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Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I went to a London school and in 1937 my headmistress, together with the distinguished MP Eleanor Rathbone, went to Germanyand, in the following year, to Barcelona. On each occasion they brought back refugee children who they adopted. One of them became a doctor and another a magistrate: they became friends of mine. From early in my life I have therefore seen, met and known refugees.
No consideration of the process of asylum in this country can ignore the incomprehensible position adopted by this Government on the issue of asylum seekers from Zimbabwe. In 2002, as a result of protests from all parties, the Government temporarily suspended the forcible removal of asylum seekers from Zimbabwe before they could even leave the aircraft and enter the country. Henceforward nobody could enter without a visa. In 2004, asylum seekers whose appeals had failed received letters requiring them to apply for voluntary repatriationsince the Home Secretary had decided, in their case, that Zimbabwe was a safe country to which they could return. Meanwhile, of course, accommodation and a basic allowance were withdrawn. They were forbidden to work and were, in effect, in limbo.
The tribunals ignored the FCO report on human rights and the fact that Amnesty International and the UNHCR had, for over three years, consistently reported that there was, and is, widespread abuse of human rightsand not just, as Her Majesty's Government have said, turbulent political conditions. They were also ignoring the African Union's own human rights commission report as early as 2002. The Home Office, however, bases its decisions on what are acknowledged to be deeply flawed proceduresand I warmly agreed with what was said by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harryapplied to individuals who had inadequate and often incompetent legal advice. The tribunals took no notice of the UNHCR or of any other body in assessing human rights in Zimbabwe. The Government totally ignore the fact that returned asylum seekers fall straight into the hands of the CIO when they come off the aircraft; they can expect, and receive, no mercy.
It also announcedevidently as a successthe fact that out of a total of 2,025 decisions on Zimbabwe only 195 were granted. Nearly 90 per cent of claims were refused and 82 per cent of subsequent appeals to the independent adjudicator were dismissed or withdrawn. The Government
I shall have the opportunity, in the week after next, to discuss the long-term and serious effects for both this country and Zimbabwe of what I regard as a misguided and essentially unjust policy. Today, I want merely to urge that those who attack asylum seekers for battening on the state and costing the country money should remember that these people are not allowed to work. For many of them, that is the greatest hardship that they face. We take away their self-respect and they can do nothing to remedy their situationnor to pay taxes, as they would wish to do. I believe that this policy should be reviewed and that asylum seekers should not be confused with the unfortunates who are brought in by people-smugglers as part of a corrupt financial transaction. More resources could be allocated to catch both the smugglers and those they smuggle inwho often have no word of English and no skills. These are the arrivals most likely to create a certain just resentment in the community.
The Government should amend their policy at least to allow those who have the skills we need to work. If it is necessary to make this an exceptional, temporary measure applicable only to Zimbabweansperhaps as former Commonwealth citizensthen surely that could be done. Our dependence on such countries as South Africa and Indonesia for a high proportion of our NHS doctors and nurses has been widely and recently reported. Yet I know of a qualified Zimbabwean doctorfully registered with the General Medical Councilwho has been forbidden by the Home Office to work. That is only one example. A high proportion of Zimbabwean asylum seekers are professional peopleBritish-trained, and therefore able to assimilate easily into the country.
The Government should recognise that those Zimbabweans who come here on, for instance, Malawian passports have no other way of obtaining entry and seeking asylum. Without a passport they cannot obtain a visaand I doubt whether the embassy in Harare would issue one if the applicant were to declare that his object was to seek asylum. I hope the Minister will tell me if I am wrong. It takes a year to get a Zimbabwe passport and I doubt whether those who need asylum would have the faintest hope of getting one. I believe that a number of Kosovo citizens were allowed to come to this country on condition that they returned home once it became safe. I can see no reason why that option should not be offered also to refugees from Zimbabwe.
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I have two final points. First, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger. In the days when refugees came here from Nazi Germanyand later from Stalin's RussiaI do not think we would have dreamt of sending them back, small as this island was then and is now. Secondly, like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, I too remember our honourable behaviour in admitting the Ugandan Asians. One of themnow a father himself and, I think, even a grandfathertold me that when his family arrived he, as a small boy of five, was told by his father that he and the whole family must work hard to give back what they could to this country. That is what true asylum seekers feel and we should give them that opportunity. It is dishonourable not to do so.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, as we have heard, asylum seekers are again becoming the cannon fodder of an election campaign. In some ways, Labour and Tory thinking in another place has converged into a more aggressive stance which can only damage the chances of future applicants. The Government's new strategy has been greeted with dismay by those who work with asylum seekers. Its robust languageof crackdowns and rooting out abuseamounts to an obvious manifesto. Its five-year approach is bound to alarm legitimate asylum seekers still further.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, himself warned us of an ominously changing landscape. However, I am grateful to him for the opportunity that he has given, and the balanced way in which he introduced his remarks. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, about initial decisions. I also accept that over time there have been important volte-faces and changes of policyand that there has been some fruitful common ground between the Home Office and leading refugee agencies. I hope to concentrate today not on the numbers game, but on a more positive aspect; namely, so-called voluntary returns.
Voluntary repatriation is the durable solution that everyone wants to see for countries that have apparently reached a degree of stability. The Home Office makes much of this as part of its strategy of detention and removal. In fact, it is even called a "removals initiative". We are easily deceived about the nature of a post-conflict country such as Afghanistan or Sudan as it reaches the same point in the process. The turmoil in Iraq has made Afghanistan appear to be a land of comparative peace and plenty, or so the FCO would have us believe. The reality is that while 3 million or so refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran, Afghans in this country, even after the elections, are as fearful as ever; so we must beware of our own propaganda. Kabul may be peaceful, but it has become an international fortress, and its shanty towns are magnets for the poor, displaced and homeless. Outside the main cities of the north, the shield of NATO and coalition troops is no protection for refugees returning to homes that are still devastated. The general idea that Afghans can be safely returned if their application fails is pie in the sky. However, some hundreds have already been removed to an unknown fate.
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For the minority who must contemplate a return, there is a range of opportunities, including voluntary assisted returns with the help of the International Organisation for Migration, including an ingenious scheme, "Explore and Prepare", which enables returnees to go out and see for themselves. Some of these schemes are based on the success of the UK voluntary return programme in Kosovo. By the end of June 2000, after 11 months, some 55 per cent of those refugees had returned home. The package included air transport, a cash grant, advice from voluntary agencies and further assistance from the IOM.
However, Afghanistan is a different story. A thorough review of the main voluntary returns to Afghanistan programme last year, undertaken by Refugee Action and the Refugee Council, showed how little take-up there has been. Afghans in the UK are wary of false dawns after 23 years of civil war. Concerns about security, as in Iraq, have grown rather than receded. Among other things, they mention the continuing ethnic strife, revenge killings, the slow pace of reconstruction, poor housing, lack of jobs, restrictions on women, human rights abuses and the threat from mines.
How far are the Government willing to extend their assistance to refused asylum seekers who are not apparently in need of international protection? Will the Home Office and the FCO leave this problem entirely to the voluntary agencies and the UN? In the context of the UK's commitment to Afghanistan, does he agree that those Afghans who may have had a legitimate initial claim, but who failed the test, have fallen into a black hole as far as the Home Office is concerned? Once a person is to be removed from the UK, it seems that our famous sense of decency and much-advertised belief in human dignity are removed at the same time.
The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, mentioned detention. I notice from Section 5 of the five-year plan that the detention capacity is to be expanded. Speaking as a patron of the Haslar visitors' group, will the Home Office look at the group's annual report, which has just been published, and which has a number of modest proposals for assisting those who are being removed? For instance, those proposals include making more effort to keep in contact after the dreaded refusal letter, sending out a positive reminder letter encouraging people to approach the IOM, improving the clothing allowance under the detention centre rules, or providing small amounts of cash for internal travel in the home country.
A government who claim fairness in their asylum policy should be ready to make those small improvements. This debate is about public services and maintaining standards. Some may think that the Home Office should be congratulated on attempting to reduce the number of assaults in removal vans, but that was only because of pressure from Haslar visitors and after a report from the Medical Foundation recording a dozen assaults in those vans in a period of three months. That prompted the Home Office to install CCTV in the vans. Unlike in Her Majesty's
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prisons, there is still no welfare officer at Haslar after months of requests. Many detainees are being treated worse than criminals.
I hope that the Minister will acknowledge today that the efforts of the churches and charities are not only to serve the oppressed, but to show up and point out the continuing mistakes and inadequacy of our system of government.
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