The Home Office has plans for a mass deportation flight to Zimbabwe which is feared will ‘deliver democracy activists to political persecution’.
The Zimbabwe government has not accepted people being forcibly returned from the UK for decades which means that Zimbabweans who have sought asylum in Britain were left for decades, starting families and having children.
This situation has altered in recent years and British and Zimbabwean officials recently met and agreed a deal on returns.
Many of the Zimbabweans in immigration detention with tickets for the charter flight say that they fled their home country as a result of having campaigned for human rights in the southern African country and against its former leader Robert Mugabe.
It is understood that the Home Office is hoping to deport 50 Zimbabweans but far fewer are likely to be onboard as a result of a number of high court challenges against the removals. The supply of escorts to remove people has also been disrupted after dozens of workers from the contractor Mitie were understood to have been told to isolate amid soaring Covid cases.
The Zimbabwe flight is the first in a series of long-haul mass deportations the Home Office hopes to run during the coming weeks, with flights to Jamaica, Vietnam, Nigeria and Ghana also planned.
The Home Office is reported to have deported approximately 700 foreign national offenders so far this year, a substantial drop on previous years. With some of the travel restrictions easing it is hoping to increase the numbers removed.
Several Zimbabwean detainees at Colnbrook immigration removal centre, near Heathrow said they were terrified of being forcibly returned to their home country. It is understood that people with criminal convictions and those who have overstayed visas have been chosen for the flight.
One particular man who has convictions for fraud and driving offences and has been in the UK since 2005 said: “All the Zimbabweans who fled to the UK opposed the government. The UK government does not care what will happen to me if I am sent back home. I was very politically active against the government there. I am well known to the authorities because of this and I will really be at risk on return”.
Director of the charity Detention Action, Bella Sankey, condemned the planned charter flight. She said: “Priti Patel’s programme of secret mass expulsions and this particular flight risks delivering democracy activists to political persecution. Detention Action is supporting several people who are due to be deported in this grubby operation. All have been here for decades and many have several children”.
Director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, Annie Viswanathan, said: “We’re really concerned that the government is determined to go ahead with this flight despite the situation in Zimbabwe. One client who came to the UK fleeing political persecution told us they fear for their life if they are deported”.
A spokesperson for Mitie said suitable precautions against the spread of Covid were being taken. They said: “The safety and wellbeing of our employees and detained individuals is always our top priority and we have robust measures in place to ensure a safe environment for all. This includes detailed risk assessments and procedures which have been developed in line with the latest government guidance, as well as the use of PPE such as face coverings”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We make no apology for seeking to protect the public by removing serious, violent and persistent foreign national offenders. We have removed more than 700 criminals this year, with a combined sentence of more than 1,500 years in prison”.