Zimbabwean asylum seekers who were forced to attend meetings with officials from their home country have been threatened with removal, in a move believed to be part of an agreement to “repatriate” thousands of failed asylum seekers to the country.
At least two people who arrived in the UK after fleeing political persecution in Zimbabwe were detained and issued with 72-hour removal notices while signing on with the Home Office at Vulcan House immigration reporting centre in Sheffield on Monday.
It comes after the two men, along with an unknown number of other Zimbabwean asylum seekers, were asked “distressing” questions by Zimbabwean embassy officials in “re-documentation interviews” which took place on 4 December.
Lawyers believe these interviews formed part of an agreement between the British and Zimbabwean governments for the UK to “repatriate” 2,500 Zimbabwean nationals in return for aid money. The Home Office did not deny the allegations.
Other Zimbabwean nationals who attended the interviews in December have been ordered to attend Home Office meetings in the coming week, and said they were “terrified” that the government was also planning to remove them.
It comes after more than 1,000 people were arrested and many brutally beaten during demonstrations in the Zimbabwean capital Harare last month following a widespread breakdown of public order linked to food and fuel shortages.
One of the men issued with a removal notice is Victor Mujakachi, who initially came to the UK on a student visa in 2003. He sought asylum when a warrant was issued for his arrest in Zimbabwe after he wrote blog posts hostile to the government.
Mr Mujakachi, 58, said that in his re-documentation interview in December, embassy officials had asked for more information about him and his relatives in a bid to confirm his identity – which he found “highly suspicious”. He added that he “would not be spared” by the Zimbabwean authorities.
Speaking from Vulcan House on Monday, he said: “I’m shocked that they want to send me back to a place where all those terrible things are happening. I’ve been vocal about the atrocities through my Twitter feeds and on YouTube. I will definitely stand out.
“I won’t be able to walk out of the airport terminal without being interrogated by the police. There will be brutal beatings.
“There was recently a debate in the House of Commons condemning the brutality and heavy-handedness of the Zimbabwean army and the police. They’ve condemned it. Do they think a mere condemnation by words is going to stop what’s happening?
“Every government has a right to control immigration within its borders, but with this government it’s ideologically driven. They look at soft targets, and I am a soft target.
Mr Mujakachi’s son, Simba, who was also ordered to sign on with the Home Office on Monday, but was not detained like his father, said he believed that if his father was removed to Zimbabwe, he would be “killed straight away”.
“I don’t know how they can pull a move like this, working with the Zimbabwean government. It doesn’t make sense with what’s going on in Zimbabwe. It’s cruelty,” he said.
“I think he’s going to get killed straight away. They will take him from the airport straight away and we will never hear about him again. We know how this government runs. A lot of people have been taken recently and no one knows where they are.
“I haven’t eaten since I went and my dad got taken. I’ve been struggling to eat. I’m worried about my dad. I’m worried about me. I don’t know why I was let out yesterday, but I’m sure that sooner or later they will take me.”
Mr Mujakachi’s solicitor, Kathryn Hodder, who is seeking to submit an injunction to prevent his removal, said she believed the alleged agreement between the Home Office and Zimbabwean officials could be acting in breach of UK immigration rules, which prohibit “actors of persecution” being directly informed that an application for asylum has been made.
She added: “Before, they couldn’t remove Zimbabweans because there was no agreement with the government. So no one from Zimbabwe could be removed unless they got a passport.
“But it looks like this government wants aid from the UK, so it’s just part of politics – we’ll give you money if you take back your people.
“Victor didn’t have a passport, and now he’s got travel documents from the Zimbabwean government. The embassy representative had a big file and said he knew everything about him. It’s not good if they government knows about him even before he’s removed.”
Sheffield councillor Jackie Drayton, who accompanied Mr Mujakachi to sign on at Vulcan House, where he was detained, said it was “awful” that he was facing removal, saying: “He didn’t come prepared to not go home. It’s so sudden and shocking.
“Victor is somebody who has been threatened by the government. And he’s very active about the things going on at the moment. Yes, Mugabe is not in power now, but there’s no doubt people in his government are still I power, and it’s not a safe place for people.”
Marian Machekanyanga, another Zimbabwean national who was also forced to attend a re-documentation interview in December, and has been ordered to sign on next week, said she was “terrified” that she would have the same fate as Mr Mujakachi.
The 54-year-old, who has been in the UK for 16 years after fleeing political persecution for her opposition to the government, said: “I was in tears when I received the letter. I’m very scared. I know that they are going to take me. People are being killed by the regime. I’m even more scared than last time.”
It was widely reported by the Zimbabwean media in February that the then British ambassador to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing, had told Kembo Mohadi, Zimbabwe’s deputy president, that the UK intended to deport illegal Zimbabweans to the country.
Mr Mohadi reportedly responded by saying the Zimbabwean government had no problem taking back its nationals but it needed to check them to ensure they were truly Zimbabweans.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.
“Where a decision has been made that a person does not require international protection, removal is only enforced when we and the courts conclude that it is safe to do so, with a safe route of return.”