Cash and aid repatriation packages worth up to £6,000 are to be offered to failed asylum seekers to go home voluntarily to Zimbabwe, the Home Office announced today.
Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, indicated at the same time that the first steps would be taken this autumn towards forcibly returning more than 10,000 failed asylum seekers who fled Robert Mugabe’s regime.
The forcible removal of Zimbabweans was halted in September 2006 pending a high court battle that ended in a ruling recognising that all those who were unable to demonstrate loyalty to Mugabe risked persecution if they were sent back.
Woolas said in a written ministerial statement that the enhanced cash package was intended to encourage failed asylum seekers to return voluntarily, "but where they choose not to do so we are bound to take steps, over time, to enforce the law".
The Home Office said it had carefully considered its position on enforced returns to Zimbabwe in the light of developments since the formation of a government led by the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.
"The UK Border Agency will therefore be starting work over the autumn on a process aimed at normalising our returns policy to Zimbabwe, moving towards resuming enforced returns progressively as and when the political situation develops," Woolas said.
He insisted the Home Office took its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention seriously and said it would continue to consider individual cases on their merits. "However, we have always expected those found not to be in need of protection to return home. We prefer these individuals to return voluntarily."
The official Home Office position cites progress in political reforms, an abatement in indiscriminate violence in the past six months and improvements in the economy, schools and the availability of basic commodities as evidence of positive change in Zimbabwe.
Voluntary repatriation packages worth up to £6,000 have been available since February for those considering returning to Harare, but they have been available only "in kind" – such as vocational training, aid in setting up a business or meeting the cost of the flight.
Cash payments of up to £2,000 will be phased in over the next six months and paid through the International Organisation of Migration office in Harare. This will be available in addition to the basic £4,000 package of repatriation assistance paid in kind.
"Making cash available to those who go home will support economic reform in Zimbabwe, enabling people to return voluntarily and use their skills to support change and help rebuild Zimbabwe with capital behind them. The scheme will also be extended until 31 December and will be reviewed at that point," said the Home Office statement.
Donna Covey, of the Refugee Council, criticised the decision to consider forcing Zimbabweans to return. "In the past few days allegations of arrest, intimidation and harassment of supporters of the MDC and of human rights defenders have been widely reported. Our government is showing a cavalier attitude to the safety of refugees who have stood up for democracy and human rights," she said.
"After the farcical attempts to return Iraqis and Afghans in recent weeks against UN advice, it is of great concern that the government are now considering returns to Zimbabwe. It seems particularly inappropriate given Morgan Tsvangirai has begun boycotting the power-sharing arrangement and the United Nations special rapporteur on torture was deported yesterday."
Covey said the improvements to the voluntary repatriation package were welcome. "However, this has to be kept separate from attempts to begin forced removals. There were 89 returns under this programme from January to August this year, the equivalent to around 11 per month. This small number reflects the fear Zimbabweans continue to have about returning to their country which, however you look at it, is still ruled by Robert Mugabe."
The Zimbabwe Association in London said it believed there were 7,500 failed asylum seekers in Britain who benefited from last November’s high court ruling that it was too dangerous to send them back. Hundreds more were awaiting an initial decision on their refugee claims.
More than 2,000 new claims for asylum from Zimbabweans were rejected in 2008. SOURCE