Jacob’s ladder to freedom
The asylum mazeAmanda Hopkinson
- 31 July 2010
Three years ago The Tablet revealed the story of “Jonah”, who had fled Zimbabwe after his brother’s murder only to be refused sanctuary in Britain. He has at last found a permanent home in Ireland, helped by Catholic friends and asylum groups
When I brought Jacob (Gezifana) Mhlanga together with his parents and brother at the newly- opened Durban Airport, there were tears and rejoicing. His African mother and I watched as he was embraced by and received his 87-year-old father’s blessing.
Jacob and I had travelled to South Africa last May so that he could be reunited with his parents and brother for the first time in six years. Though he was still unable to visit his native Zimbabwe, he was safe. Most important, he was there on his own travel documents, having finally been awarded refugee status in Ireland earlier this year.
When I wrote about Jacob in The Tablet in July 2007 I called him “Jonah” and he was despairing of obtaining asylum in Britain. He had arrived in 2004 after falling victim to brutal attacks by the “Cipanango” – President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF thugs – who killed his teenage brother and wounded him because of his work as a trade unionist and an activist in the Movement for Democratic Change.
In London, the Home Office claimed it had lost the file containing proof of his story, and without it he feared he would be returned to Mozambique. If that happened, he did not doubt that he would be pushed back over the border into Zimbabwe, to face certain death.
It was the publication of this story in The Tablet that brought about a first hopeful reversal in Jacob’s circumstances. Lord Hylton, a cross-bencher and human-rights spokesman in the House of Lords, wrote to me offering assistance in “Jonah’s” case. I mentioned the missing files, and how impossible it was to progress Jacob’s case without the original documents required by the courts. At Lord Hylton’s request, and as if by magic, Jacob’s file was found and forwarded by the then Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne.
There followed a second stroke of luck. The newly-signed Dublin Convention insists that anyone entering Europe and seeking asylum must do so in the first country they land in. While the clear purpose is to prevent “asylum shopping”, the consequences can be cruel, since asylum seekers often escape from, rather than to, not necessarily knowing where they might most safely remain. Jacob’s journey had included earlier attempts to flee across the border into Mozambique, from where he had been summarily escorted back into Zimbabwe and renewed persecution. The choice of England as his destination was based on the still-prevalent perception that it remains the oldest democracy and a model of justice and freedom under the law, in some sense still a motherland to its former colonies.
Instead, when Jacob arrived here in June 2004, he was treated to incarceration in a detention centre that resembled a concentration camp, with the assumption that he was guilty until proven otherwise – except that, on being presented with it, the Home Office “lost” (or appropriated) the evidence. (This is now such a common response from the Home Office and its ancillary quango, the UK Border Authority, that jokes circulate as to the quantity of shelves stacked with files marked “lost”.)
After nearly four years of fruitless legal struggle, Jacob left for Ireland, intending to continue on to Canada, but was picked up before he could change planes at Amsterdam airport. Returned to Dublin, where in 2008 there were as yet no detention centres, he was jailed in a cell with two convicted criminals. As before, nuns serving as chaplains provided a lifeline with access to both spiritual and some temporal comforts, apparently including chocolate, mobile phone cards and cigarettes for those who (unlike Jacob) smoked. On release, Jacob was sent to a hostel some 40 miles inland from Dublin, and set about preparing his case all over again.
In this he was immeasurably helped by Maureen Kirkpatrick, of the Irish Refugee Council (now subject to massive cuts), who accompanied him to interviews at the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC). It was as well she did: Jacob’s interviewer was both very young and very new, apparently admitting he had never interviewed an African before. Nonetheless, he was empowered to judge Jacob’s quality of Shona, including his proficiency in singing all verses of the Zimbabwean national anthem.
Despite two reports from linguistics experts at London University verifying Jacob’s fluency in both Shona and Ndebele, as typical of one born and educated in Harare, ORAC found that his “dialect” could be considered as like that of Mozambique, and that he could – or should – be returned to the capital, Maputo, to claim nationality there. That the Mozambican constitution did not recognise dual citizenship other than under the most stringent conditions, none of which applied to Jacob, was disregarded.
There followed appeals for a judicial review, and the long haul through two lengthy High Court hearings. In this, Jacob was supported by a solicitor of the Refugee Legal Service, their barrister and senior counsel. By this stage, Jacob had adopted me as his English “mum” and my son, a postgraduate student based in Dublin, as his “brother”, so we also attended. We were told that it was hard to overestimate the importance of having both a strong legal team and “family” support in obtaining a successful outcome. Heaven help those who, unlike Jacob, cannot count on an active network.
Jacob was fortunate in being one of only nine (out of over 900) “second entry” asylum seekers not to be forcibly returned to their first port of call. The Norwich Justice and Peace Group continued to remain in contact with him and provide financial assistance – since, despite vast state expenditure on legal costs, Jacob could neither work to earn nor receive state benefits throughout this six-year period. Finally, the perseverance of his team, including the support and evidence of his physical and psychological torture provided by Spirasi (the Spiritan Asylum Services Initiative, formed in Dublin in 1999 by the Congregation of the Holy Spirit to assist victims of torture), and Jacob’s own unwavering Christian faith, finally won through.
After the reunion in Durban, Jacob was continuing on to visit other family members who had left Harare to make a safer life in South Africa, but he will be back in Dublin this month. After all, he now has everything to return to: a flat, a weekly living allowance and a university place to study chemical engineering. Whether he chooses to remain in Europe, return to work in Africa or become – like so many of us – a global citizen, at least from now on he will also be a free man.