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Britain Debates Zimbabwe Deportations - 2002-01-14

Britain's policy of expelling Zimbabwean asylum seekers has come under fire from leading politicians. The debate comes as Britain considers sanctions against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Controversy is growing in Britain over the policy of deporting Zimbabweans who have failed to convince British authorities that they merit political asylum.

British media report that immigration officers are daily deporting Zimbabweans with links to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Human rights groups say opposition supporters could face arrest or attack if they are sent back to Zimbabwe, where there is growing concern about political violence ahead of presidential elections in March.

The British Home Office, which handles immigration, says it is monitoring the situation in Zimbabwe, but has no plans to change its policy.

However, leading politicians have joined the call for deportations to Zimbabwe to be suspended.

Neil Gerrard is a member of the ruling Labor Party, and he heads a committee on refugees in the parliament. He told British radio that deportations to Zimbabwe should stop until the political climate improves.

"If people are returned, we've got to remember that they may be at risk for their lives," he said. "So we ought to be erring on the side of caution."

The opposition Conservative Party is demanding an urgent meeting with Home Secretary David Blunkett to convince him to reverse the deportation policy.

The Conservative spokesman on immigration, Oliver Lewtin, says there is no doubt that opposition supporters face danger if they are sent back to Zimbabwe.

"What's going on is that, astonishingly, the Home Office is maintaining that being a known member of an opposition party in Zimbabwe is not dangerous if you are returned there," he said. "Well, I'm afraid they are just wrong about that."

Mr. Lewtin points out that the tough stand on the asylum seekers stands in sharp contrast to British foreign policy, which condemns political repression under Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Britain has threatened Zimbabwe with suspension from the Commonwealth, a 54-nation group of Britain and its former colonies. Britain also supports a move in the European Union to target economic sanctions against Mr. Mugabe and his associates.