The resumption of removals to Zimbabwe reflects a changing political climate in Britain rather than any lessening in the merits of Zimbabwean asylum claims.
The government announced on 16 November 2004 that it was lifting the suspension on returns to Zimbabwe. Its spokesman said that ‘we suspended temporarily all enforced returns to Zimbabwe in 2002 for the best of motives but it has been exploited’. Zimbabweans were arriving on false documents and, with manifestly weak claims, were confident in the knowledge that they would be allowed to stay in Britain even if their asylum claims were disallowed. As supporting evidence, the Home Office asserted that, between January and November 2004, 1,825 of the 2,025 Zimbabweans who applied for asylum were refused it.
There are several grave flaws in this official position. However good the motives of the initial suspension, it was rapidly followed by the introduction of a visa regime. No Zimbabwean could travel to Britain without a visa; no-one could apply at the British High Commission (now Embassy) for a visa on the grounds that they wished to claim asylum. Even the most genuine of asylum seekers, therefore, had either to pretend some other reason for wishing to visit Britain or else to obtain false South African or Malawian passports – both taken as adequate reasons for refusing their applications.
Moreover, the very high numbers of refusals in the last eleven months contrast strikingly with statistics for the previous period subsequent to the stay on removals when there was an unusually high proportion – over 40 per cent – of successful appeals by Zimbabwean asylum seekers. The change during this year reflects not so much the increased number of ‘bogus’ claimants as the imposition of a new regime. Fast track assessments allow no time for proper investigation or representation. The drastic cut-back on legal aid means that fewer expert reports are commissioned. Many of the best asylum legal practitioners have withdrawn their services because of the manifest impossibility of adequately representing their clients. Anyone who has written expert reports knows how arbitrary initial Home Office refusals can be. They are now unlikely to be challenged.
The new policy makes no pretence that Zimbabwe has become a safer place since 2002. The government says that there has been no change ‘in our opposition to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe’ and that it will work to ‘restore democracy so that all Zimbabweans can in time return safely to help build a prosperous and stable Zimbabwe’. In the meantime, however, it proposes to send many Zimbabweans back to an unstable Zimbabwe in a state of economic collapse and with continuing human rights abuses. What has changed since 2002 is not Zimbabwe but the British political climate. In 2002, Zimbabwe was much in the news because of the take-over of White-owned land. Even the Conservative Party supported the suspension of removals. Now Zimbabwe has dropped out of the news headlines. Few British politicians seem to care any longer about what happens to Black Zimbabweans.
But those of us who do care wish to register a strong protest against the resumption of removals and to call for the re-instatement of just processes of assessment of asylum claims.