I was not too surprised to learn that the UK government has won its latest legal battle against failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe. After a similar judgement by the House of Lords with respect to failed asylum seekers from Darfur, it was a foregone conclusion that the Home Office would retain the right to deport those asylum seekers whose claims it would have denied. After all, we have witnessed victories for the asylum-seeking appellants only at the preliminary stages of appeal but never at the decisive ones.
The striking aspect for me in all this, though, is the hypocrisy of the UK government. It continues to exploit crises in such countries as Zimbabwe and Sudan to burnish its credentials as a geopolitical champion of democracy and human rights whilst denying sanctuary to victims of those very same governments’ brutality.
As we speak, Gordon Brown has kicked up international controversy over the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon next month by declaring that he will not attend if Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, shows up. Now, Brown has established himself in UK politics as one seized with an almost missionary zeal for Africa’s development and economic progress.
A Brown premiership is, therefore, to be seen by all Africanists as the best opportunity in a long time to advance the African agenda. Ranging from trade to aid, climate change, immigration and global security, there are no illusions on both sides as to how profoundly pertinent this intercontinental meeting is. And yet it seems Brown is the only European leader so disgusted with the human rights abuses and political repression in Zimbabwe that he is willing to forego his first opportunity as prime minister of Britain to define Europe’ relations with Africa in the 21st century.
For Brown to forego his own proclaimed commitment to Africa over Zimbabwe’s democratic deficit, therefore, one would have to conclude that Mugabe’s atrocities are so grave as to warrant such a high profile boycott. Victims of Mugabe’s repression will no doubt affirm that that is the case. What they do not understand, however, is why the British government then chooses not to believe their accounts of abuse and repression at the hands of Mugabe’s regime.
There are many Zimbabweans roaming Britain’s streets, without a roof to call home or any guaranteed source of food, having been rejected by the British asylum system. I used to be incredulous about such cases until I met a young Zimbabwean man at the Refugee Council in Leeds. He reeked of the street and had all his worldly possessions on his person. His jaded eyes told the long story of a struggle that had mutated to nonchalant resignation.
The British media is complicit in its government’s double standards, for it fails to interrogate this apparent hypocrisy. The perception propagated by the media is that only “failed asylum seekers” are removed from Britain by the authorities, who always make a point of stating in their press statements that they are “committed to protecting genuine cases”. What the media do not mention is that the majority of claimants are summarily dismissed as bogus.
An entirely domestic political dynamic comes into play in deciding asylum claims and it has nothing, in the main, to do with the veracity of the cases. A new fad – that immigration is putting pressure on public services - is driving the anti-immigration cause and putting liberals off course. Mugabe, ever the wily political operator, has tapped into Britain’s domestic quagmire and decided to twist the situation to his advantage.
Returnees, unless they are of high political significance or become active again, seem to be generally spared the wrath of the state. The dire economic conditions in the country are enough to disorientate them and force them to put political activism on the back burner as they struggle for breath. Meanwhile, those already active inside the country are bludgeoned senseless, as the MDC has in the last few days reported to the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating in talks between the opposition and the ruling Zanu PF.
The activists inside the country are reminded by the fate of those just returned from Britain that there is nowhere to run. South Africa continues to refuse to recognize refugees from Zimbabwe, preferring that they roam the streets of Johannesburg as illegal immigrants, who are legally more amenable to deportation. And Mbeki knows this is one aspect of his ‘quiet diplomacy’ that Britain is unlikely to argue against, for Brown is also quietly doing the same.