Sunday, June 26, 2005
Church hits out at Zimbabwe deportations
Putting that trivia to one side this issue is actually a very serious one. Speaking to members of an asylum seeker support group in Swansea on Friday I got the impression that the Home Office has stopped giving many asylum applications serious consideration despite the very desperate and genuine circumstances of the applicants. The rejection rate is apparently rocketing, whilst their willingness to send people back to certain imprisonment, torture and death is disturbing.
One support worker told me that she believes that the poorly paid civil servants who process the applications are burnt out trying to balance the harrowing facts they are confronted with daily against impossible rejection targets. She thinks that political imperatives are overriding compassion and justice.
This article on the Institute of Race Relations website backs up the Observer's story. They report that 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.
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.'
These deportations are taking place despite the fact that the foreign secretary himself does not believe that Zimbabwe is a safe place for dissenters:
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'.And yet, the treatment of asylum seekers by the Home Office is verging on the inhumane:
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.
It is not just Zimbabwean nationals who are being treated like this. Asylum seekers from other countries are also facing deportation to Countries which are not safe for them. This week I am accompanying two Iranian asylum seekers to see their solicitor to try and establish what legal remedies are left to them to prevent them being deported back to Iran.
Mehri Karbasirajai is a highly educated and deeply principled woman, who was employed as a teacher in a maternity hospital in Iran. Alarmed at the injustices women were experiencing under the current regime, she established and led a human rights organisation that demonstrated for a liberalisation of society and for greater professional and educational opportunities for women. The response of the authorities was violent and intimidatory. Mehri and some of her colleagues were arrested and one of them was killed in custody. In the same period, Mehri's husband, who had been imprisoned for four years in the 1980s for political activities, was detained by the security forces, and is still in prison. Frightened by the state's treatment of her family and fearing for her life, Mehri managed to flee the country with her daughter. The situation remains the same for political organisers like Mehri, with imprisonment, torture and execution continuing.
Despite the strength of their case Mehri and her daughter have been refused Humanitarian Protection. They have had poor legal advice and now face being sent back to the regime they fled from despite the fact that asylum seekers are not meant to be returned to Iran.
The problem with legal advice seems to be a common one. As the Institute of Race Relations reports full access to legal aid has now been denied by the government:
In April 2004, the government proclaimed that new measures would derail the 'gravy train' of public funding for immigration and asylum legal representatives. Through the Legal Services Commission (LSC), they enforced drastic funding cuts by making profound changes to the LSC administrative systems in immigration and asylum cases. The LSC argued that meritorious claims, the most vulnerable of applicants and the best quality legal representatives would not be disadvantaged by the new system.
One year on, BID (Bail for Immigration Detainees) and Asylum Aid present the front-line experiences of asylum seekers, migrants, human rights and refugee organisations and legal representatives showing that, across England and Wales, it is increasingly difficult for asylum seekers and immigrants, including the most vulnerable, to access good-quality legal advice and representation.
Many asylum seekers are being left to represent themselves, as large numbers of quality law firms pull out of asylum and immigration work or significantly reduce the amount of publicly funded work that they take on. The culture of refusal and bureaucracy at the LSC has obstructed and eroded the provision of good quality legal advice. According to the Justice Denied dossier, not-for-profit legal advice services, which generally also rely on LSC funding for casework, allege that LSC decisions are made in a quasi-judicial capacity. They maintain that the imposition of severe (and often apparently arbitrary and ill-reasoned) limitations on casework seriously undermines their capacity to give good-quality legal representation to the increasing numbers turning to them for advice and representation.
Among those having such difficulties are victims of torture, the traumatised and those with mental health needs, young people who came to the UK as unaccompanied minors, those who are HIV-positive and the terminally ill, victims of trafficking, and other vulnerable people, large numbers of whom are detained. Under the LSC constraints, practitioners are more likely to take on cases that are less complex rather than cases of the most needy or vulnerable.
Faced with an increasingly complex and confusing system, arbitrary decision-making and the seeming indifference of the authorities to their case, genuine asylum seekers are being denied the opportunity to receive the advice and assistance needed to put their case. This is a huge issue and cannot be ignored by MPs much longer.