Zimbabwe: Asylum Seekers - Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 13th February 2019.

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Asked by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the human rights violations in Zimbabwe and on what grounds do they consider it safe to proceed with the deportation of asylum seekers of that country.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

My Lords, the UK continues to call for the Government of Zimbabwe to uphold the rule of law and human rights and promote free and fair elections, under the protection of the 2013 constitution and international human rights law. The Home Office seeks to return only those whose asylum claim has been unsuccessful. They are, by definition, not at risk on return. All protection claims from Zimbabwean nationals are carefully considered on their individual merits in accordance with our international obligations.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing)

My Lords, the Government themselves have expressed serious concerns about the situation in Zimbabwe, as have Amnesty International and other NGOs and charities. There are reports of oppression of activists and allegations of beatings, rapes and killings. In light of this, how have the Government deemed it safe to return asylum seekers to that country?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

The noble Lord is absolutely right that the Government have expressed serious concerns and we continue to call for the Government of Zimbabwe to uphold the rule of law and human rights and promote free and fair elections under that protection of the constitution and international human rights law. I reiterate that when we return somebody to their country of origin, we seek to do so only when we and the courts have considered it safe.

Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission has reported that not only did the police and military target members of the MDC, the opposition party, and civil society organisations, their offices were broken into and their membership files downloaded. Subsequently, beatings were carried out and arrests made late at night. What assessment have the Government made of this escalation in premeditated human rights abuses, particularly—as the noble Lord mentioned—in regard to factoring in opposition party membership when assessing asylum seekers’ claims in this country?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

The noble Lord has hit on something that the Government acknowledge—there are risks to certain people who oppose the ruling ZANU-PF Government. That does not extend to all people, but when determining an asylum claim, all things are taken into consideration and no one will be returned if it is not safe to return them.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many Zimbabweans there are in the United Kingdom who might be subjected to deportation? Given what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord Kennedy, about the continuing arrests, abductions, torture and beatings—and the serious concerns expressed not just in the UK, but around the world—would it not be prudent in the meantime to suspend deportations until those issues have been more thoroughly considered?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I do not know how many Zimbabweans are in the UK—I presume he means Zimbabweans who are seeking asylum in the UK. I do not have that figure. Torture, beatings and other alleged human rights abuses are all taken into consideration by the Government when an asylum claim is made, and no one will be sent back to face human rights abuses in the country of return.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Conservative

My Lords, I have both presented and defended on asylum cases as a lawyer and would be grateful if my noble friend could explain how the country brief in relation to individual countries—specifically in relation to Zimbabwe on this occasion—is put together. How accurate and up to date is that information, and which human rights organisations do the Government liaise with in ensuring that the country brief is reflective of the situation on the ground?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

My Lords, my noble friend asks a relevant question, but we do not take a country-based decision in looking at asylum claims. We look at the individual claim, depending on what it might be for, and then take a view on whether it is safe to return that person.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords, given the current climate in Zimbabwe, which is a human rights-free zone, and with President Mnangagwa and his military henchmen cracking down on individual freedom and particularly the opposition, nobody should be deported, especially when families are protesting about the desperate situation they will probably face. Surely the Minister accepts that.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I certainly accept the noble Lord’s point that Zimbabwe is violating human rights conventions, but civil unrest—in and of itself—is not a reason to grant somebody protection. There are certain issues within that civil unrest—for example if someone is opposing the current regime and might be at risk, that would be taken into consideration.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Foreign Office issues guidance about countries which are not safe for us to travel to, yet there are people deported to countries which we have been advised that we should not visit?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I am aware that FCO guidance advises UK nationals if it is not a good idea to visit somewhere, particularly if there are areas of civil unrest. However, civil unrest, in and of itself, is not a reason to grant an asylum claim.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, given that the Minister accepts there are serious human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, what steps does her department take in individual cases to ensure that people will not be subjected to those abuses if they are returned to the country? Lawyers quoted in the Guardian today are very worried that they will be.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

As I have said before in this House, asylum claims are thoroughly assessed. They have various levels of scrutiny as they proceed through the system. One of the main things in returning someone to a country is to ensure they would not be subjected to human rights abuses should they return.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers

My Lords, when did the Minister last look at in-country reports, particularly those produced by Amnesty International? How have they affected the decision-making process in the Home Office on asylum applications?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

On looking at in-country briefs, clearly my department is not the FCO but I am aware of some of the information and advice that the FCO gives to people going to certain countries. To go to an area in Zimbabwe experiencing civil unrest might not be a great idea. The Home Office is aware of certain things, but clearly my colleagues in the Foreign Office would be more sighted on that.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

Does the Minister draw a distinction between civil unrest and civil repression?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

Both might go on. I am not trying to say at this Dispatch Box that the situation in Zimbabwe is in any way ideal. It is not. The Government have made representations through our embassy in Harare on the situation in Zimbabwe. I am not trying to pretend that the situation is in any way ideal.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

The Minister has repeatedly said that the Home Office looks at the circumstances of the individual case in deciding whether to return a person to Zimbabwe, but surely it must have a policy as to whether it is safe to return to Zimbabwe a person who is an active opponent of the regime there.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development)

I cited that as the one example, whereby someone who opposed ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe might be at risk if they were returned to that country.