climate of fear among Zimbabwean asylum seekers, particularly as news of the clampdown in Zimbabwe spreads. Within detention centres, there seems to be growing tensions between staff and detainees. A statement issued last Thursday by Zimbabweans at Harmondswoth alleged that detainees have been ‘verbally and physically abused by the officers’. In one incident, a detainee was allegedly strip-searched in the canteen in front of female officers during mealtime.
But for hunger-strikers like Patricia Mukandara, the protest is simply a fight for survival. ‘It is a matter of life and death’, she says. ‘It is better to die of hunger here than be killed in Zimbabwe.’