Home Office comes under fire over handling of Zimbabwean asylum seekers cases

The Home Office has been criticised over its decision to allow Zimbabwean government officials to interview people from the country who are seeking asylum in the UK.

The government came under fire at the beginning of 2019 for working with the Zimbabwean state to accelerate the removal of asylum seekers after Robert Mugabe was forced from power, despite continuing human rights abuses in the country.

Zimbabweans seeking asylum in the UK, who fear persecution by the new government, were asked to attend Home Office centres across the UK, only to find officials from the government in Harare waiting to question them.

The move is believed to have been part of an agreement between the two governments that Britain would repatriate at least 2,500 failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe providing that officials from the country could screen them beforehand.

Many asylum seekers from Zimbabwe sought refuge in the UK because of their anti-government protests, or support for the country’s opposition. Their claims were often dismissed on the basis that they were not high profile to come to the attention of the Zimbabwe authorities and as a result, did not risk being mistreated on their return.

Lawyers acting on behalf of one of the applicants, said Chishamiso Mkundi, 51, applied for a judicial review after his asylum claim was rejected.

Chishamiso Mkundi had to flee Zimbabwe because of his political affiliations. The engineering graduated had to leave his wife, three sons and a daughter.

The political party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), that Chishamiso belonged to was prohibited by Robert Mugabe.

"My presence in Zimbabwe threatened my family. So I left to claim asylum in the UK," Chishamiso said.

He said that he hoped his family would join him once he got his refugee status but that was 16 years ago.

For the first two years of his life in the UK, Chishamiso slept on the streets in Southampton. He now helps to run a local food bank and assists other asylum seekers.

Permission Granted for review

A claimant, a woman known only as AG, has also requested a review. AG was refused asylum on the grounds that while the Home Office accepted she was an anti-government protester, she was not of 'sufficient profile' to attract adverse attention from government officials if she was returned to the southern African country.

AG challenged the Home Office practice of interviewing asylum seekers whose claims had been rejected, and sharing their information with Zimbabwean government officials. A date for a hearing has been set in February.

Granting permission for the review last month, judges said: “It is at least arguable that the respondent [the home secretary, Priti Patel] failed to consider whether her own actions, in inviting an official from the Zimbabwean embassy to an interview with the Home Office in December 2018, might have brought the applicant to the direct attention to the Zimbabwean authorities.”

AG’s lawyer, Rowan Pennington-Benton said that his client is one of many asylum seekers told by the Home Office that it was safe for them to return, as they were not high profile and would slip under the radar upon arrival in Harare.

“The Home Office practice of highlighting the presence of these persons, and even allowing them to be interviewed by Zimbabwean officials, seriously and somewhat obviously undermines this.

“The practice is dangerous and from a Home Office policy perspective curiously self-defeating, as it provides failed asylum seekers with good grounds to resist removal,” he added.

Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central, raised concerns about the policy last year and said that the policy contravened the principle of fair treatment of those seeking refuge, as well as put individuals at risk of persecution.

Blomfield said: “I have received many disturbing reports from constituents over the way that the Home Office is coordinating with the Zimbabwean government, by allowing their officials to interview asylum applicants in the UK.

He added: “All removals to Zimbabwe should be to be postponed while this political situation continues, and there are real concerns about the safety of returnees. The current Zimbabwean government should not be given this access to vulnerable asylum seekers.”

Mugabe’s government refused to cooperate with British attempts to return people to Zimbabwe, unlike the administration of his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Despite hopes that Mnangagwa’s government would bring political reform, human rights activists have condemned unjustifiable arrests, abductions and beatings committed by the police and military since he assumed power.

A Home Office spokesperson said that as legal proceedings are ongoing in this case, they are unable to comment at this time. However said that re-documentation interviews were a standard part of Home Office process, where an interview is required by the receiving country to confirm identity.

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