I am pleased that this topic has been selected for debate so soon, because it is of outstanding importance. I had better hurry, because I believe that there will be a Division in the House at some stage. [Interruption.] In fact, here we go—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I was saying, I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting this debate on a matter that is of fantastic importance. What seems to have happened is that a nightmare in Zimbabwe has produced administrative and moral chaos in the Home Office. Letters have been sent to people threatening them with deportation when they cannot possibly mean that. We have in this country hundreds of thousands of illegal people, about whom the Government seem to know nothing and can do nothing. People from Zimbabwe who should not be here are allowed to stay, and people who have 100 per cent. British ancestry are being denied any right to stay here. They are being sent back to a country that has descended into tyranny and lawlessness, and from which they have severed all links.
As I hope the Minister knows, this debate arises from a letter written to me by one of her colleagues, in which he confirms that the brother of one of my constituents, Natasha Samways, of Goring on Thames, must return to Zimbabwe. He is called Mark Coleman, he is 28 years old, able-bodied, law-abiding and willing to work, but he is prevented from doing so because he is a failed asylum seeker. The letter that the Minister’s colleague sent to me concludes:
“In all circumstances we prefer that those with no basis to stay leave voluntarily, but should Mr. Coleman refuse to do so then his removal may be enforced.”
That seems to be a threat. We gather from the letter that if Mr. Coleman fails to leave, the intention of the British state is that he may be arrested, taken to an airport and returned to Zimbabwe by force.
Mr. Coleman is not alone in receiving that message about what the British state intends to do to people in his position. The Home Office has placed advertisements in The Zimbabwean, a London newspaper much read by the expatriate community, saying exactly this: “If you don’t have the right to stay, then you will be deported.” Before we turn to what the Home Office might mean by that threat, let us consider, without being too histrionic or dramatic, the fate that awaits people such as Mr. Coleman, and hundreds of others who find themselves in positions like his or even worse.
There is nothing left for Mr. Coleman in Zimbabwe. It is not only a murderous tyranny where journalists and opponents of the regime are arrested, beaten and jailed, as the Home Office immigration guidelines amply attest, but an economic disaster area. Thanks to Mugabe’s catastrophic policies, the Zimbabweans have inflation running at 1,218 per cent., and shortages of bread, medicines and other essentials, not to speak of an AIDS rate at 25 per cent. of the population. It is no wonder that Mr. Coleman’s immediate family have been forced to abandon their furniture manufacturing business and flee to Costa Rica. He had some more distant relatives, cousins who were farmers, but they, too, have been forced to flee. Thanks to Mugabe’s insane and arguably racist policies, they have been deprived of their land, with appalling consequences not only for white farmers like them, but for many black farmers and their employees.
I remember seeing the devastation in 2004 when I went to Zimbabwe with the indomitable Peta Thornycroft of The Daily Telegraph, one of the last foreign journalists still sending dispatches from Zimbabwe. I went to a farm outside Harare, and I remember interviewing an old couple as they were besieged by thugs from ZANU-PF. It was deeply moving talking to that elderly couple and seeing the old boy go to his cabinet where he kept treasured family heirlooms and things that connected his family with their roots in Essex. He brought out not just the medals that his father had won fighting for the British Crown, but his own British passport, which he held by virtue of being born in the British empire. He was very old by then; he died shortly afterwards and the farm was stolen. His children then died in tragic circumstances, too, and I remember his bewilderment at Her Majesty’s Government doing nothing to protect Her Majesty’s subjects, of whom he thought himself one.
I think that the Minister would agree that, when all is said and done, we stood by when Mugabe launched those pogroms. We did nothing. We allowed him to take away the livelihoods of thousands of farmers, including many British subjects and their descendants. Having stood by in such a way, I think it is extraordinary that we are telling the descendants of people who were driven out of their farms that they must now go back to Zimbabwe, when those farms have been ruined and stolen. It is a complete disgrace, and to use a phrase that the Prime Minister has used about our relations with Africa, it is a scar on the conscience of the Government. It is an act of apathy and betrayal that stands in ghastly contrast to our deluded intervention in Iraq—a country richly endowed with oil, although not, of course, with British farmers and their descendants.
I do not want the Minister or anybody to run away with the impression that this is purely about white farmers. Although they face persecution, all opponents of the Mugabe regime have faced persecution. Indeed, it is possible to argue—I am sure that the Home Office would make this case—that a returning white Zimbabwean might well be in huge danger, but he might be in less danger than other opponents of the Mugabe regime returning to Harare. There is clear evidence, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, that when Zimbabweans return to Harare airport, they face intimidation, abuse and even torture and jail. Of the 200 failed asylum seekers who were forcibly returned between November 2004 and July 2005, we know the identity and fates of about 20.
In several cases, there is evidence, which I think the Government accept, that there was torture. At least four individuals left Gatwick never to be heard of again and several ended up in the notorious and disease-infested Chikurubi jail. It is a measure of the seriousness with which the Government take human rights problems in Zimbabwe that of the 18,000 people from Zimbabwe who have applied for asylum in this country since 2000, between a third and a quarter have been accepted. Those who have been rejected have mainly vanished into the undergrowth and started to work illegally, but in pursuance of their targets and their desire to return failed asylum seekers, the Government have tried to repatriate some by force.
I should stress at this point that that is not always the wrong thing to do. I do not want the Minister to think that I am against repatriating anybody to Zimbabwe, because it is right that we should keep out, for instance, people from the ZANU-PF elite. It is crazy and disgusting that Mugabe can still go around the world, have his hand shaken by the now Leader of the House and go on shopping trips in western capitals.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the only people who can afford to come to this country legally from Zimbabwe tend to be people who are linked to the corrupt regime that runs that country? Because of the state of the economy, they tend to be the only people who can afford, through the strict rules we apply through our high commission, to apply for their student visa, work visa or whatever. The legitimate people who we want to come here simply cannot afford to.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people who are likely to come here will have access to considerable funds and are far more likely, therefore, to be linked to the regime. We have to do more to keep them out and discriminate against them. However, there will be people who face a real risk of persecution when they get back and it is quite rightly against British law to send them back in such circumstances. The difficulty with forced deportations to Zimbabwe—it is a very difficult problem—is that too often there have been reports of abuse.
On 18 October 2005, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal found that the procedures in place for enforced returnees at Harare airport exposed them to a real risk of ill-treatment at the hands of the CIO—the Central Intelligence Organisation—which is a secret police far more brutal and corrupt that the Securitate or the Stasi. The Government stopped forcible repatriation after that ruling, but they then contested the ruling and appealed against it. We are now awaiting the outcome of the Government’s appeal against the Asylum and Immigration and Tribunal ruling that asylum seekers cannot be forcibly sent back to Zimbabwe.
The AIT ruling still stands, and the Government have not yet come up with a better way back into Zimbabwe than via Harare airport, which is a problem. What will happen if the CIO spots people coming in, intercepts them there and subjects them to abuse? Can the Minister explain, in the name of all that is holy, why her colleague is sending out letters to people saying that they may be forcibly repatriated in circumstances in which the AIT has said that that must not happen? I would like to know how that is legally possible. When the Government say that
“his removal may be enforced”
in the letter I have here, dated October 2005, do they mean, “It may be enforced if we in the Home Office get our way in the courts.”? Is that what the Minister’s colleague means? If so, why does he not say so in the letter? Why does he not say to the person who is the subject of this deportation order—it seems to be an order—that it may be enforced subject to the winning of the case?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems, perversely, that the Government have it in for people from Zimbabwe? Last year, we had the bizarre experience of people legitimately coming to this country through the ancestral visa route and having their papers held up, sometimes for well over a year. They were not able to travel back to Harare to bury dead relatives. Many of us in the House came across this unbelievably cruel situation when people came to our surgeries saying, “What have we done? We are being persecuted in this country. We have come here under an established ancestral visa route and the Government are holding us on the basis of some fraud that was never proved.”
My hon. Friend is absolutely right again, and I congratulate him on the work that he has done on behalf of his constituents in securing their right to ancestral visas. I shall come to that point in a moment, but while the Minister consults her civil servants—quite rightly, in order that she may avail herself of the answer—I want to ram home this question: what did her colleague mean by his letter?
If I understand the position—and surely it must be true—the Government could well lose the case in the Court of Appeal, in which case, unless I miss my guess, a removal from this country might not be enforced. Or was the Minister involved saying that a removal could be enforced even if the Government lose the case? Is that what the Government are saying? Are they going to ride roughshod over the Court of Appeal? I would be very interested to know. Would it not be more honest to say that Mr. Coleman’s removal may or may not be enforced, depending on the outcome of the AA case before the Court of Appeal, and to add, “If we lose, we do not have a clue what we are going to do.”? That would be a more honest approach.
I cannot remember when I started, Mr. Cook. Did we start at 5 pm?
I am grateful for that, Mr. Cook. I shall rattle through my final point to give the Minister plenty of time to reply.
Even if it were right to send Mr. Coleman back—this is the point on which I hope to concentrate the Minister’s mind—against the clear finding of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal that forcible returnees can face torture, abuse and persecution, and to say that no account whatever should be taken of his legitimate fears about what would happen to him upon his return, there is another reason why we should look with favour on his case. That reason is the saddest and most difficult part of his case, but it could be easily rectified, because it affects such a tiny number of people. I know that hard cases make bad law, but I cannot believe that there are many people in exactly the same position as the brother of my constituent—that is to say, Mr. Coleman.
I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to read some of the media coverage of the case.
It is clear that the Minister will know what I am about to say. As has been widely documented, Mr. Coleman is of British ancestry. He has four British grandparents, yet he cannot claim an ancestral visa because all four grandparents were born in what was the British empire—three in India and one in South Africa. To give a flavour of their contribution to Britain and the British empire, I shall read out what Mr. Coleman’s sister wrote to me about her family history:
“Our father was born in the British Colony of Southern Rhodesia, while our paternal grandfather, a British citizen, holding a British passport, served the Crown in Southern Rhodesia during the Second World War. Our paternal great grandfather was commissioned by Queen Victoria as a surgeon and retired as a Lt. Colonel in India….our mother who was an Innes Pocock can trace her British ancestry back to 1160. Our mother was born in India in 1942, after our maternal grandmother was evacuated from Singapore when the Japanese landed. Our mother’s birth was registered with the British Consul in Bangalore. Her father, and our maternal grandfather, Eric Innes Pocock was born in British India, and his birth registered with the British Consul. His birth certificate clearly states that he was born of British parents, in British India and therefore a British subject by birth.”
They were people who served the British empire and the Crown. The truly extraordinary feature of Mr. Coleman’s antecedents is that all eight of his great grandparents were British, yet strangely, he does not qualify for British nationality or British citizenship.
As we look at the sweep of history and what has happened regarding Britain’s relations with Africa and the people whom we sent out to colonise Africa over the past 100 years, it should be possible to reflect the extraordinary circumstances that have left Mr. Coleman washed up on the beach, as it were, as the tide of empire has withdrawn. As the tide of Britain’s involvement with Africa has gone out, we have ceased to look after such people. We quite rightly supported majority rule, but then we did absolutely nothing to protect British interests and British farmers and their livelihoods when they were taken away by Mugabe. It seems extraordinary and very hard hearted that we can do nothing at this stage to protect someone who must be in a tiny minority. Mr. Coleman has a much more organic claim to British citizenship than many people who are here legally or illegally. I wonder whether the Minister can find it in her to discover some means of granting Mr. Coleman—through some compassionate device, which is surely available to her—the ancestral visa that he surely deserves, so that he can settle in this country, work and be a part of the economy, which is all that he desires to be.
I am grateful for this opportunity to explain the Government’s position in relation to both the case to which the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) referred and the situation on returns to Zimbabwe more generally. I congratulate him on securing this debate. It is clear from his presentation of his case that he feels genuinely and deeply about the matter. I assure him on behalf of the Government that we feel strongly about the situation in Zimbabwe, too, as I hope will become clear from my remarks.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the case to which he referred in this debate, but the position was set out in a letter that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality sent to him on 15 November 2006. His comments on that letter will be a matter for the record. I realise that he may be disappointed that I cannot comment on the individual case that he has put forward so strongly, but I am sure that he was aware that that would be the situation.
With regard to the question of UK ancestry, one of the aims of the British Nationality Act 1981 and related legislation is to restrict eligibility for British citizenship—and thus for the right of abode in the United Kingdom—to persons born in, or otherwise closely connected with, the United Kingdom or one of the current British overseas territories. The legislation therefore makes a basic distinction between citizens by descent, who cannot normally transmit their citizenship to a further generation born outside British territory, and other citizens, who can.
We of course recognise that some families have a tradition of service overseas that spans several generations. British citizens who work abroad in that way make a valued contribution to the United Kingdom’s economy and international standing. It would be unfair if the children of one family member who happened to be born abroad when his or her parents were temporarily overseas were permanently excluded from British citizenship. The legislation accordingly makes a number of exceptions to the general rule that citizenship cannot be transmitted to a second generation born abroad. One such exception relates to British citizens who are in Crown or similar service that has been designated as such by the Home Secretary at the time of their child’s birth. Another exception concerns those in the service of a European Community institution at the relevant time.
Where neither of those statutory exceptions applies, the second generation born abroad will be entitled to registration as British citizens if either the British citizen parent has previously resided in the United Kingdom for any continuous period of three years, or the family returns to the United Kingdom and remains here for at least three years after the child’s birth. Registration is subject to an application being made within certain time limits. Further provision is made by the 1981 Act for such issues as the avoidance of statelessness.
The immigration rules provide for Zimbabweans with a UK-born grandparent to be granted entry clearance under the UK ancestry route of entry, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. That allows them to live and to work in the UK for five years, after which they can apply for settlement. However, we do not allow switching into that category; if someone wished to make an application for entry clearance in that category, he or she would need to return to Zimbabwe and apply for entry clearance from there.
On the more general question of enforced removals to Zimbabwe, on 15 and 16 January this year, as hon. Members may be aware, the Court of Appeal heard the case of a Zimbabwean failed asylum seeker known as AA. It was the latest stage in protracted litigation, at the heart of which is the question whether a Zimbabwean who has claimed asylum in the UK and whose claim is refused would, if forcibly returned to Zimbabwe, be singled out as a failed asylum seeker and be at real risk of mistreatment by the Zimbabwean authorities on those grounds.
In a moment, time allowing, I will set out some background on the issues in that particular case, but first I should like to explain that the Government’s position on the question of enforcing the return of failed asylum seekers and other immigration offenders to Zimbabwe is that it is solely about operating a robust and fair immigration system for the UK. It is a domestic issue. Our deep concern about the political crisis in Zimbabwe, and the economic crisis that it has generated, remains undiminished.
The Zimbabwean economy continues to be grossly mismanaged, leading to substantial outflows of people seeking opportunities in Britain and elsewhere. In particular, we categorically condemn the appalling human rights abuses perpetrated on those who actively oppose the regime. We continue to work with international partners to press for an end to such abuses, for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, and for a full set of economic and fiscal reforms. We work closely with our European Union and other international partners to address the issues. It is not correct to say, as the hon. Gentleman did, that we stand by and do nothing. I absolutely refute that assertion. We have taken action through European Union sanctions, the travel ban and isolating the Mugabe regime. However, we want to be careful about sanctions because we do not want ordinary Zimbabwean people to suffer any more under the regime than they are already.
I ask the Minister two quick questions. Is she in favour of having a look at the rules, so that if someone had eight great-grandparents who were born in this country, they might be entitled to an ancestral visa? A tiny number of people would be caught in that category, and doing that would be one way to help people such as Mr. Coleman.
Secondly, can the Minister explain why, given that the Court of Appeal has yet to rule on the question, her Department is sending out letters saying that people may be ordered back to Zimbabwe?
No, I am not willing to look at those rules. I looked at them before I came to answer this debate; that is why I referred to the 1981 Act. I am satisfied that the rules are appropriate and should stand.
On the background, about which I think the hon. Gentleman is asking, on 18 October 2005 the independent Asylum and Immigration Tribunal held that the particular way in which we were enforcing returns of unsuccessful Zimbabwean asylum seekers from the United Kingdom to Harare airport put them at risk of mistreatment. On 16 November 2005, the AIT issued a further determination in which it concluded that the effect of the 18 October determination was that any Zimbabwean citizen who would not return to the country willingly was a refugee.
We appealed those findings, and the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment on our appeal on 12 April 2006. It found that, in the earlier case, the AIT had erred in its approach to the evidence before it in finding that the particular way we were enforcing returns of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers to Harare airport put them at risk of mistreatment. The Court of Appeal also found that a person who can safely return to their country of origin voluntarily is not a refugee. The Court of Appeal therefore set aside the original determination and asked the AIT to look at the matter anew.
A panel consisting of the AIT president and two senior immigration judges reconsidered the case on 3 to 7 July 2006 and issued a fresh determination on 2 August. The AIT found that the evidence did not establish that failed asylum seekers would be at real risk of mistreatment on return simply by virtue of an unsuccessful asylum application. That applies to enforced returnees, as well as to those who return voluntarily.
AA, in turn, appealed the AIT’s August 2006 determination on a number of grounds, the essence of which was that it has again misunderstood or misinterpreted the evidence. The Court of Appeal heard that appeal on 15 to 16 January, and we await its judgment. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details at issue in advance of the Court of Appeal’s judgment, but that does not prevent me from reiterating the Government’s commitment to providing protection to those who genuinely need it. We know that the Zimbabwean authorities are capable of persecuting those who oppose them or those whom they perceive to be a threat—
It being twenty-six minutes past Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.