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Zimbabwean Asylum Seekers

Volume 485: debated on Monday 15 December 2008

The UK Border Agency only detains Zimbabwean nationals who have committed crimes within the United Kingdom, who are subject to deportation action, and who have been assessed as unsuitable for release owing to their being a threat to the public and/or likely to abscond. Anyone detained under immigration powers has his or her detention regularly reviewed, and can apply for release on bail to the independent Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.

As I am sure all Members know, according to reports from Zimbabwe, the situation is worse than ever, with oppression, political violence, beatings as an everyday occurrence, corruption and, now, the added plight of those affected by the cholera epidemic. In the light of the tribunal’s decision two weeks ago—or, rather, the Government’s response that they would not challenge it—will the Minister tell me what will happen to the other 7,500 cases? Have those people some hope now, and will he examine their situation again?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I think that the whole House will share his sentiments about the situation in Zimbabwe. He referred to the country court judgment. It states that each case can be considered individually, and indeed that must be done. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, not all those presenting themselves as Zimbabwean turn out to be Zimbabwean on examination. That is why we must examine each case properly, within the rules.

In the light of the recent judgment on an Eritrean asylum seeker, will my hon. Friend consider the position of Zimbabweans and others who cannot be returned at this moment but who are not allowed to work?

I hear what my hon. Friend says. When someone cannot be returned through no fault of his or her own, having exhausted all appeal rights, it is our policy for that person to receive section 4 support from the United Kingdom Government. The overall number of people with whom we are having to deal has fallen, but that support is there.

What additional steps has the Minister taken in case the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates dramatically and he is faced with a massive number of people trying to get into this country? What are the Government doing about that?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. There are also British nationals in Zimbabwe, and there is the ever-present danger of more people trying to get into our country illegally. That is why, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates, we review all the procedures not just in that part of the world, but in other countries and other circumstances.

The Minister said in response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) that Zimbabweans who are here and who it is intended will return but cannot currently be returned are eligible for section 4 support. However, the case to which the Minister referred suggested that, in respect of Eritrea, where people cannot be returned and have no source of support, they should be allowed to earn their own support. When will the Minister allow trapped Zimbabweans to work to earn the money to get themselves and their families a decent Christmas?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her points on this important matter. The case to which she refers concerned a gentleman from Eritrea, and the judgment in that case was very specific, looking at the amount of time that had been spent in this country. Having said that, it is not the Government’s policy to provide for blanket exceptions for the good reason that we must look at each case on its merits.

The Minister knows that there is a widespread view held by Members in all parts of the House—it is not a party view—that it is nonsense to require people who cannot go back, and who are qualified and could be further qualified, not to work while they are here when that will not lead to any permanent right to be here, but will give them a chance to improve their skills. Will the Minister be straightforward with the House and confirm that the Government are reviewing this matter, and will he tell us when the review will be concluded and whether he will make the intelligent, sympathetic and widely welcome decision to change the policy?

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his points on this important topic. I am not sure whether he was talking specifically about Zimbabwe or in general, but on the general point we think it is right to look at each case on its merits. Those who argue for a general blanket amnesty—I accept that the hon. Gentleman is not asking for that—have to accept that it can be self-defeating as we have seen in other European Union countries, and that it can, in fact, bring about more misery and hardship and, of course, more profit for the people traffickers.

I sympathise with the Minister on the difficulties facing him, but he must concentrate on the issue of the Zimbabweans who are already in this country. The facts are that there are already more than 10,000 people here, that they cannot be returned forcibly to Zimbabwe and that the Government are preventing them from working legally while they are in this limbo. Does the Minister really think this is either economically sensible or morally acceptable, or is he prepared to use destitution as an arm of his asylum policy?

Let me reassure the House that the Government do not use, and have no intention whatever of using, destitution as policy. Indeed, the Government have on occasion been criticised by Members on both sides of the House for providing support, particularly for those people who, as I said a moment ago, through no fault of their own cannot return to their own country but where it has been deemed that they should do so. However, I repeat the point I made to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that one has to strike a balance between providing proper support within the law and not having a policy that would make the situation worse. That point should be considered by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and his colleagues.