Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:14 pm on 27th June 2005.

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Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall 9:14 pm, 27th June 2005

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a serious issue tonight: the humanitarian crisis that faces Zimbabwe. I am especially grateful that the Speaker enabled the debate to happen so soon after I returned from Zimbabwe and even more grateful that we have a reasonable amount of time—although I appreciate that perhaps you thought that you would have an early night, Mr. Deputy Speaker—to consider the issue and allow one or two other hon. Members to intervene.

As I left Zimbabwe only 10 days ago, people begged me to take their message to the outside world. After the dreadful sights that I witnessed when travelling through Matabeleland, Midlands and Mashonaland, I have no doubt about my responsibility to get the message out. I was fortunate in that, with the help of some brave Zimbabweans, I was able to get some good film and video footage, which has been shown widely on international broadcast networks. That is especially important because, as we all know, there are no independent media in Zimbabwe. There is no longer an independent daily newspaper and, although The Zimbabwean, which is put together in London and printed in South Africa, gets around Zimbabwe, it does not reach nearly as wide an area as The Daily News.

I begin with the words of a young Zimbabwean, who sent me a message today before the debate. He said:

"When you speak on Monday, you speak knowing that our thoughts, hopes and prayers go with you. We want the world to know what is happening here."

As hon. Members will remember, I previously visited Zimbabwe in 2003, again undercover, when I saw the thousands of displaced farm workers who had been put off their farms after many white farmers had been displaced. I saw then that little farming was happening on those farms. Roads alongside them were full of dying crops and those that had not even been planted. However, since my previous visit, ordinary Zimbabweans' plight, which was dreadful then, has become much worse, and the regime's actions far more shocking. Unless resolute action is taken, I fear that the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe will move to a new and even more sinister phase.

For the past six weeks, Robert Mugabe's regime has been engaged in a brutal and systematic mission to destroy the homes and livelihoods of some of the poorest people in Africa. There is no shelter for many of the thousands who have been displaced. The original figure of 250,000 that somebody somewhere in the United Nations cited is wrong. Even in my short time there, I could see that the numbers of those displaced are far greater—750,000 to 1 million people. Most of them are without shelter at night in winter.

Bulawayo, Kwe Kwe, Gweru and Harare were among the places that I visited and witnessed the terrible scenes of the aftermath of Operation Drive Out Rubbish or Operation Murambatsvina. In Killarney camp on the outskirts of Bulawayo, I saw the police attacking people's homes. Many had lived there for 20 or 25 years. Grotesque scenes of burning houses were spread across the landscape, smoke rising from the burning thatch. I watched as teams of police clubbed or bulldozed walls and brought corrugated iron roofs crashing to the ground.

Later in Harare, when I met Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, he described what was happening as Pol Pot in slow motion. He and others have since used that description internationally. They are strong words, but from what I saw, they are truthful. In the narrow streets of Makakoba, Bulawayo's oldest township, I saw truckloads of armed police in riot gear, simply standing around and forcing families to knock down their homes. Some families had built shelters at the back for the many extended members who had been displaced from the rural areas because of what had happened on the farms and come to urban areas. Those shelters were being forced down, and it was quite tragic to see people trying to rescue tiny bits of corrugated iron, brick and stone to take away and use somewhere else.

Killarney was the settlement on the outskirts of Bulawayo that I had particularly wanted to go back to, because I had visited it when I was there before, and attended church in one of the small huts there with the pastor. When we went back on that Sunday, it was the day when the people were being removed, and the church had already been demolished. What happened was deeply moving, because many of the churches of all denominations in Bulawayo had managed to scrape together enough fuel, which is in incredibly short supply there, to bring their own vehicles and to carry a few desperate families away to a place of safety. Shell-shocked families and elderly couples were gathering up the remains of their earthly possessions, usually just a few pots and a mattress. Many of them would not leave unless they could take those possessions with them, because they represented their only hope of having anything with which to start again.

I want to pay tribute to the many courageous people who drove me round and helped me to shoot the video footage that I brought out of the country, despite the huge numbers of security police, members of the Central Intelligence Organisation, who are everywhere now. There are far more than there were two years ago; Mugabe has spent millions of dollars on recruiting huge numbers of them. That video footage has now been shown around the world and it has helped to alert the international community to what the regime is doing. It was ironic that some of my guides had spent their youth fighting as freedom fighters in the bush. For them, the struggle continues to this day, and I salute them.

I also want to salute the very brave women, particularly in Bulawayo but also in Harare, who are members of WOZAWomen of Zimbabwe Arise—and who take to the streets repeatedly in peaceful protest. They are often arrested for defying the draconian laws on public association. I also pay tribute to the teams of individual Zimbabweans who go out gathering evidence of human rights abuse for the Solidarity Peace Trust. I want to draw to Members' attention the trust's first report, which has been sent round to some people today. If anyone else wants a copy, they can get one from me. It is the interim report of May-June 2005 on the Zimbabwean Government's urban cleansing and forced eviction campaign. The trust has the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, as one of its key sponsors. The report presents a shocking tale of what has happened, including numbers, and I would commend it to every Member of the House.

I have to point out that people are dying in order to get the message out of Zimbabwe, and to try to raise any international outrage. I was privileged to have been able to be there, even if it was only for one short week. I knew that, if anything had happened, I was unlikely to be killed, but I was left with the impression of people risking their lives every minute of the day. Even ordinary people conducting their everyday lives need to be brave in Zimbabwe. The vendors' markets, once a lively feature of towns and cities across the country, have all gone. Most of the pitches were licensed by the local councils. Bulawayo council is in the control of the Movement for Democratic Change, and it used to collect rent from the stall-holders, who all had licences. The pitches were laid out with yellow lines to show their boundaries. Now the plots are deserted, with only mangled wire and scorch marks left behind.

Particularly shocking were the industrial suburbs of Harare, where there used to be hundreds of bustling workshops, with their valuable machinery. Many people who wanted to be able to look after their own livelihoods had created these small businesses and factories, perhaps fixing cars or doing some sewing, all using machinery. The Mugabe police simply came in and bulldozed them down, destroying thousands of pounds worth of machinery and leaving flattened concrete behind. Those buildings had been solidly built. Mugabe and his forces talk about these constructions being illegal, but they were proper homes. In many cases, people had lived in them all their lives, but now their contents have been destroyed, and those people's homes and lives ruined. I had also visited those parts of the outskirts of Harare the last time I was there, so I could see the difference. The area literally looks as though an earthquake has hit it; it is quite unbelievable when I remember the thriving suburb that it used to be.

The destruction and misappropriation of businesses continues in another form what started with the illegal seizure of commercial farms. As I pointed out earlier, most of the farm workers have been displaced to urban areas and are now being displaced again. Mugabe saw how easy it was to get away with displacing those farm workers and farmers and knows that there is no appetite to resist him. He has African leaders parroting his propaganda lies for him and the leaders of the industrial world by and large swallowing them and choking on what is sometimes, I believe, a misplaced post-colonial guilt.

I am still concerned about companies in this country that continue to do business with counterparts in Zimbabwe that are working hand in hand with the regime. Supermarkets—I simply mention Tesco but there are many—have not yet taken seriously their obligations to ensure that their vegetables and flowers are not being sourced from illegally seized farms or operations run by proxies for the regime. There is also evidence that banks based in this country and on the continent still co-operate in arranging lines of credit for the regime and its associates.

Last week, the European Union increased the numbers of people on the banned list, and finally banned Grace Mugabe, Robert Mugabe's wife, from being able to come over here and shop at Harrods. I welcome that decision. Many people, however, have still not been put on the list. One of the people whom we must get on that banned list is Gono, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, who has been the driving force behind much of the getting rid of people and small businesses.

What is most shocking, however, and most upsetting, is the way in which Mugabe's refusal to co-operate with the World Food Programme and formally ask for assistance means that the WFP must bend its rules in order to put out an appeal to donors. It is time that we started setting our own rules. As a major donor Government, we need to demand very special terms before providing assistance to people trapped under a regime that is not only failing but taking positive action to deprive its people of basic human rights of shelter and food—a human right that the UN is meant to uphold. The world talks of finding new ways to tackle new problems, but this evil tragedy in Zimbabwe is happening so slowly, and Mugabe is such a cunning manipulator, that we must find completely new ways of dispensing aid. As Michael Holman recently wrote:

"The West's unconditional generosity has done—and is doing—more long-term damage to Zimbabwe than short term good".

Aid organisations must face up to the fact that in Zimbabwe they cannot be apolitical. The crisis with which they are dealing is not a natural disaster but a deliberately manufactured tool of oppression and political control. The normal rules do not apply, and they must speak out in protest against the ZANU-PF regime. Without question, the African Union must demand that the International Red Cross and the United Nations relief agencies are given unrestricted access to Zimbabwe to deal with the internal refugee and food crisis, as they would have in any other disaster situation. Those bodies must also demand, however, that the African Union tackles the political paralysis in Africa that has allowed Mugabe to run amok and set back his country's progress by 50 years. I hope that the UN envoy's team who have arrived today will be able to go around and see what is happening. I worry that they will only be taken where the Government want to take them. We hope, however, that they will be independent and go out and see what is happening.

I hope that the organisers of the Live8 concerts will urge the millions who flock to the concerts on 2 July to demand that the world leaders attending the G8 summit get their heads out of the sand and put Zimbabwe's plight right at the top of their agenda.

Most importantly and immediately, our Government will lose all credibility in tackling the problems of Africa if they are seen to demand high standards of African Governments and yet, because of whatever petty domestic reasons, statistics or figures, send back asylum seekers to the mercy of Mugabe's state agents. Our Government face a massive test of their commitment to Africa's future, rather than to the dapper but corrupt bigwigs who will tell the Prime Minister what he wants to hear, then go back and, like Mugabe, treat their people as dirt to be cleared away. Our loyalty must be to the people of Africa—the poorest people of Africa—and perhaps the most immediate test of that commitment involves the asylum seekers who are on hunger strike not many miles from here.

I was shocked today to receive a letter from someone telling me to look at something in the May edition of "News&Views", described as

"The magazine for Foreign and Commonwealth Office people around the world".

It trumpeted

"Double FCO success at IND awards", referring to the immigration and nationality directorate.

What was the award? The FCO's global migration team collected it on behalf of the FCO. A member of the team is quoted as saying

"The team has worked hard", and

"it's great to see the two departments working together so closely . . . but we're just a small part of a big network of FCO desks and posts".

The report says

"Country action plans"

—which is what the award was for—

"focus on the countries where the greatest numbers of asylum seekers originate, and where systematic HO/FCO co-operation is needed to reduce the number of applicants with no grounds for asylum . . . The plans have helped secure agreements with several countries including Afghanistan, China and Zimbabwe."

I am sure that the FCO is very proud to have received an award for sending back asylum seekers and doing a deal with Mugabe. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain exactly what deal, if any, has been done.

I want to refer to one or two asylum cases that have been mentioned in various newspapers. I think that the media have been particularly good in raising some of them. There is the case of Crispen Kulinji, who I know for a fact is an MDC activist. I know that he was tortured. I talked to him with Morgan Tsvangirai last week in Zimbabwe. The MDC has sent clear messages to our Government explaining the position and asking for him not to be deported, and he had been dealt with by our supposedly independent and fair immigration system. Nevertheless, he was to be sent back on Saturday night. That is why I told the Home Secretary today that I did not have much confidence in the independent appeal tribunal. People were not given the right legal advice in many cases. Often, once in the fast track, they had little chance.

Many Zimbabweans here who are genuine asylum seekers had to leave Zimbabwe without their passports. Crispen's passport was taken from him. He then went to South Africa. It should be remembered that some Zimbabweans do not feel particularly safe in South Africa. It is not always a safe country for Zimbabweans because of the way in which Zimbabwean Government agents work there. We have a close link with Zimbabwe, and a special responsibility for what is happening there. If Zimbabweans have a link with Britain, they will obtain passports by other means. Crispen obtained a Malawi passport. Although the Foreign Office knew that he was not from Malawi, it was intent on sending him back there. The Malawians immediately did what they had done with other asylum seekers. They said "This person is not Malawian. He must go straight back to Harare." The Foreign Office did not even have the decency to send him back to Harare; it let someone else do the dirty work by sending him to Malawi first.

The same thing is happening to a great many asylum seekers who are in the detention centres. More than 50 have been on hunger strike since last Wednesday. Many are becoming weaker, although they are taking water. Next weekend the G8 nations meet at Gleneagles to begin their conference. Does the Minister really want asylum seekers in our detention centres to be literally near to death as we discuss poverty in Africa? What message does that send to the world about the kind of country we are, and how we can possibly do what we are doing? Crispen is keen not to be the one who is always picked out, because they all work and speak together. It is clear that there are many asylum seekers who are at risk of being sent back.

I heard on the rumour mill today that the Home Office had decided that it must be careful because the G8 summit was coming up. It does not want to change policy and go back to the pre-November policy, when there was a moratorium. The situation was okay until November. Nobody was being sent back, but suddenly, the policy changed. However, immigration officials have apparently been told this evening that there is a freeze on sending anyone back, to avoid the possibility of the public's becoming aware of such incidents in the next few days. Yet once the G8 is over and everyone attending it has gone home, we will simply return to the policy of speeding up the process of sending people back. I appreciate that the Minister responding to the debate is from the Foreign Office and not the Home Office, but according to the Home Secretary today, everybody is working closely together on this issue. The Minister will therefore doubtless be able to say whether there is any truth in what I have said, and to explain how the situation will be handled.

The Home Secretary keeps saying that he has received no substantiated evidence of people who have been sent back then being tortured or ill-treated in any way. However, there is a lot of such evidence, all of which is being passed on. Unfortunately, the Home Office tends to lose some very important documents. Indeed, Home Office immigration officials have even gone to the Zimbabwean high commission—I should say the Zimbabwean embassy, as the country is no longer in the Commonwealth—to get information on such people. Their names are well known, therefore, when they are put back on the plane. Anyone travelling back to Harare from this country who has been in detention is immediately suspected as being anti-Mugabe. On all such occasions, the Central Intelligence Organisation meets them at the airport. Just last week, someone who was sent back was immediately questioned and his home was visited. The situation was handled very aggressively, and at the first opportunity he managed to get over the border into South Africa. Such is the fear of many of these people.

It beggars belief that the Home Office goes on about wanting evidence. How does it expect us to get it? Zimbabwe is in chaos, and many of these people have nowhere to return to because they come from demolished areas and their families have been displaced. I do not know what our offices in Harare are doing, but I cannot imagine that our ambassador—he was on holiday when I was there, but I did see his deputy—and his colleagues are looking for any evidence. It might be possible to obtain such evidence in some countries, but given the chaos in Zimbabwe and the state machinery's control of absolutely everything, it is almost impossible to obtain the proof that the Home Secretary wants. However, I hope that he will listen and take account of the various types of evidence that we will provide.