Page last updated at 01:31 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

Smith warns of Zimbabwe 'influx'

A Zimbabwean family wait at a camp in Musina, South Africa (16/09/2008)
Some Zimbabweans have been heading to camps in South Africa

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has warned the cabinet of a possible mass influx of Zimbabweans to the UK amid the country's cholera outbreak.

She said some people were obtaining fake passports from neighbouring countries where, unlike Zimbabwe, citizens do not need UK entry visas.

But Foreign Office sources have dismissed her words as alarmist, BBC political editor Nick Robinson said.

The Zimbabwe crisis was creating "real tension in Whitehall", he added.

He said: "Some in the Foreign Office regard [talk of a possible influx of refugees] as an attempt to justify tougher border controls to make it even harder for refugees to make it to the UK from Zimbabwe.

Visa restrictions

"The Home Office wants to see the introduction of visa restrictions for all countries in the region, the Foreign Office does not."

More than 700 people are said to have died in Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak so far, prompting the British Red Cross to launch an emergency aid appeal.

There's also a debate going on about what to do about thousands of Zimbabweans who are in limbo here

Ms Smith is thought to have told cabinet colleagues that people fleeing Zimbabwe had bought false passports in countries such as South Africa and Botswana.

But asked whether the situation in Zimbabwe could lead to a refugee crisis in the UK, Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch Brown said: "I think crisis is too strong a word for it.

"The home secretary has warned that we need to make sure we've got the appropriate arrangements in place to stop illegal papers... being used to enter the country.

"She wants to make sure that her border agency is properly prepared for this.

"She briefed the cabinet on that way, prior to a longer discussion on Zimbabwe."

Plan for worst

Currently, Zimbabweans arriving in the UK need a visa, while many travelling from the rest of southern Africa do not.

Ms Smith wants that to change that, having been told that a growing number of Zimbabweans are entering the UK using false papers.

Sources estimate there may be 60,000 Zimbabweans in the country illegally.

The Home Office says the UK officially has 12,000 Zimbabwean asylum seekers, 8,000 have been granted refugee status and there are 20,000 legitimate visitors.

A spokesman told the BBC it was assessing which countries should be included when its visa regime was widened.

He added: "We will grant protection to those Zimbabweans that need it. But it's crucial we don't let people abuse the system and take advantage of this ongoing humanitarian crisis by pretending to be Zimbabwean or by making false asylum claims."

We have to hope for the best but we have to continue to plan for the worst
Matt Cochrane, Red Cross

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said on Thursday that the cholera outbreak had been contained.

However, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the toll from the disease had risen to 783 and that 16,403 people were believed to have been infected.

Save the Children in Harare said these figures were an underestimate and the epidemic was almost certainly worsening.

Launching its appeal to tackle the disease and address chronic food shortages in southern Africa, the Red Cross said the situation could get worse.

Delegate Matt Cochrane said: "We're right on the cusp of the rainy season. That is typically when we see the first cases of cholera.

"Now we have an already serious situation and rain coming on top of that. We have to hope for the best but we have to continue to plan for the worst."

Donations will be used to supply community-based health, water, sanitation and hygiene projects to help stop the spread of the disease and pay for the delivery of aid and education.

To give to the British Red Cross appeal visit www.redcross.org.uk/zimbabweregion or call 0845 054 7200.

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