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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 June, 2005, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
Zimbabwe lives 'won't be risked'
Clearances in Zimbabwe
Mugabe's housing clearances have been condemned globally
Zimbabwean asylum seekers will not be returned to the country from the UK if the government believes their lives are at risk, Hilary Benn has said.

Responding to calls for a policy re-think, the international development secretary said the Home Office was keeping the situation under review.

It comes as the secretary general of the Commonwealth urged the UK to "take care" deporting people to Zimbabwe.

There were 95 Zimbabweans removed from the UK in the first quarter of 2005.

A further 116 are scheduled to be returned to the country.

Hunger strikes

In the UK, 46 Zimbabweans being held in immigration centres remain on hunger strike after the ban on deportation to their homeland was lifted in November last year.

One hunger striker, Zimbabwean opposition leader Crispen Kulinji, was due to be deported on Saturday but secured a last-minute reprieve - with the help of Labour MP Kate Hoey.

We would never send anyone back if we thought their lives were in danger
Hilary Benn

Mr Kulinji, 32, from Harare, an organising secretary and election co-ordinator for the Movement for Democratic Change opposition movement, is recovering from injuries he claims he sustained in jail in Zimbabwe.

He said he had been on hunger strike since Wednesday, adding: "We would rather live, but it is better to have a dignified death here than go back to face Mugabe."

Housing demolished

Recent moves in Mugabe's Zimbabwe to demolish illegal buildings - which the UN says has left 275,000 people homeless - have drawn objections from the Foreign Office.

In light of the events, the Conservative and Lib Dem parties - as well as Labour MPs - have called for a re-think of government policy.

The Right Reverend Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester, has also called for a "compassionate" response from ministers.

"The current situation demands a compassionate response from our government and urgent reassessment of their policy in relation to the return of failed asylum seekers," he said.

But Mr Benn told BBC News: "We have given asylum to a very large number of Zimbabweans here in Britain, and rightly so, because we are proud of our commitment to the 1951 convention [UN Convention on Refugees].

It is clear by what you see on your television screens, hear on your radio, the problems are there
Don McKinnon

"But in the end the asylum system has to make a judgement in individual cases as to whether people are entitled to the protection of the convention or not.

"We would never send anyone back if we thought their lives were in danger.

"And the Home Office has made it very clear we are keeping the situation under close review and that is right and proper."

'Problems there'

However, Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon questioned whether failed asylum seekers should be returned to Zimbabwe.

"That is an issue which the British government has got to face," he said.

"But it is clear by what you see on your television screens, hear on your radio, the problems are there.

"And it should be looked at in the light of well, after all, you only deport people or send then back to their country if they are refugees if you believe they are not in danger or not threatened in any way."


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
One asylum seeker explains why he is on hunger strike



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