Woolas says situation has improved, as Amnesty warns of increasing violence
30th October 2009: Even as the refugee welfare groups reacted angrily, the government made clear it was considering the resumption of flights for returning failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe. The government also announced changes to grants given to migrants volunteering to return. They will now be offered £6,000 to return for helping them rebuild their lives — a move being described as “bribe” by the critics
The flights were grounded three years ago following political and economic situation in Zimbabwe. But immigration minister Phil Woolas believes things in the former colony have improved ever since president Robert Mugabe agreed to power sharing. As such, the government was looking at "normalising" the returns.
The Home Office said “the government has announced changes to the delivery of the enhanced assisted voluntary return package for Zimbabwe.
“Instead of providing extra ‘in kind’ assistance for business set-up, cash payments will now be phased in over a six-month period. This will support economic reform in Zimbabwe, enabling people to return voluntarily and use their skills to support change and help rebuild Zimbabwe with capital behind them.
“The scheme is being extended until 31 December 2009, after which the continued need for an enhanced package will be reviewed”.
Border and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said: ‘The British government takes its international responsibilities seriously, and we will continue to grant protection to those Zimbabweans that need it.
‘The situation in Zimbabwe is improving under the Inclusive Government, and we will be looking to normalise our returns policy progressively as and when the political situation develops.
“We will continue to provide assistance to those who choose to return voluntarily – enabling people to support themselves and rebuild Zimbabwe, which hundreds of Zimbabweans who have already safely returned voluntarily are doing.”
Woolas’s assertion comes at a time when the UN’s monitor on torture was forcibly expelled from Harare and Amnesty International warned the country was "on the brink of sliding back into violence".
Available information suggests more than 6,500 Zimbabweans applied for political asylum in the past three years. About 925 were granted refugee status, while the applications for asylum of about 4,500 were turned down.
Reacting to the developments, the refugee welfare groups said only 89 people went back to Zimbabwe under the British government’s voluntary returns programme between January and August.
Describing as “ludicrous” the Home Office’s assertion on life in Zimbabwe, London-based Refugee Council said in the past few days allegations of arrest, intimidation and harassment of supporters of the MDC and of human rights defenders have been widely reported.
Council’s chief executive Donna Covey said the government was showing a cavalier attitude to the safety of refugees, who have stood up for democracy and human rights. She said after the farcical attempts to return Iraqis and Afghans in recent weeks against UN advice, it was of great concern that the government was now considering returns to Zimbabwe.
Alleging the move was “premature”, Sandy Buchan of Refugee Action also said more Zimbabweans were asking for help and advice than any other single nationality, and many were terrified of returning to their country.
Patson Muzuwa of the Zimbabwe Association said Woolas’s statement was intended to pave the way for a programme of forcible removals last attempted in 2004 and 2005.
Amnesty International director Kate Allen said the timing of Phil Woolas’s statement was straight out of `Yes Minister’. Just as the UN torture monitor was kicked out of the country and Amnesty warned of increasing violence, the Home Office says Zimbabwe is getting safer. The only people who won’t be laughing are Zimbabwean asylum seekers in the UK, Allen asserted
The critics too blamed Woolas for ‘political opportunism’. Chairman of Migrationwatch Sir Andrew Green said this was short-term opportunism to try to get the numbers leaving Britain up at the cost of creating a huge incentive for future migrants, whether genuine refugees or not.
Shadow immigration minister Damian Green said the Government would need to be more careful than in the past that those who took money under the voluntary return scheme did not subsequently head back to this country.