Immigration: House of Lords Debate on Detention and Deportation

Lord Best: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hylton for initiating this debate and for his powerful speech. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Phoenix Fund for Zimbabwe, set up in 2007 by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and chaired by Patrick Wintour—an expert in this field—with the well-known David Banks as our honorary secretary.

The Phoenix Fund for Zimbabwe has set out to assist Zimbabwean refugees and asylum seekers in the UK who wish to pursue courses of professional development, vocational training and placements that will equip them to participate in the rebuilding of the economy and institutions of Zimbabwe when circumstances allow them to return home.

The noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, repeated a Statement on 29 October from the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration, Phil Woolas. The Minister announced some enhancements to the package of assistance to Zimbabweans who return voluntarily. This will aid those taking their skills back to help rebuild the country.

However, alongside the changes to the voluntary returns package, the Minister also announced that he was considering the position of enforced returns to Zimbabwe—an issue under review since the Home Office deferred enforced returns to Zimbabwe in September 2006, following a moratorium enforced through the courts.

Research undertaken in March 2009 by the Phoenix Fund for Zimbabwe and published in a report, Zimbabwe: Rebuilding a Nation, found:

"The relationship between the Zimbabwean community in the UK and the UK Border Agency is extremely tense and the high levels of suspicion and mistrust could undermine any initiatives that are linked to return".

The report quotes the United Kingdom Border Agency’s January 2009 estimates for Zimbabweans in the UK, which suggest that there may be living here as many as 70,000 failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers or Zimbabweans without valid leave to remain. This figure suggests those potentially eligible for removal to Zimbabwe could present the UKBA with a huge task, with concomitant strain on pre-removal detention centres.

If the so-called normalisation of returns policy to Zimbabwe is pursued, I suspect there will be prolonged legal battles in many cases.

I detect an inconsistency between the approach of the Home Office and the UK Borders Agency, and that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. The latter organisations’ approach to Zimbabwe suggests that the political reforms are not yet sufficiently embedded for the Department for International Development to normalise development aid.

Support is restricted to humanitarian assistance and through channels not susceptible to abuse by ZANU-PF. It would seem premature to normalise enforced returns of vulnerable asylum seekers while the political atmosphere remains highly charged and human rights organisations report a resurgence in politically motivated violence.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office judges that it is not yet time for the EU to consider lifting the restrictive measures—the travel ban and assets freeze—imposed on 203 named Zimbabwean Ministers and others associated with the abuse of human rights. This would certainly suggest that the Home Office is acting hastily in considering it is time to normalise enforced returns.

The inclusive government in Zimbabwe remains fragile. Tomorrow, 5 November, a crisis summit has been convened in Maputo, Mozambique, by the Southern African Development Community. This will try to put on the right track the power-sharing global political agreement following the partial withdrawal from participation by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change.

Only last week, the UN Rapporteur on Torture who had been invited to visit Zimbabwe by Prime Minister Tsvangirai, was refused entry when he arrived at Harare airport and sent back to South Africa. This gives some indication of the continuing state of political confusion and volatility in the country.

While there has been a moratorium on enforced returns to Zimbabwe, quite a number of Zimbabweans entered the UK on Malawian passports, even though they have never lived in Malawi. There have been several occasions when UKBA has attempted to carry out the enforced removal of these individuals, often preceded by lengthy detention. There is great concern within the Zimbabwean community in the UK for the safety of Zimbabweans sent to Malawi by the Home Office. They have no family or friends in the country and have never lived there. They fear they will be expelled by the Malawian authorities as having no right of abode and returned to Zimbabwe.

I hope the Minister will give a positive response to the comments from my noble friend Lord Hylton. Can he also make a statement on Zimbabwe that would help regain the confidence and co-operation of the Zimbabwean in the UK? That co-operation is an essential precursor to a positive engagement in preparing individuals for voluntary return to participate in rebuilding Zimbabwe when the time is right.

The Home Secretary said at the Royal Society of Arts on Monday:

"The legacy problems with unreturned foreign national prisoners and asylum seekers may have accumulated under previous administrations, but they continued to be ignored for too long on our watch … Like many other countries, we struggled to contain the huge surge in migration—legal and illegal—that emerged from countries such as Kosovo, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Somalia".

The legacy of neglect so described by the Home Secretary should not now be used to justify swinging to the other extreme and implementing draconian or inhumane policies.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for securing this debate. I am well aware of the interest that he takes in matters relating to immigration detention, especially relating to families with children, and I acknowledge the important work that he has done in this area. I also send my best wishes and, I am sure, those of the House to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and hope that he rapidly gets out of hospital; he has done a lot in this area as well.

I have listened carefully to the important issues that have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and other noble Lords, and I will try to deal with the comments as we go through. If I miss anything specific, then if I am asked afterwards, I shall get back to noble Lords in writing.

Our policy as a Government on detention is clear. Although there is a presumption in favour of granting temporary admission, detention may be appropriate in several circumstances. It may be appropriate in order to effect removal, or while a person’s identity and claim are being established, which, my goodness me, is sometimes extremely difficult.

I am not sure if it was the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, or the noble Lord, Lord Best, who talked about Malawi passports, but it is sometimes difficult and long-winded to establish someone’s identity; you have to remember that these people are fighting not to be identified.

Detention may be appropriate where a person presents a risk of abscond—some people have done that in the past when being held—or where an asylum application is capable of being done very quickly, which has been touched on as well.

We take seriously the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, on Zimbabwe. The situation there, we believe, is improving under the new, inclusive Government. We will continue to provide assistance. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord on the Malawi passports, because I do not know what the position is.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, spoke about the treatment of people trying to come into our wonderful country. I think that we treat people with respect, so I am not surprised that there are millions, if not billions, of people who would love to be here. I do not blame them; I would rather be here than anywhere else, because I love this country. However, we need a system that is proportionate in handling the demand.

We have to remember always, as I have said previously, that each case, even if the person concerned is not meant to be here, is a personal tragedy, and we have to try to deal with it like that. In general, bearing in mind what we have to achieve, I think that the Government do that.

I once again take the opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for raising an important issue—perhaps we should have had even longer to debate it. I also thank other noble Lords for their contributions.