A Zambian attorney representing opposition leader Tendai Biti, who has been deported following the rejection of his application for asylum, says the country has violated refugee, immigration and international laws protecting foreigners fleeing persecution.
In an interview, Gilbert Phiri said the nation is surprised by the Zambian government’s refusal to grant Biti asylum as his life was in danger back home where he was facing charges of inciting violence and prematurely announcing results of the just-ended presidential election.
Phiri said, “The Zambian authorities have violated the Refugee Control Act of Zambia and the Immigration and Deportation Act because first of all, ordinarily any Zambian or Zimbabwean does not need a visa to go to either country. So, Mr. Tendai Biti by coming into Zambia did not break any law, assuming that he never even applied for asylum. He could have been in Zambia even for a month.
“Now, when he sought asylum the law is very clear, the Refugee Control Act as read with the Immigration and Deportation Act of Zambia, that he should be given a leverage of seven days within which he can decide what to do, either move to another country, regularize his stay or make an application. But for them to insist to return him to a place of danger is infact in violation of the SADC (Southern African Development Community) protocol and extradition because you cannot return, and Zambia and Zimbabwe are signatories to that protocol … You cannot return a person to a place where you face political persecution, that’s very clear in the SADC protocol.”
He noted that police and or immigration officials’ refusal to receive a court order for the judicial review of Biti’s status in Lusaka following the initial rejection of his application for asylum by Zambian authorities, was a flagrant violation of the law.
“The court order was disobeyed by the police. This is a very serious thing that has happened in Zambia. It’s also a violation of international law and rights of Mr. Biti … This is a very sad day in the legal history especially of Zambia that such a thing where a court order, a duly issued court order by a well-constituted court issued and brought to the knowledge of law enforcement officers can be defied in the fashion it has. Zambia has always been a haven of peace, a haven for people that have been running away from persecution.
“Throughout the 27 year reign of the first president of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda into even the era of the second president (Frederick) Chiluba and the subsequent presidents Zambia has been a place of refuge from people in South African when there was apartheid even as far as Rwanda where there was genocide, Congo with instability, Zambia hosted massive numbers of refugees.
“Now, this is the lowest point to reach where you can now hand over a person that has requested refuge in your country when you all know that there is instability and he is being persecuted. What was wrong with allowing Mr. Tendai Biti to proceed to a third party country say Malawi or Botswana? If Zambia didn’t want him, what really caused Zambia to return him to Zimbabwe? Therein lies a serious mischief and is really very worrying situation.”
Immigration Department Public Relations Officer Namati Nshinka refused to comment and referred all questions to Foreign Affairs Minister Malanji, who did not respond to calls on his mobile phone.
Biti was accompanied by several political activists in Zambia, who were also handed over to the Zimbabwean authorities.
Spokesperson of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Babar Baloch, said, “UNHCR remains gravely concerned about the reported incident of a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who was seeking safety in Zambia (senior Zimbabwean politician Tendai Biti) that has been deported from Zambia back to Zimbabwe, and this has unfortunately happened despite UNHCR interventions and our strong objections.
"Forcibly returning refugees and asylum seekers to a place where their life is in danger is a violation of the international refugee law, and this has happened against the Zambian national laws as well. So, we are calling on Zambia to investigate how this happened. People who seek safety and, in this case, this individual was coming to Zambia with a clear intention of applying for asylum."