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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 14:27 GMT
Zimbabwe asylum returns halted
Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe
Mr Mugabe is facing elections in March
No more failed asylum seekers will be sent back to Zimbabwe until after the country's presidential elections, Home Secretary David Blunkett has announced.

A temporary freeze in deportations had already been put into force while the political situation in the country was reviewed.

I am committed to ensuring that we grant asylum to those genuinely at risk of persecution

David Blunkett
The latest decision follows pressure from human rights groups who say those returned to the country face possible torture or death.

Fears over the fate of those sent back to Zimbabwe follow President Mugabe's clampdown on his political opponents ahead of the March polls.

There are currently 106 failed asylum seekers awaiting removal from the UK.

In a statement issue at Tuesday lunchtime, Mr Blunkett said the suspension of removals followed consideration of all available evidence and official advice.

David Blunkett
Blunkett denies being pressured by media and politicians
"We will continue to monitor the situation closely, with a view to re-appraising our position once the elections are concluded."

The home secretary stressed asylum claims would continue to be assessed on an individual basis.

Those genuinely risking persecution should be given asylum, said Mr Blunkett, but equally most of those who had recently come to the UK from Zimbabwe did not have valid claims.

Speaking later on BBC Radio 4's World At One, Mr Blunkett said his decision was a response to the "pressure of events" in Zimbabwe, rather than from calls from the media and other politicians.

The move will be welcomed by opponents of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe trying to remain in Britain.

Blair concern

The Home Office signalled a change of heart on Monday, when it announced a temporary suspension of deportations to Zimbabwe while a review of the situation was carried out.

The decision follows a cross-party meeting between Mr Blunkett and his Tory counterpart Oliver Letwin.

Both Mr Letwin and Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes welcomed the suspension.

But they argued the system for assessing risks in the home countries of asylum seekers needed needed to be reviewed so changes in the political climate were detected more speedily.

Margaret Lally, deputy chief executive of the Refugee Council, voiced similar worries as she welcomed the freeze on removals.

'Shameful system'

"It does highlight real concerns that the Home Office is just not committed to keeping up to date assessments of countries," she told the World At One.

Zimbabwe was not the only example where reports were being updated only in a "shoddy" way, said Ms Lally, arguing such failures were "shameful" as people's lives depended on accurate information.

Ms Lally pressed the government to follow the Canadian example of using independent experts to compile such assessments.

But Mr Blunkett rejected reports that the Zimbabwe assessment had not been reviewed since October and said it was the risks to individual asylum seekers that was most important.

The use of fast-track procedures for deciding Zimbabwean asylum claims has also prompted fears.

Those were rejected by the home secretary, who argued the process often the decision to allow people to remain in the UK was taken more quickly.

Home Secretary David Blunkett
"The pressure of events in Zimbabwe has made a difference"
Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin
"It was clear that something needed to be done"
Martin Penrose, Winstanley Burgess Solicitors
"It's obviously welcome news and is long overdue"
Zimbabwean asylum seeker
"The least I can expect is torture"
See also:

15 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Freeze on Zimbabwe deportations
14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Zimbabwe asylum rethink signalled
12 Jan 02 | Africa
Mugabe renews attack on Britain
11 Jan 02 | Media reports
Zimbabwe press debates new bills
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