asked Her Majesty's Government:
What steps are being taken to end the hunger strike of failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe.
My Lords, we are unable to force people to eat or drink, as this would be against their wishes and would be classed as an assault. However, we are closely monitoring anyone refusing food to ensure that they receive all appropriate medical care.
My Lords, I am very disappointed by the Minister's response. She will recall that on Monday, in response to the Statement that she repeated on Monday, 13 people spoke in this Chamber. Everyone deplored the Government's deportation to Zimbabwe policy. Do the Government listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the Refugee Council and numerous other organisations, all of whom are totally out of tune with, and wholeheartedly disapprove of, the Government's policy of deportation?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we do listen. Indeed, the concern that has been expressed by many noble Lords, as I have said many times from this Dispatch Box, as has the Leader of the House, is shared by this House. But we have to remember that the tragedy is that it is not just Zimbabwe that finds itself in difficulties—other countries do, too, including Algeria, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, Burma and Afghanistan. All of those countries are in very tense and difficult situations, and the Government of this country have come to the conclusion that, when determining whether we should give asylum, we should look at the individual and make an assessment in relation to that individual's needs.
My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that the facts of torture and ill-treatment, especially of political opponents in Zimbabwe, are now well documented and that to return asylum seekers in this context is an infringement of international treaties that govern human rights?
My Lords, of course I accept that it would not be justified to return people who fall within the 1951 convention or in cases where the European Convention on Human Rights applies. We do not do so. We will not be removing anyone who would face persecution on return to Zimbabwe. Members of the opposition in Zimbabwe who establish that they have engaged in activities that will cause them to be persecuted by the Zimbabwean Government will have established that they have a well founded fear of persecution and will be in a position to make application and be granted asylum, so the question of their removal does not arise. I emphasise that the only people who will be removed will be those who do not have a well founded fear of persecution and therefore do not need international protection.
My Lords, I appreciate that the Government are in a very difficult position and that it must be very difficult to defend. Did the Minister see the story in the Times yesterday that after our exchanges on Monday there appears to have been a change of policy and there is some kind of unofficial moratorium on sending anyone back to Zimbabwe for the time being? Is that the position, or are people still being sent back? Has the Home Office had a chance to catch up with the Foreign Office's new assessment, made in the last week or so, that the situation has become very much more dangerous? If people are being sent back, are they just those who are not members of the opposition, but supporters of Mugabe? Does the Home Office think that even they will get anything other than short shrift in the light of Mugabe's accusation that everyone sent back is a British spy?
My Lords, I reiterate what I have already said. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, knows very well that each and every application goes through a judicial process of review, appeal and re-review. Before any person is returned, consideration is given to the circumstances of that return. We will continue to do that on an individual basis. I reassure the noble Lord that the Home Office and the Foreign Office are working very closely indeed on this matter. It is for my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to determine on a country basis whether return is appropriate. That will then be conveyed to the Home Office and we work together on that issue. There is no division on it, and I can assure noble Lords that the Foreign Office and the Home Office are in constant contact.
My Lords, there has already been a Labour question. Is the Minister aware that there is real concern about the administration of the Home Office in these individual cases? I wrote to the Home Secretary a month ago, following representation from Cardinal O'Brien about a Zimbabwean held in Scotland who was being deported on the grounds that there was no evidence that he had been tortured, despite the fact that he was branded with a swastika. The only reply I have received is a postcard acknowledgement more than a month later, addressing me as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, which I left two years ago, at the House of Commons, which I left eight years ago. If the Home Office makes such elementary mistakes dealing with a Member of this House, how can we have any confidence that it deals properly with these individual serious cases?
My Lords, your Lordships have confidence because the judicial system in this country is still sound.
My Lords, my noble friend has stressed that the position of the individual is taken very much into account. I am sure that is done conscientiously. Is there not a problem that the exercise of power is so arbitrary and the situation so volatile that it is very difficult to make a certain decision about the well-being of a particular individual in a situation which can change overnight?
My Lords, of course that issue is of concern. I say again that if one looks at many of the countries that I mentioned earlier—for instance, if we think about the dreadful occurrence in the Congo—the same issue can be raised in relation to other circumstances. All I can do is to reassure noble Lords that the process through which these applications are put is robust. Such applications go through layer after layer. Those procedures will continue and we shall continue to monitor the situation and keep it under constant review.