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Friday, 14 April 2006

Zimbabwean Asylum Seekers Face Uncertain Future

Zimbabwean asylum seekers in Britain face an uncertain future after a High Court hearing on April 12 effectively gave the Home Office the power to send them home.

The government was challenging a ruling from October in which the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal judged that it was unsafe to deport asylum seekers to Zimbabwe, and that refugee status should currently be given to anyone from that country.

Three judges allowed the appeal, but the cases of the individual asylum seekers involved — known as A.A. and L.K. — will be referred back to the tribunal to be heard again.

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, says although the Home Office maintains it does not intend to begin forcibly returning asylum seekers to Zimbabwe, the decision leaves a question mark over their future.

"We are very much back into a game of legal ping-pong, but it's not a game for the thousands of people who are waiting to find out if they will be sent back to face Mugabe's regime. We should not underestimate the dangers they face — people fleeing to the U.K. are seen as traitors, and a conviction for treason in Zimbabwe can carry the death penalty."

Maeve Sherlock says the original decision was a common sense reaction to what is currently an extremely volatile situation in Zimbabwe under the regime of President Robert G. Mugabe:

"It did not result in masses of Zimbabweans coming to our shores. It merely meant that people could get some temporary respite from the dangers they faced. Unfortunately they will now face uncertainty once again.

"We would ask the government to show compassion by ending this legal limbo and restore the moratorium on returning people to Zimbabwe, so that Zimbabweans who have come here looking for safety can actually go to bed at night without worrying they will be returned home the next day," she said.

Since the ruling in October, most Zimbabwean asylum seekers have effectively been left destitute, as they get no state support. They are not entitled to housing and are not allowed to work.

"The government has described the situation in Zimbabwe as a 'nightmare regime' and has pledged to support those who can restore good governance there. We should be supporting those who have sought sanctuary here until they feel it is safe to return, and equipping them to rebuild Zimbabwe and restore democracy," Maeve Sherlock added.

John O, a campaigner for the rights of refugees and immigrants with the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns described the decision by the High Court to uphold the government's appeal against the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (A.I.T.) as "devastating."

"In short, the courts ruled that A.I.T. erred in ruling that Zimbabwean asylum seekers should be automatically recognized as refugees. That each case had to be decided on an individual basis rather than introducing an overall ban on removing failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers from the U.K.

"More worrying was the court's observation that if there was no danger to those who had returned to Zimbabwe voluntary then it would follow that those who did fear persecution as a result of forced removal could not be refugees," he said.

The tribunal will now have to hold a new hearing and reconsider all the issues afresh.

"They will also have to look again at whether returning failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe voluntarily or involuntarily would put them at risk. There is no indication yet as to when the A.I.T. will hold the hearing.

"Though there is no immediate danger of a resumption of removals to Zimbabwe, failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe are once again living in uncertainty as to whether they will once again face deportation," John O said.

One Zimbabwean asylum seeker, a journalist in her own country, said that if she returned at present she would face "interrogation, torture or worse."

"People don't realize quite how bad the situation is there. It really saddens me," she said. "I'm going to fight until the end of the world to ensure my children and I are not sent back there to suffer."

She added that she felt "in limbo" while she was here, not being able to work.

"It's so frustrating it hurts your mind to know you are capable of so much but you are not allowed. Since I've been here I've volunteered here, there and everywhere but it's very hard to support my family. I feel trapped, and I just wish they would allow us to contribute by working."

The judgment was made at the Royal Courts of Justice, by Lord Justice Brooke, Lord Justice Laws and Sir Christopher Staughton.

The Home Office was appealing the decision in October on the Country Guidance case A.S.A., which found that it was not safe to remove Zimbabwean asylum seekers forcibly from the U.K. back to Zimbabwe.

The Conservative's shadow home secretary, David Davis, called on the British government to put in place a rigorous method of monitoring the continuing safety of those returned to Zimbabwe.

"The reason for this whole court case is the abject failure of the government's policy on Zimbabwe, with its dreadful consequences for the citizens of Zimbabwe and their opposition to the Mugabe regime.

"Last year we called for the government to put in place a rigorous method of monitoring the continuing safety of those returned to Zimbabwe. The government must now show they have done this and not simply wasted the past few months. Otherwise, we will not know the fate of the people sent back and what the Mugabe regime does to them," Davis said.

This article first appeared on the World Press Review.

Friday, 7 April 2006

M.P.'s Criticized for Urging Crackdown on Asylum Seekers

British members of Parliament have been criticized for urging the government to lock up or tag failed asylum seekers.

The M.P.s, who sit on the Public Accounts Committee, said action was needed to slash a growing backlog of claimants and to keep track of the number of asylum seekers who continue to live in Britain after their applications had been turned down.

In its report March 14), the Public Accounts Committee called for tough new targets to be set and said the "extremely serious" situation could take nearly two decades to sort out at present rates.

They said that until "significant inroads" are made into the backlog, the taxpayer would not receive value for money for the £1.5 billion ($2.6 billion) a year spent on the Immigration and Nationality Directorate.

In addition to tougher measures such as detention and electronic tagging, the M.P.s said the Directorate should also do more to encourage people to take advantage of far cheaper voluntary removal schemes. They recommended testing a U.S.-style sponsor system, where a member of the community takes responsibility for supervising an individual asylum seeker. They also called for more arrests to be made at reporting centers rather than in the community, and for the redirection of cash from areas such as human resources to pay for improved frontline enforcement work.

The committee's Conservative chairman Edward Leigh said, "Failed asylum applicants are in increasing numbers staying in this country knowing that there is very little likelihood they will be apprehended and removed."

He said no one really knows how many of the asylum seekers remain in the United Kingdom or where most are living.

"The government body which is supposed to know, the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate, has come up with an estimate of the size of the backlog of cases for removal — somewhere between 155,000 and 283,500 cases — but the vagueness of this fuels rather than allays our concern.

"What we can be confident about is that the Directorate is not removing failed asylum seekers anywhere near fast enough and the backlog of cases is growing," he said.

Leigh described the situation as extremely serious and said the Immigration and Nationality Directorate must establish, without delay, a target for making substantial inroads on the backlog of older cases.

"And to meet that target, it must streamline its operations and deploy more staff on frontline work; vastly improve its information about the different categories of asylum seekers; and seriously examine a range of measures which might be deployed more, including detention, electronic tagging, the use of arrest at reporting centers rather than in the community and publicizing voluntary removal schemes.

"Unless the Immigration and Nationality Directorate vigorously addresses itself to improving its poor performance, it will take many years to remove the backlog of failed asylum seekers.

"The integrity of the U.K.'s asylum application process is at stake," he said.

While Immigration Minister Tony McNulty said the British government was "either doing or seriously considering" many of the committee's recommendations, Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council — the largest group working with asylum seekers in the United Kingdom — said she was surprised to hear the Public Accounts Committee calling for another crackdown.

This article was first published in the World Press Review.

Monday, 3 April 2006

Human Rights Defenders Honored

Five human rights defenders who have made a significant contribution to free expression over the past year have been recognized in the annual Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards.

The human rights defenders were selected from a shortlist of 25 individuals and organizations. The winners were announced March 22 in London.

Huang Jingao won the Index Whistleblower Award. Jingao is a former local Communist Party official in southern China who drew national attention in August 2004 when he posted an open letter on a party Web site complaining that efforts to prosecute corruption were being thwarted by high-level officials. He was removed from his post and sentenced to life in prison in November after a campaign by party authorities.

Bahman Ghobadi, a Kurdish director from Iran, won the Index Film Award for "Turtles Can Fly," a moving tale, set in the harsh landscapes of Kurdistan in the days leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In the film, a gang of wily and irreverent children is challenged by the arrival of a brother and sister, refugees whose bodies and souls have been irreparably damaged by the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Jean Hatzfeld won the T.R. Fyvel Book Award for "Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide — The Survivors Speak" and "A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide — The Killers Speak."

In the late 1990's the French journalist interviewed survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in the villages of Nyamata and N'tarama, where, in the first two days of the genocide, over 10,000 Tutsis were massacred in the churches where they sought refuge. The survivors were drawn from all ages and different walks of life, from orphaned teenage farmers to the local social worker. The survivors Hatzfeld interviewed talk of the genocide, the death of family and friends in the church and in the marshes of Bugesera to which they fled. They also talk of their present life and try to explain and understand the reasons behind the extermination. These horrific accounts of life at the very edge, in "Into the Quick of Life," contrast with Hatzfeld's own sensitive and vivid descriptions of Rwanda's villages and countryside in peacetime.

In 2000 Hatzfeld returned to interview the men behind one of the most devastating crimes against humanity in recent history. "A Time for Machetes" is the result of his interviews with nine of the Hutu killers. Most of the men were farmers, ordinary men. They told Hatzfeld how the work was given to them, what they thought about it, how they did it, what their responses were to the first time they killed and what they felt when they killed a mother and child or an acquaintance.

Beatrice Mtetwa won the Index Law Award. Mtetwa is a prominent media and human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe working to defend and protect journalists in the face of frequent threats to her safety. Most recently, Mtetwa secured the release of journalists Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds of the London Sunday Telegraph, who were arrested after publishing critical accounts of Zimbabwe's flawed presidential elections.

In October 2002, she was the victim of an attempted carjacking while driving in Harare. She summoned the police, but rather than pursue the thieves, the police detained her, claiming that she was driving while intoxicated. Mtetwa demanded that she be given a breathalyzer and blood test, but no tests were carried out. Instead, a police officer beat her in the back of a police vehicle and the beating continued, in plain sight of other officers, when they arrived at the Borrowdale police station. She subsequently received medical treatment for the injuries sustained to her head, face, arms, back and thighs.

The attack was part of a pattern where lawyers in Zimbabwe who provide legal representation to government critics, members of the political opposition or other individuals who are unpopular with the authorities are targeted for abuse.

Last year, authorities in Zimbabwe placed her on a list of between 15 and 64 people whose passports have, or will be, seized to prevent them from traveling from or into Zimbabwe. Those affected include lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change political party and other human rights campaigners. They and others on the list have been selected because of their peaceful criticism of the government and its policies.

Sihem Bensedrine won the Index/Hugo Young Journalism Award. Bensedrine is editor of the banned magazine Kalima and a prominent activist for press freedom in Tunisia. During the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, in November, Bensedrine helped highlight Tunisia's restrictions on freedom of expression. She has been jailed for her opinions and faces regular harassment from the Tunisian authorities.

Index on Censorship was founded in 1972 by the poet Stephen Spender in response to a plea for help from Soviet dissidents facing show trials in Moscow. The Index was founded on the principle that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. The Freedom of Expression Awards is in its sixth year.

This article was first published in the World Press Review.