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Lord Avebury: My Lords, when the blanket suspension of the removal of Zimbabweans was introduced, it was largely at the behest of my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby, ably backed by the noble Baroness, Lady Park. It was right that that was done at that time. But I am not sure that setting it in stone, as the noble Baroness advocates, is the right solution and I shall explain why.

Certainly, there are Zimbabweans going through the system and coming out at the other end whom one considers should have received asylum and did not, when by all accounts they had extremely good reasons for fearing persecution. The noble Baroness has mentioned some of the examples about which we all know and which have come to us via the medical foundation and so on. On the Friday before last I met one such person at a book launch of Andrew Meldrum's autobiographical account of the situation in Zimbabwe. He was a recognised member of the MDC, who had played a prominent part in its activities and yet somehow the asylum system had failed him.

The Zimbabweans are the only nationality to whom this peculiar rule applies. When they reach the end of the process they are not forced to return, but they are encouraged to do so, as the noble Baroness has explained, at the expense of the IOM. We have ceased to have blanket suspensions for removals to particular countries. The noble Baroness mentioned Iraq which is one of the countries to which we are now returning
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people, as are Somalia and Afghanistan. Although the conditions in Zimbabwe may be very dreadful, as I am sure they are for anyone who is in the least bit unpopular with the regime, and although matters may be getting worse, I am not at all sure that they are so uniquely dreadful that one would put Zimbabwean failed asylum seekers in a different category from those who come from Somalia, Afghanistan or Iraq.

In correspondence with Home Office Ministers I have suggested that we take a more distinguishing approach to those who have been through the system. As the noble Baroness is aware, quite a few came as a result of the provision of false documentation and criminal activities by a certain organisation in Birmingham, which I understand is now under investigation by the police. It would be useful if the Minister could say something about the progress being made in trying to stamp out that organisation and dealing with the tens or hundreds of people—I do not know how many—who managed to get through the system as a result of those criminal activities. At the same time, I would be warmly in favour of reviewing the failures of some people who, on every possible ground, we believe should have received asylum and who are fully supported by the MDC, by the Zimbabwe Association and by other organisations that can vouch for them as bone fide refugees who suffered at the hands of Mugabe.

I hope that the Minister, while not necessarily being able to accept the amendment as proposed by the noble Baroness—I am sure she would not press it to a Division—may be able to say something about a more discriminating approach to the Zimbabweans. Although the noble Baroness says that the numbers are not very large, I worked out that from the beginning of 2002 onwards there might have been a couple of thousand people who had been all the way through the system and had come out the other end but were living on thin air because they were not supported by NASS or in any other way. Only a handful of those had accepted the assistance of IOM to go back to Zimbabwe—I think it was 47 in 2003. We cannot just let a couple of thousand people rot. Many of them, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, has said, would have a useful contribution to make in our own society as doctors and so on.

I appeal to the Minister to treat Zimbabweans in a special way in one sense: to allow them to have a review where there is solid evidence to show that a mistake was made. That is either because, as the noble Baroness said, they did not have good representation, or because there was very inadequate country information at one time. But we should not have a blanket policy of not repatriating anybody to Zimbabwe, because we know there are many people here who we do not want and who are not legitimate refugees but who obtained their status by false pretences.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I say at the outset, by way of a conditional apology, that I do not have any
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information about the current police enquiries. I suspect, however, that if I did, it would be quite inappropriate to set it out on the Floor of the House at the moment because the enquiries are ongoing.

I do not have any major good news for noble Lords who have raised this issue; I accept this is not the first time that it has been raised. There is, I hope, an acceptance of what I said at an earlier stage: to make sure our language is correct. I think both the noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, used the term "failed asylum seekers", but were not referring to the people we are referring to here every time. The effect of the amendment would be that support could not be withdrawn from failed asylum-seeking families under Clause 9, or where they had failed to comply with a removal direction. We discussed the issues involved on Report, and I suspect it was discussed at earlier stages as well. The Government are not currently enforcing the return of failed asylum seekers, other than for people with serious criminal convictions and others whose presence is not conducive to the public good. That is a general statement of policy, which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, would agree with: not having a blanket ban.

We cannot accept the amendment, as we do not believe it is right that families from Zimbabwe should, as a matter of course, continue to receive support indefinitely. As the noble Lord said, the suspension of removals of failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe, announced in January 2002—to a large extent in this House, as I had day-to-day responsibility for the matter at the time—was in response to concerns about the then serious deterioration of the situation in Zimbabwe, in the build-up to the presidential election held in March of that year. We did not, at that time, regard it as unsafe to return failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe, but in view of the rapidly changing conditions we considered it would be appropriate not to enforce the returns.

The Government's position is as it has been since January 2002: each asylum claim—and, indeed, human rights claims as well—made by a Zimbabwean national will be considered on its individual merits in accordance with our international obligations under the 1951 convention and, of course, the European Convention on Human Rights. Each application is considered against the background of the latest available country information, including that obtained from and through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

There is no difference between the government departments in the understanding of conditions in Zimbabwe. The Home Office's Country Information and Policy Unit produces country information materials which are used as the background against which the asylum applications are considered. As I have said, the unit maintains close and regular contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and consults it about the country information materials prior to their publication.

We do, of course, recognise that conditions in Zimbabwe are such that there are individuals who are able to demonstrate a need for international protection. Where they meet the definition of a refugee, under the
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1951 UN Convention on Refugees, asylum is granted. There may also be individuals whose circumstances make them particularly vulnerable, and who would engage our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Where this is the case, these individuals will be granted humanitarian protection or discretionary leave.

If you come to the end of the line and an application is refused, there is a right of appeal to the independent authorities. Should the claim be refused, and any appeal be unsuccessful, that means that, for that individual, return to Zimbabwe would be safe. That is why we consider it reasonable to expect an individual in that position—where there is no successful claim under asylum or human rights—to leave voluntarily instead of being supported indefinitely at the taxpayers' expense.

It is worth making a note in respect of the voluntary assisted returns and reintegration programme operated by the International Organisation for Migration. It is open to all failed asylum-seeking families to apply to the International Organization for Migration to take part in this programme, and we would expect families to take up the opportunity to make a return home. People returning under the programme are offered reintegration assistance. An application to the International Organisation for Migration would clearly be a practical way for a family to demonstrate that they were seeking to leave voluntarily. Zimbabwe nationals are in fact leaving in a voluntary manner under this programme. It is not as though people are not returning on a voluntary basis under the agreed programme.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, can the Minister say how many are involved? I have a figure from the IOM of 47 people who had accepted their assistance throughout 2003. Have there been any more since the beginning of 2004?

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