HANDS cuffed, seat belt strapped and legs tightly bound together, a deported Zimbabwean is flown back from London to Harare International Airport on an economy-class ticket, courtesy of the British government.
Report by Tendai Marima
The deportees are accompanied back by private security guards long-accused of assaulting people during deportation from the UK.
Rights activists based in the UK now claim the security contractors hired by the UK government sedate or threaten to sedate Zimbabweans during deportation.
Diaspora activist group ZimVigil which stages weekly demonstrations in London against Zimbabwe’s (President Robert) Mugabe-led government said they had recently received four reports of use and threatened use of sedation by security. One woman alleges that when she was flown back to Harare at the end of last year, she was told she would be drugged if she refused to co-operate with authorities.
Former MDC chairman and president of ZimVigil, Ephraim Tapa, said initial reports had come from members and the deportee later revealed she was shipped back to Harare with nothing.
“A relative of a person who was deported told us this. The (deported) girl was one of our members and she was forced to go (home) with nothing; no clothing or bags, only what she had on her,” said Tapa in a telephone interview. “She told us they threatened to sedate her and bundled her away to deport her.”
Braving Britain’s freezing wintry temperatures a few weeks ago Zimbabwean human rights activists protested and petitioned the British government to review the manner in which the immigration department, UK Border Agency (UKBA), is handling asylum claims.
Scores of Zimbabweans gathered in Leeds, West Yorkshire, to demonstrate against UKBA because, activists claim, new asylum claims are strangely being rejected on the basis of evidence given in previous asylum claims, yet this old evidence is inadmissible in fresh appeals to remain.
Activists also allege UKBA has stepped up its deportation of Zimbabweans and private security companies contracted to conduct deportations have been accused of using or threatening to use sedatives on deportees during flights in order to restrain them.
Zimbabwe Let’s Unite, a Leeds-based diaspora pressure group which organised the march, claims several hundred people demonstrated in Leeds. After the two-hour protest, briefly covered by BBC Leeds Radio, the group submitted a signed petition to the head of UKBA’s Leeds office.
“BBC Leeds Radio interviewed a few individuals regarding inhuman treatment received by Zimbabweans at the hands of Home Office’s contractors,” said organiser, Kevin Ngwenya, in an interview.
“Almost 300 people signed the petition later handed to Sharon, Head of UKBA in Leeds to submit it to the Secretary of State for us. Sharon made a promise that she would make sure we get a
response from the Secretary of State,” said Ngwenya.
Due to growing concerns about drugging and other controversial deportation procedures, Tapa said ZimVigil was planning to visit detention centres where those awaiting removal are held. The group also plans to petition the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May.
“The UKBA is denying the allegations, but we intend to visit detention centre to get some insight into what is going on. We have petitioned the Home Office Secretary of State to express our grave concerns and misgivings about the deportations,” he
UKBA denies there has been any use of sedatives in restraint of deportees. Responding to a Freedom of the Information request in July 2012, UKBA said it did not administer substances to people for deportation purposes.
“UKBA has never used sedation to achieve the compliance of any individual being returned on either a chartered or scheduled flight,” responded Hussain Tanvir, a UKBA official.
British charity, Medical Justice, an organisation which advocates for healthcare provision to immigration detainees, recently told the Independent that it had not received any reports of Zimbabweans or any other nationalities being drugged by security. However other EU countries such as France, Ireland and Switzerland are known to use sedatives, straightjackets and mouth gags to restrain resistant deportees. On several occassions, injection has resulted in death.
Emma Ginn, spokesperson for Medical Justice, said in 2008 the organisation documented more than 300 assault claims during removals from the UK. Reports of assault during detention and removal are not uncommon. In 2011 Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan refugee died under mysterious circumstances on board a forced flight back to Luanda.
Mubenga died before the plane even left the runway at Heathrow Airport, as a result of being assaulted by security men from G4S, a private company hired by UKBA to conduct removals. Last year, Medical Justice revealed how the UK government breached its own rules, holding victims of torture for longer than the prescribed period.
Zimbabwean activists vow their protests are only the beginning, as the possibility of elections in 2013 poses risks for those who fled Zimbabwe in fear of political persecution during the 2000s.
The groups recommend the UK halt deportations to Zimbabwe until at least six months after crucial elections expected later this year to end a wobbly coalition government, when there is certainty over the winner. Although the UK has offered refuge to many Zimbabweans fleeing political persecution since 1999, allegations of sedation and threats of drugging resistant people on long-haul flights raise serious human rights concerns about the UK’s deportation policy towards Zimbabwe.