HARARE – Zimbabwe’s main opposition MDC Alliance on Thursday urged the United Kingdom to halt the deportation of failed asylum seekers, warning that human rights abuses are “increasing” under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
A charter plane was due to land in Harare at about 10AM on Thursday with 14 Zimbabweans, marking the first removals from the UK in over 15 years.
The UK had hoped to deport around 50 people on this flight, but only a third of the passengers boarded the charter from Stansted Airport following legal challenges and a Covid-19 outbreak which forced dozens of escorts to self-isolate.
Seventy-five UK MPs signed a letter drafted by the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe, raising concerns about what they say is a deteriorating political and human rights situation in the country.
In a letter to the Home Secretary Priti Patel, they wrote: “The Zimbabwe government is systematically oppressing its political opponents, denying freedom of speech and committing gross human rights violations.”
MDC Alliance vice president Tendai Biti on Thursday urged the UK to reconsider its policy.
“The deportation of compatriots from the UK is sad and regrettable,” Biti said. “Zimbabwe remains an extremely fragile and vulnerable space. Political attrition and human rights abuses are increasing. There is Covid-19, an economic meltdown and increased poverty. We appeal to authorities to revisit their decision.”
The UK Home Office says that many of the 150 Zimbabweans held in detention centres awaiting removal had committed serious crimes like murder and rape, but lawyers for some of the detainees say they committed less serious offences such as driving offences or working with false documents.
Home Office officials confirmed on Tuesday evening that there is an outbreak of Covid-19 at Brook House near Gatwick. Some of the Zimbabweans at that detention centre due to be deported could not be removed owing to the outbreak.
Hours before the flight was due to take off, two detainees due to board it threw themselves from a second-floor landing at Colnbrook immigration removal centre on to netting below. They are believed to have been unharmed and were not removed.
There were also multiple legal challenges due to concerns about the safety of returnees in Zimbabwe, which has a poor human rights record. Some of those earmarked for return have spent decades in the UK, have families and were politically active.
An emergency out-of-hours High Court challenge by Duncan Lewis Solicitors to halt the whole flight did not succeed. However, the judge, Justice Steyn, accepted that anyone on the flight given face-to-face interviews with Zimbabwean officials before being issued with an emergency travel document required to enter Zimbabwe could be at risk on return.
She granted an order preventing the individual who brought the case from boarding the flight, but left it to others on the flight to make their own individual applications. By the time news of the High Court order was made public, it was not possible to communicate it to all of those who may have been able to benefit from it as they were enroute to the flight with their phones confiscated.
Bella Sankey, director of the charity Detention Action, said: “The High Court’s landmark intervention rightly recognises the real risk of appalling human rights violations when the Home Office allows the Zimbabwean government to question those it seeks to expel. But how horrifying that others subjected to the same practice may have been loaded on to the plane, unable to hear about this judgment or use the precedent to prevent their own removal.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Foreign criminals who abuse our hospitality should be in no doubt of our determination to deport them. Any foreign national who is convicted of a crime and given a prison sentence is considered for deportation at the earliest opportunity.”