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Zimbabwe: Human Rights

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 22 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they conducted an assessment of the political and human rights situation in Zimbabwe prior to the decision to deport Zimbabwean nationals to that country on 21 July; and if so, from whom they sought evidence when making that assessment.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in doing so, declare my interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Zimbabwe.

My Lords, assessment is made against the latest country of origin information and relevant case law. This is based on evidence from reliable sources; reputable media outlets; local, national and international organisations; human rights organisations; and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office information. Sources are included in the footnotes of the country policy and information notes published on GOV.UK.

My Lords, in a response from the Minister for Immigration Compliance to a letter from over 75 Peers and MPs, the Government sought to distract attention from the human rights situation in Zimbabwe by focusing on foreign national offenders. However, as the minutes of the meeting between the British Embassy in Harare and the Zimbabwean Government dated 30 June make clear, this is a PR tactic, and it was agreed at that meeting that Zimbabwean nationals who were not foreign national offenders could also be included on the 21 July flight.

Can the Minister clarify to the House whether it is the Home Office’s policy to deport only foreign national offenders to Zimbabwe, or does it intend that future flights will include those who are not FNOs? Can the Minister also tell the House how many deportation orders were originally issued for the removal of Zimbabwean nationals on 21 July and how many were subsequently found to be unlawful or were otherwise stayed by the courts?

I can confirm to the noble Lord that it is government policy to deport foreign national offenders who have received a custodial sentence of 12 months or more. We are not trying to distract from human rights issues. Regarding the flight that departed last night, 50 were due to be on it; 14 were returned and 44 submitted last-minute claims.

The Home Office has a poor record in relation to Covid-19 safety, having already been warned by the High Court about its approach to the asylum system in this regard. Following what happened at Napier barracks, what is the position at the Brook House immigration removal centre? Is it that there has been at least one confirmed positive Covid-19 case? Were any of those on the scheduled deportation flight to Zimbabwe, whom the Government said were all foreign national offenders, people who were awaiting a Covid-19 test result; had tested positive themselves; or should have been, or were, self-isolating for 10 days because they had come into contact with somebody with Covid-19?

My Lords, I can confirm to the noble Lord that public health guidance is adhered to on all removal flights. I will have to get further information on how many were from Brook House. The welfare of those detained in our care is of the utmost importance. We are working closely with our providers and PHE to stop the spread of the virus. That absolutely includes immigration removal centres.

My Lords, to come back to the assessment of the situation and consultation before decision to deport, in April, the US State Secretary, Antony J Blinken, assessed Zimbabwe as one of the worst countries abusing citizens’ rights, with state-sanctioned violence continuing a culture of impunity. Zimbabwe’s security forces acted with tacit support for President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Government, torturing human rights groups by brutal sexual assault and beating with clubs, cables, gun butts and heavy whips. Victims were forced to eat human excrement and drink poisonous chemicals, among other tortures. Victims included MDC Alliance members, Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri, who suffered 36 hours of sexual abuse and physical torture. Can the Minister confirm whether the US report was included in the Government’s human rights assessment? If not, why not? And what were the conclusions of the assessment?

What I can say to the noble Lord is that, back in 2018, the Government, with officials from the embassy in Zimbabwe, agreed to redocument Zimbabwean nationals without a right to remain in the UK, including foreign national offenders. Since we commenced that redocumentation in 2018, we have returned 50 people to Zimbabwe. While it is an FCDO priority country for human rights—the noble Lord is right—we have received no reports of human rights violations against those returned since the 2018 agreement.

My Lords, while I fully understand the rationale behind deporting serious foreign national offenders, what is the level of the seriousness of the crime? At a time when Zimbabwe is in the grips of a major Covid outbreak with very little spare capacity, what assessment was made of the timing of this deportation, and what assessment has been made of the planned patriot Bill, which will make it illegal for members of the Opposition to criticise the Government?

Well, the types of FNOs are those who received a custodial sentence of 12 months or more, subject to limited exceptions. The types of criminals on the flight yesterday included murderers, rapists, sexual offenders against children and drug suppliers. In terms of Covid, they receive PPE and other support when they return. I cannot remember the last point the noble Lord raised, but that is two of the three questions answered.

My Lords, last night, a High Court judge accepted that anyone on the deportation flight given face-to-face interviews with Zimbabwean officials before being granted an emergency travel document required to enter Zimbabwe could be at risk on return. The judge directed that the individual who brought the case be saved from boarding the flight, but by the time the news of that order was made public, others who may have been able to benefit from it had had their phones confiscated. Should the Government have put anyone on the flight who had been in such an interview, given the judge’s ruling? Does this not defy the international principle that non-refoulement? Can the Minister tell me, now or by letter, how many of the 14 individuals on the flight this applied to?

As the noble Baroness will not be surprised to know, I will not discuss individual cases. What I will say is that on that flight were murderers, rapists, people who had sexually offended against children and suppliers of drugs. To go back to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, in terms of the frequency of reviewing concerns about human rights: FCDO regularly and consistently raises any concerns and would do so if there was any evidence of violations against those returned.

My Lords, the note of 30 June that my noble friend Lord Oates referred to is the framework agreement with the Government regarding these flights, which the British Embassy indicated

“would start with around 100 possible persons … We agreed the flight would focus on Foreign National Offenders (FNOs) and (if capacity allowed) some immigration offenders.”

On the media points, it stated that in proactive and reactive communications that the returnees on the flight would have criminal records and, therefore, had to return to their country of origin. But that will not necessarily be the case in future if it includes those who have administrative removal for immigration purposes. Will the Minister please investigate this and reassure the House that, if this is a framework for flights going forward, all those on return flights who do not necessarily have criminal records will not all be badged as FNOs and therefore be highly vulnerable to abuse in the country of return?

I will certainly check that out for the noble Lord. We are committed to removing from this country any FNOs or anyone else for immigration purposes.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how often Home Office officials meet the Zimbabwean diaspora here, in London in particular, who are well aware of the difference between a genuine asylum seeker and someone who has been deported for very heinous crimes? How many times have Zimbabwean officials from this embassy been involved in meetings with Home Office officials and the person who is about to be deported? Very often, that brings back to them what will happen to them when they go back to Zimbabwe, and the Home Office should not be doing this without a Home Office official there, taking notes.

I shall say to the noble Baroness what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey: the FCDO regularly and consistently raises any human rights concerns with the Government of Zimbabwe, and we would do if we had any evidence of violations against those returns.