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Critics Say British PM Fails to Protect Asylum Seekers


British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently stepped up his criticism of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe for his dictatorial rule and human rights abuses. The British government also repeatedly condemns other governments that violate the human rights of their citizens. But critics say Mr. Brown has failed to follow his words with deeds when it comes to standing up for refugees fleeing some of the world's worst tyrannies. Tendai Maphosa filed this report for VOA from London.

Last month Gordon Brown threatened to boycott the European Union-African Union summit meeting slated for December if Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe were to attend. Writing in the daily newspaper The Independent, the prime minister said he was not prepared to be at the same conference as a leader responsible for the abuse of his own people, widespread torture and the mass intimidation of political opponents.

Mr. Brown repeated his concern for the oppressed at his party's annual conference last month.

"The message should go out to anyone facing persecution anywhere from Burma to Zimbabwe. Human rights are universal and no injustice can last forever," Mr. Brown said. "People will look back on events in Darfur as they did in Rwanda and say why did you, the most powerful countries in the world, fail to act, to come to the aid of those with the least power?"

But critics say Mr. Brown, like his predecessor Tony Blair, does not match his rhetoric with action.

In April, British Court of Appeal judges halted the deportation of three Darfuri asylum seekers that the government wanted to send back to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The judges ruled the three should not be sent back to camps in Khartoum, because conditions there were "unduly harsh."

But the government has petitioned the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, for permission to appeal the court's decision.

The Home Office, which is responsible for internal security and immigration affairs, argues that Darfur refugees will not be tortured if they are sent to Khartoum because the conflict is in Darfur.

James Smith of the Aegis Trust, a non-governmental organization that has been acting on behalf of the Darfur refugees, says there is evidence that people who were sent back to Sudan were tortured, but the British government is disregarding it.

"Their guidance to the judiciary in the U.K. is that people are not at risk of being picked up and tortured at the airport or anywhere else if they return to Khartoum," Smith said. "Aegis is trying to demonstrate evidence to the contrary; they are dismissing the evidence, they are also disregarding advice from the UNHCR that people of African origin from Darfur who sought refuge in the U.K. should not be returned to Sudan."

Critics of Mr. Brown say his government is also failing to help Iraqi refugees. The human rights group Amnesty International describes Britain as one of the key players in forcible returns of failed Iraqi asylum seekers. The report says Britain has sent back more Iraqis than any other European country.

Hannah Ward is a press officer for the Refugee Council, a group that provides support for refugees and asylum seekers. She says the government is bowing to Europe- wide right-wing pressure that opposes immigration.

"We believe that the government does feel that it is sending out a message to people not to come to this country. We know it is very concerned about numbers, we know it spent a lot of time and resources on getting numbers down," Ward said. "The number of people coming to the U.K. and claiming asylum has fallen quite dramatically since 2002."

Ward also says there are hundreds of asylum seekers from Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who the government wants to send back, but cannot because the refugees have appealed their expulsions.

Aegis Trust's Smith says Mr. Brown and Britain's political leadership must go beyond talk in resolving the plight of those who have been persecuted.

"There is a lot of talk from political leaders," Smith said. "While they are showing this strong leadership maybe at the Security Council level or on the world stage in the media, they need to make it clear also to members of their own government that they expect their policies to be consistent and followed through, and that includes the Home Office."

A Home Office spokesperson told The Independent newspaper this week that while the government has grave concerns about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, Darfur and Burma, not everyone is at risk of persecution. She added that each case is dealt with individually, and those who need protection will receive it.