For Zimbabwean exiles, a moment of hope

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I helped organise a rally around Parliament today which was a terrific reminder of what the Anglican faith is capable of when it is not mired in internal ecclesiological arguments.

A service at Westminster Abbey for Zimbabwe led by the Uganda-born Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was followed by a Strangers into Citizens rally of 1,200 Zimbabweans in Parliament Square calling for the right of Zimbabwean exiles in the UK to be allowed to work. The BBC reports it here and has photos here.

At the service, Zimbabwean exiles stood up one by one to say what their profession had been, and how impossible their lives were in the UK. Some 11,000 exiles have been refused asylum or are waiting on their appeals, but for years have been forced to depend on charity and handouts because it is illegal for them to work.

To end this senseless, dehumanising waste of human potential, and to free destitute Zimbabweans from the degrading limbo to which they have been condemned, the Archbishop and campaigners  urged the Government to give Zimbabwean exiles a discretionary two-year “leave to remain” status which would allow them to work in the UK and develop the skills which their country will need once Mugabe falls.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has led the western nations in condemning the horrors inflicted on Zimbabwe by Mugabe. And he made clear in Parliament this week that Britain would not forcibly remove failed Zimbabwean asylum-seekers back to their country.  Yet he won’t go the next step – allow Zimbabweans to earn their living and contribute to the country which is their temporary home.

It is easy to see why not. If the Zimbabweans, why not others? Destitution is a deterrent to further asylum claims. If we allow 11,000 foreigners the right to work and pay taxes, where will it end?  

But such political calculations dissolve faced with the stories of torture, beatings and desperate seeking of sanctuary which the Zimbabwean exiles in the UK told today into microphones and cameras.

The Anglican Church today offered a space in which those stories could be told, and a powerful  preacher to voice the longing for justice and dignity of an exiled people. A year ago, Dr Sentamu tore up his dog collar on television, vowing he will not put it back on until Mugabe falls.

Today he addressed the British Government. "Give back to your brothers and sisters their human dignity,” he said. “Show your humanity. Show your statesmanship.” In answer to what he called the “conundrum” which the British government believes it faces if it makes such a concession to the Zimbabweans in the UK, De Sentamu gave the Christian response. “I believe that you should do the right thing for the right person at the right time," he said, to vigorous applause.

In between hymns in Ndebele and Shona – two of the languages of Zimbabwe –the exiles spoke with longing for their country, sang and ullulated for their land. The Abbey church of St Margaret’s, opposite the House of Commons, shook with the words of the Hymn for Africa. In the Queen’s own church, the cry went up for human dignity both in the UK and in Africa. 

On the eve of the Lambeth Conference, when bishops from across the Anglican Communion gather to argue their differences, it was a reminder that communion is not just about resolving doctrinal questions. It is firstly about human connection – solidarity, empathy, and the courage to stand with those who are suffering.

Will we succeed? Unlikely. But as we walked to the Home Office to present our petition, then moved across Lambeth Bridge, along the river, with our bright orange ‘Strangers into Citizens’ banners and Zimbabwe and Union Jack flags in full view of the House of Commons on the other side of a sun-struck Thames, that didn’t seem to matter. We occupied the political heart of London for just a few hours, to declare that the dignity of human beings comes first. For the Zimbabwean exiles, it was a release of hope. And that, in itself, is success.

Austen Ivereigh

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