Suspended Between Torture and Refuge: Zimbabwean Asylum Seekers in the UK by Kate Johnson

To mark the Refugee Week 2015  we are publishing a series of excellent articles by students taking an MA in International Journalism at City University. We are very grateful  to students for sharing their work and to Professor John Owen for inspiring and guiding them to take up the challenge of telling refugee and migrants’ stories at the highest professional standards. 

Kate Johnson is a freelance writer and studying an MA in International Journalism at City University. Her background is in the legal sector, but she left this to explore the world and tell stories instead. She is interested in people and the way they live now. Her writing has featured in BBC Good Food, Stylist and Upstart Magazine.

Twitter @1katejohnson

Suspended between torture and refuge: Zimbabwean asylum seekers in the UK

Kate Johnson

Noku’s reddened eyes dart from side to side as he speaks. Usually it is comforting to receive a message f­­rom home when you are more than 5,000 miles away, especially if you are feeling lonely and anxious. Not so if this message warns you of physical and psychological brutality should you return, a message particularly harrowing if you are a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who has just been denied the right to stay in the United Kingdom.

In an effort to protect himself from London’s bitter November chill, Noku raises his hand across his stomach and clutches on to a calloused elbow. He is standing near a member of the Zimbabwean Vigil, a group that meets on The Strand every week to protest against ongoing human rights violations in Zimbabwe. They offer him a tablecloth to wrap around himself. He declines. His voice falters. “It really is hard. It is affecting me mentally. I don’t know the difference between the real and the fake world anymore. I don’t believe there is someone who can understand my situation.”

He holds a battered mobile phone, displaying a recently received message from a friend who works in the capital’s Harare Airport.

The message is an ominous one. His friend cautions that he has witnessed Zimbabweans arriving from the UK being “removed for further questioning”. Suspected “traitors” are taken to detention cells at the Manyame Airbase, located nearby, and it is here that detained individuals will be subjected to abuse including beatings, food denial, dog attacks and rape. Release will only be granted if allegiance is made to the ruling party, Zanu-PF, led by Robert Mugabe, and on condition of relocating to a rural area in Zimbabwe, never to live in the city again.

For 21-year-old Noku, such torment is his imminent reality, as his recently refused asylum claim means he is no longer allowed to stay in the UK.

A farcical democracy

Noku arrived in London from Zimbabwe during August last year. Shortly before his arrival, he had been involved in the dubious task of forced voting in Mount Pleasant, a suburb in the Northern part of Harare, during the 2013 election.

Stephen Chan OBE, a professor specialising in African politics at SOAS, University of London, describes this election as a “required charade of being democratic for international public consumption”. Evidence of rigging was clear. The registration role included a number of non-existent phantom voters and favoured Zanu-PF, rather than the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Busloads of youths were driven in from areas not included on the role and forced to vote for Zanu-PF, under the imposing gaze of ruling party officials.

Noku was on one of these buses and amongst a number of people who, after voting, were transported to one of the Zanu-PF “headquarters” to be interrogated by President Robert Mugabe’s youth militia. Called the “green bombers” because of their military-green uniforms and a reputation for inhumane cruelty, these youths are well trained in torture techniques and use these to intimidate and enforce support for the Zanu-PF party. Noku and two of his friends managed to escape. Their freedom was short lived.

“When we got to our home we were told there were people hunting for us who were wearing clothes, not the uniforms.  My grandmother sensed that it was not safe for me to stay at home anymore, so my two friends and I went straight to the station to try and get a lift to Harare where my aunty lives. It was here that some Zanu-PF officials caught us. They suspected that we were ‘spreading rumours’ and speaking out about our involvement with the voting process. They were angry that this could have put their opposition in a stronger position because of the illegal voting they had done.” Noku suddenly pauses, inhales sharply and looks skyward. “My friend Bran Gongeni was beaten to death right there in the Ngoku centre. I ran. I managed to get to Harare but I don’t know what happened to my other friend, or if he is still alive.”

Impossible to stay, terrifying to return

Noku is what the Home Office defines as a “failed” asylum seeker. With no right to work and homeless, he is temporarily staying with a church elder in Woolwich.

Ephraim Tapa, founder of non-political organisation, Restoration of Human Rights (ROHR) Zimbabwe, understands this immigration process well. He sought asylum in London after experiencing 23 days of torture in Zimbabwe in 2002 and was subsequently granted his indefinite leave to remain. Those claiming asylum need to do so within two to three days of arrival in the country, he explains. If the Home Office approve this, the asylum seeker is granted £36 per week and accommodation outside London, as provided by the National Asylum Support Service. They need to put a case together with evidence as to why they are unable to return to their home country if they are to obtain refugee status. To do this, they require legal representation.

Noku’s case was not strong enough and his first claim for asylum was refused. His appeal rights have also been exhausted, though he can put in another claim if his solicitor finds fresh evidence. For the moment, he no longer has any decision pending with the Home Office and is not eligible to receive any money or accommodation.

Asylum seekers coming to the UK, like Noku, have found that accessing free legal aid can be a lengthy and difficult process, owing to increased pressure on the Legal Aid system. The closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice, a charity providing advice and representation to asylum-seekers, in 2010, was deemed a significant loss. As at its time of closing, they were estimated to have 10,000 clients, many of whom had been let down by previous legal representatives at various stages of the asylum process.

Upon hearing of Noku’s situation, Tapa’s brow furrows as he says: “He is destitute. I have seen others in his position driven to criminality and street living and, in the case of females, prostitution.”

If Noku does not return to Zimbabwe, he faces forced removal at the rough hands of securities services companies such as G4S and Serco. These companies are incentivised and paid according to the number of “overstayers” they successfully deport. “They will be handcuffed, shackled around their ankles and secured by up to four security guards for the duration of the ten hour flight back. Like some sort of animal, like a criminal.” Tapa’s eyes deliver a penetrating glare, his indignation clear.

The challenge of perpetual uncertainty

For others, their fate is not decided as swiftly. There are many Zimbabwean asylum seekers who wait years for their asylum cases to be resolved, during which time they are not able to work or claim state benefits.

Pamela has been here since January 2009 and anxiously awaits her second interview with the Home Office to discover whether or not she will be granted refugee status. She had studied accounting in London on a student visa but, shortly after her return to Zimbabwe, received a threatening visit from the green bombers. “Three young men came into my home. All my family were there. They said: ‘Who is Pamela?’ They knew me by name – I don’t know how. They said: ‘You are coming from the West, you are a sell-out’ and demanded that I attend a [Zanu-PF] campaign meeting the next day, where I would be ‘reoriented’. There was so much violence at that time and I was so nervous.” Fearing for her safety, Pamela prepared to come back to London immediately, where she claimed asylum.

Pamela has found the six years spent waiting for her case to be processed difficult. She misses her children and resents feeling dependent on her sister, who has been supporting her. She wants to go home, but has not felt safe enough to return to Zimbabwe since her departure. “No one wants to live in a foreign country like this. You are not allowed to work, you have to report to the Home Office each week. My children are back home, growing up without me.” She sighs deeply, dejectedly, and concludes: “It is not a life.”

Confined and dehumanised

Another Zimbabwean who speaks of similar challenges is Deborah, who left her home amid growing political violence and economic hardship in 2002. The 38-year-old mother and former care worker has not seen her children, two girls aged fifteen and twenty-one, for ten years. Even more traumatic for her though, was being detained with the purpose of removal in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), in Bedfordshire earlier this year, an experience she recalls with visible distress.

It was 7 January this year when Deborah was taken to the IRC from her aunt’s home in Portsmouth. “It was very harsh. You don’t know how long you are going to be there or when you will leave. You have people who monitor you every minute, every step. They take your mobiles and let you use phones with no cameras, because they know that things they do there are not good and will come out. It was very cold. I requested more blankets and they refused. They don’t value your dignity. On one occasion I was having a shower and they just came in, to count me for headcount check.” Her voice wavers and cracks. “Why? Why are you treating humans like that?”

Deborah was in Yarl’s Wood for three months before she was taken to the airport for deportation by Serco escorts, but was not able to board the flight from Heathrow because of complications with her travel documentation.

She is now back in Portsmouth with her sister, in the process of making a fresh asylum claim and nervously waiting for the outcome.

Victims of discrimination

Both Pamela and Deborah feel that, in addition to navigating the complex immigration system, another challenge is stigmatisation by the British public.

Margaret Ling, a trustee of the Zimbabwe Association, attests to this and believes there are a number of “assumptions, expectations and preconceived ideas” that the British public have in respect of immigrants. This is a significant obstacle for those who arrive as asylum seekers as they are seldom judged as a person with individual experiences, skills and strengths.

Pamela elaborates: They think we are fabricating this. People have said: ‘They come here to take your benefits.’ No! They think we are thieves!” She insists: “We are hardworking people, Zimbabweans, we don’t want to beg or to live on benefits. We want to work for ourselves.”

Asylum seekers cannot access mainstream welfare benefits available to British citizens, affirms Margot Lawrence, welfare benefit and health advisor at the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network. Lawrence describes the system as a “fortress”.

Headlines splashed across newspapers such as “Asylum: We’re being invaded”, “Britain Must Ban Migrants” and “Thousands of Illegal Workers Claiming Benefits” only serve to reinforce prejudice experienced by those who come to the UK seeking asylum. There has also been an increasingly negative rhetoric regarding immigration on the political stage, with the rise of right-wing party UKIP’s popularity.

Lawrence explains that there is also a tendency for the media to use the words “immigrants” and “asylum seekers” interchangeably. This is incorrect as leads their audience to believe there are more asylum seekers entering the country than there really are.

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that for the year ended March 2014, the number of immigrants who entered Britain was 560,000, of which a mere 23,731 were asylum seekers. Furthermore, of these 23,731 asylum seekers, only 5,433 were granted asylum. This means that less than one per cent of immigrants entering the UK during this time were asylum seekers who progressed to secure refugee status.

Necessity rather than choice

Asylum seekers who are left in a state of limbo, like Pamela and Deborah, endure a loss of independence and are forced to remain idle, sometimes for many years. Mainstream welfare benefits are not available to them or their children.

Such individuals also suffer as a result of the British public’s negative, biased views of asylum seekers – views perpetuated by media discourse that seems increasingly intolerant of their plight.

Those who are refused asylum may be unable to return home because, like Noku, they fear persecution or death. If they remain in the United Kingdom, they are likely to face time in a detention centre prior to being forcibly deported.

None of these people would undergo such a tormenting ordeal by choice. As Noku observed with desperation whilst shivering on The Strand: “The hardest thing is that I can’t do anything for myself and I have no rights. At the same time, it is better than going home, where I will lose my life.”


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Forum.  For re-publishing and other inquires please contact  Kate Johnson via Twitter @1katejohnson

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