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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I apologise for being delayed a few minutes at the beginning of the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on bringing this issue before us today.
I want to make a few brief comments, because the last port of call for many of the deported people is often in my constituency at Harmondsworth detention centre. It is usually at weekends when I receive a phone call from a solicitor or even an individual from a campaigning group asking me to contact Ministers almost as these people are being dragged forcibly on to aeroplanes in the most distressing circumstances.
There are Zimbabweans in my constituency, white and black, who are desperate to return home because they love their country, but they are fearful about doing so because they risk their lives either as a result of human rights abuses or, in some instances, purely and simply because of the loss of their livelihoods and the risk of hunger and starvation, which some of their families have experienced back home.
The key issue is whether we can develop a policy sufficiently refined to ensure that we avoid adopting an inconsistent approach towards people from Zimbabwe who seek asylum. The stop-start approach and, in some instances, covert policy making result in last-minute deportations of individuals in extremely distressing circumstances.
All we are asking for is a deeper understanding that we need a precautionary principle in respect of asylum and Zimbabwe. There must be an attempt to take into account the latest developments and the latest repression going on in that country. If a sensitive approach is adopted towards events within Zimbabwe, it would not necessarily require having a blanket ban. Frankly, if Mugabe and his Ministers came here seeking asylum, we would be sceptical, but we need a precautionary principle that takes into account the reality of life in Zimbabwe. Such a principle would lead to acceptance that, in the majority of cases, even if we cannot substantiate every individual piece of information associated with a case, we must be cautious before sending people back to Zimbabwe.
I have met Zimbabweans and visited them before they were sent home, so I know that they are in a distressed state to the extent that some have threatened suicide and, as we have seen in recent weeks, some have embarked on a hunger strike. These people are serious and worried about what will happen to them when they return. They are concerned in any case about what is happening to their families, because reprisals take place daily in Zimbabwe.
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In God's name, we must do something and we need to act quickly by, for example, putting pressure on Mbeki to help us resolve the Zimbabwean situation. In God's name and in the name of all humanity, we should not exacerbate the situation by sending people back to their peril.
The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on securing an Adjournment debate on this subject, which is of grave concern to all Members. I pay tribute to her for her courage and commitment to the people of Zimbabwe, who have suffered so much under Mugabe's regime.
I am replying as both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development are overseas. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for contributing to the debate, but I have to say that their comments were confined almost exclusively to debating Home Office policy. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made the Government's position very clear earlier today, and I have no new information to impart.
I want to state categorically at the outset the Government's condemnation of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. We have been robust and swift in raising our concerns with the Government of Zimbabwe directly and also with our EU partners. We are raising concerns bilaterally with southern African Governments and we will continue to build up pressure on the Mugabe regime.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in his statement to the House today, we are committed to providing protection to those Zimbabweans in genuine fear of persecution. Each asylum application will be carefully considered on its individual merits, and we will keep the overall situation under review.
Widespread hunger and vulnerability have threatened the people of Zimbabwe for four consecutive years. More than 70 per cent. of the population live in poverty, one in four adults are infected with HIV and there are an estimated 3,200 deaths each week related to AIDS. So far, there are more than 1.3 million orphans. Food insecurity remains an issue for most people. The situation has been made worse by poor and erratic rainfall.
All that has only compounded the effects of man-made policies that have led to deepening and long-term poverty and hunger. There has been no independent
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assessment of the harvest in Zimbabwe, and Government food stocks and import plans are unknown or unrealistic. Observers estimate a potential cereal shortage of approximately 1 million metric tonnes, more than half the annual requirement. Although widespread starvation is unlikely, up to 6 million people could experience food shortages by the end of the year. DFID is monitoring the situation closely and awaits clarification from the Government of Zimbabwe as to whether external assistance from the international community will be needed later this year to be channelled through United Nations agencies.
Zimbabwe's biggest long-term human disaster lies in its being one of the worst-affected countries in the world in terms of HIV and AIDS. Yet Zimbabweans receive the lowest level of donor support in southern Africa. Only 3 per cent. of people who should be receiving treatment with anti-retroviral drugs are actually receiving them. This means that Zimbabwe has the lowest number of people on treatment with anti-retrovirals in the world.
In response to the poverty-related food crisis and the increasingly desperate situation caused by HIV and AIDS, DFID has contributed more than £71 million for humanitarian assistance in Zimbabwe. The Government's priorities are to support an international response in tackling the HIV/AIDS crisis in Zimbabwe and to support orphans and vulnerable children. DFID is one of the main donors supporting AIDS prevention programmes in Zimbabwe, such as condom supply and support for voluntary counselling and testing centres. We expect to increase the UK spend on HIV prevention, care and mitigation to around £15 million over the next year.
DFID also provides direct and targeted support through international non-governmental organisations and the UN, which currently reaches up to 1.5 million of the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of the population. That encompasses a range of support, from targeted food imports, especially for the chronically ill, to agricultural products, such as seed and fertilisers. In partnership with UNICEF and other development partners, DFID is designing a programme of support for orphans and other vulnerable children worth £25 million over the next five years. That support will go towards implementing Zimbabwe's national plan of action for orphans and vulnerable children. This year, we have already spent £2 million on community-based activities that directly assist children in need.
Tragically, political reform in Zimbabwe, which could lead to the prospect of economic recovery, does not appear imminent. Following the March parliamentary elections, the Government of Zimbabwe have shown no sign of moving towards a more transparent and accountable approach to governance. The majority of the population will face desperate poverty for years to come. Households affected by AIDS will be among the worst hit, including the elderly, the chronically ill, and widows and orphans, many of whom have no-one left to turn to for support.
As the House will be aware, issues have been made worse by the recent and continuing so-called operation "Drive out Rubbish", about which my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall gave graphic details. Anyone who has seen television footage of what is going on in Zimbabwe will be shocked and appalled, as I am. Earlier this month, it was estimated that 66,000 households,
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about a third of a million people, had been affected at 55 sites. More than 30,000 people have been arrested, mainly traders. That crackdown has been widely condemned by the EU, the UN and local civil society organisations.
People suffering from AIDS are among the worst affected. Many chronically ill people have been driven from their homes. HIV prevention and home-based care programmes have been seriously disrupted. We are also very concerned about the welfare of children; infants have been forced to sleep outside in the middle of winter and there are reports of children being detained in prison and separated from their parents. The crackdown continues to spread across the country to many urban and some rural areas. Armed police have swiftly crushed isolated pockets of resistance with tear gas.
DFID is already responding to that man-made disaster, providing support towards humanitarian assistance for the most vulnerable, mainly through the UN and the International Organisation for Migration. A further contribution will be made shortly. To date, nearly 10,000 families have been reached with food, blankets, soap and other forms of assistance. The Mugabe regime's crackdown has operational implications for all the current major humanitarian assistance programmes operated by DFID through the UN and non-governmental organisations.
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