Court denies Zim refugees audience

Truck transporting Zimbabweans PIC: FILE PIC
Truck transporting Zimbabweans PIC: FILE PIC

The Zimbabwean refugees who were resisting repatriation after their refugee status was cancelled by the Botswana government have been denied a chance to argue their case before Court.

The five Zimbabweans lead by Terence Charuma, who didn’t want to be returned to their country of origin citing fear of persecution, had taken the government to court after the Minister of Defence, Justice and Security declared on January 2020 that they were no longer recognised as political refugees and therefore cancelled their status.

They had sought leave bringing a review application out of time against the government’s decision to cancel their status. When denying them the chance, Justice Michael Leburu of the Gaborone High Court said the refugees waited for two months even after the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) process was completed before approaching court. “No explanation for such a prolonged lull has been advanced by the refugees. Cumulatively, the delay of about a year and a half is unreasonable.

The applicants did not approach the court with the necessary dispatch, notwithstanding their assertion that this is an important case,” he said. Justice Leburu explained that the prospect of success as stated by the applicants was bald and that it had not been supported nor proven by any evidence. He said the refugees had not adduced sufficient and better particulars of the alleged persecution; how their lives will be in danger if repatriated to Zimbabwe and that they have not even disclosed the names of the opposition they alleged to be members of. “The other potent and cogent reason why the applicants' prospects of success in the main review application are dim and vulnerable is that the Minister’s decision to revoke the applicants’ status was given deferential imprimatur by UNHCR which is a highly competent, impaired and specialised organ of the United Nations that deals with issues of refugees,” the judge said, Moreover, the judge pointed out that the refugees have approached court with dirty hands and that they are not at a place designated for them at the Centre for Illegal Immigrants in Francistown therefore he would not grant indulgence and allow them to bring a review application out of time. Justice Leburu said they did not even advance reasons as to why they are not at the designated centre. “It was argued that as the applicants are no longer refugees, they not entitled to reside and remain at the Dukwi Refugee Camp and should thus be housed at the Centre. The applicants have asserted that they are not at this Centre and further they are in hiding.

What this means is that wherever they are, they are at the said place illegally, hence they cannot seek the court’s indulgence,” he said. He said for that reason, the refugees have failed to make a case for leave to bring a review application outside the requisite four months. Meanwhile, the cancellation of the status of the five refugees was done by government then confirmed by UNHCR on February 2021 after undertaking a similar exercise of assessment in December 2020. The director of refugee management in the Ministry of Defence, Thobo Letlhage at that time said the decision to cancel the refugees' status was borne out of careful consideration and that the decision was not irrational. She explained that the decision was not sudden and that it took 14 months of assessment of individuals after hearing their fears, needs, concerns, assessing and analysing the position on the ground in Zimbabwe. “Not only was the decision national and fully supported, the decision was more than one year later borne out and confirmed by the UNHCR also finding that the applicants no longer merit being recognised as refugees,” she said.

Letlhage pointed out that it was worth noting considering that the UNHCR afforded them close to a whole year with the suspension of the implementation of the minister’s decision to conduct its assessment without influence from the part of the government. She explained that the UNHCR's procedure of determination of whether applicants needed recognition as refugees was a pain staking and thorough process marked by extra-ordinary patience and that the applicants’ cases were assessed by UNHCR as first instance and on appeal and found to be without merit. “The statements by the applicants that returning refugees have been subjected to human rights violations and are languishing in jail are blatantly untrue and this is borne out by the finding of the government and UNHCR,” she said. Letlhage further said it was instructive to note that the applicants deliberately evaded disclosing the reasons they say they would face lengthy prison sentences upon returning to Zimbabwe and that the prospect of prison sentences on account of desertion from the Zimbabwean National Army did not qualify as political refugees in terms of the Act.

According to Letlhage, prior to the repatriation exercise, the applicants and all Zimbabwean refugees were accorded an opportunity to be addressed and interacted with Cabinet minister from their country where assurances were given that they will not be persecuted upon return. The refugees on one hand wanted to challenge the minister’s decision to revoke their status on the basis that there was overwhelming evidence that their lives were in danger if repatriated to Zimbabwe because they are known activists of opposition political parties. They contend that they have it in good authority that returning refugees have been subjected to human rights violation and that some of them have been incarcerated in prisons.

Editor's Comment
A step in the right direction

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