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Priti Patel must halt the imminent deportation of up to 50 Zimbabwean nationals due to the “deteriorating” political and human rights situation in the country, 75 cross-party politicians have said.
A letter to the home secretary, signed by MPs and peers from all major parties, warns that a charter flight to Harare, due to fly on Wednesday, must be “urgently halted” and a moratorium on all removals to Zimbabwe imposed until its government “ends their gross human rights violations”.
There are also fears over the public health implications of the flight amid reports of a Covid case in Brook House immigration removal centre, where many of those due to be deported are being held.
Concern has been mounting about the mass deportation after it emerged last week that Zimbabwean nationals were being rounded up for removal, among them many people who have been in the country for decades and those who have British children.
It followed a meeting that took place between Zimbabwe’s foreign affairs ministry and the British embassy on 23 June, during which it was agreed that a flight would be chartered from London to Harare for the purposes of “returning Zimbabwean nationals with no right to remain in the UK”.
The letter to Ms Patel, coordinated by Lord Jonathan Oates, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Zimbabwe, states that it is “clear” from the engagement the group has had with Zimbabweans, including senior opposition politicians and activists, that the political and human rights situation has “continued to deteriorate in the country”.
“The Zimbabwean government is systemically oppressing its political opponents, denying freedom of speech and committing gross human rights violations. These violations include subjecting political opponents, including MPs, to illegal detention, sexual assault, torture and murder,” it states.
The letter demands to see “any assessment the Home Office has carried out into the political and human rights situation in Zimbabwe, as well as who the Home Office took evidence from in conducting such an assessment”.
Bryan Micheriwa, one of the Zimbabwean men in Brook House, told The Independent that an individual on his wing had tested positive but had not been moved to an isolation unit, and that the other detainees had not been provided with PPE.
The 52-year-old, who has been in the UK for 20 years and has three British children, said: “They haven’t moved him to isolation. He’s allowed out at different times to us, but he’s still touching all the same doors and everything.
“The officers have all started wearing PPE. They’re protected, but we haven’t been given anything. We don’t even have masks in the wing. We aren’t being tested. It’s very worrying. I feel scared - it’s Covid. I lost my dad and my uncle to Covid.”
Mr Mucheriwa, who spent a year in prison a decade ago for drug offences in 2010, which he says he committed because he needed to “put food on the table”, said he also felt terrified of being sent back to Zimbabwe, adding: “It’s not safe.”
David Pountney, senior solicitor at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, said one of his clients who is due to be deported had also reported that there was a Covid case in Brook House.
“Once again we see the very high risk of spreading the disease by locking people up in detention centres. People are scared to be removed to Zimbabwe already. The fear of being removed with the risk of being Covid positive as well is truly frightening,” the lawyer said.
“Exporting Covid to poor countries does nothing to help prevent the spread of the pandemic.”
A notice from the British Embassy in Harare, seen by The Independent, states that it was agreed during a meeting between the UK and Zimbabwe on 23 June that 100 people would be identified for deportation, but that “through attrition, due to a number of factors, this would become no more than 50”.
It adds: “We agreed the Embassy would share names with the Ministry as they were gathered but that some of those indicated might not actually travel.”
The notice states that the flight would “focus on foreign national offenders (FNOs) and (if capacity allowed) some immigration offenders”.
Despite this admission that some of those on board may not have criminal records, the document states that the embassy would “share proactive and reactive communication lines” to Zimbabweans about the flight, including that the returnees “would have criminal records”.
Detention Action director Bella Sankey said: “It doesn’t get dirtier than this, sending 50 Black British residents to a regime known to torture dissidents and adopting a joint media strategy with the persecuting state.”
The Home Office has been approached for comment.