HL Deb 16 November 2004 vol 666 cc50-2WS
The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

In January 2002 my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced the temporary suspension of removals of failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe. This was in response to concerns at that time about the serious deterioration in the situation in Zimbabwe in the run-up to the presidential election held in March that year. We did not regard it as unsafe to return failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe, but in view of the turbulent political conditions we considered that it would be appropriate not to enforce returns at that time.

During the period of the suspension, asylum (and human rights) claims made by Zimbabwean nationals have continued to be considered on their individual merits in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Each application is considered against the background of the latest available country information from a wide range of reliable sources including international organisations, non-governmental organisations, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the media.

As with any other nationality, Zimbabweans who meet the definition of a refugee in the 1951 convention are granted asylum. If they do not qualify for asylum, but there are other circumstances that make them particularly vulnerable and engage our obligations under the ECHR, they are granted humanitarian protection or discretionary leave. If their application is refused, they have a right of appeal to the independent appellate authorities. In this way we ensure that we provide protection to those Zimbabweans who need it. But if an asylum and human rights claim by an individual of any nationality is refused, and any appeal to the independent appellate authorities is unsuccessful, that means that it would be safe for that particular individual to return to their country of origin.

It is clear that there are Zimbabweans in need of international protection from persecution. Our asylum system provides that and will continue to do so. We have continued throughout the period of the suspension of enforced returns to consider cases and grant asylum or other forms of protection to Zimbabweans where necessary. The latest asylum statistics published today show that at initial decision stage in the first nine months of this year we granted asylum to 195 Zimbabweans and some other form of protection to more than 25 others. But this was out of a total of 2,025 decisions, meaning that very nearly 90 per cent of claims were refused. 82 per cent of subsequent appeals to the independent adjudicator were dismissed or withdrawn. The clear message is that the majority of Zimbabwean asylum applicants are able safely to return to Zimbabwe. We expect these individuals to leave voluntarily, and significant numbers have done so, but if they do not leave voluntarily we consider it entirely proper to seek to enforce their removal as we would nationals of any other country.

While there has not been any improvement in conditions in Zimbabwe since enforced removal of failed asylum seekers was suspended, the proportion of claimants whose claims are not well founded has increased markedly over the period of the suspension. It is clear that the absence of enforced returns increasingly acts as a pull factor for Zimbabweans, and for others posing as Zimbabweans, who do not need international protection but none the less make asylum claims confident that even when unsuccessful they will not be forcibly removed. This is a misuse of the asylum system. We are therefore today bringing our policy on returns of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers into line with that on every other country and ending the temporary suspension of enforced returns of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers.

This change in asylum policy does not reflect any change in our categorical opposition to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. We will continue, bilaterally and with our international partners, to push the Government of Zimbabwe to end human rights abuses there and restore democracy, so that all Zimbabweans can in time return safely to help to build a prosperous and stable country. There is no doubt that political persecution, abuses of human rights and denial of basic freedoms persist in Zimbabwe and the asylum decision-making and appeal system will continue to ensure that Zimbabweans who face persecution and claim asylum in the UK will continue to receive the international protection they need.