Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Unsettling Times – Zimbabweans in the UK

Britain is home to hundreds of thousand of economic and political exiles, who follow developments in Zimbabwe with a mixture of fear and dread.
By Jennifer Koons
The large-scale migration of Zimbabweans to the United Kingdom in recent years has earned London the nickname “Harare North”.



The exact number varies but experts suggest that roughly one million Zimbabwean expatriates, most fleeing rising economic and political instability in their home country, now reside in the UK.



Between 2000 and 2007, there were an estimated 20,600 asylum applications and about one-third of those have received some sort of status to remain in the country, according to a spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Association, ZA, an organisation that describes itself as a support group for Zimbabwean asylum-seekers and refugees in the UK.



“So many Zimbabweans come to the UK because of the colonial link,” said Rose Benton, the co-founder of a London-based advocacy group, the Zimbabwe Vigil. “Zimbabweans speak English and are educated under an English system. It makes perfect sense that they settle here.”



A 2006 survey of 500 Zimbabweans living in the UK found that their high skill levels and ability to speak English fluently directly contributed to economic success.



The ability to actually find work, however, depends greatly on ones legal status. Asylum-seekers, most of whom are black Zimbabweans, not allowed to work or even volunteer unless they have been granted refugee status.



Many white Zimbabweans, in contrast, have relatives in the UK, which in many cases allows them to move here and secure employment relatively easily.



Those who await refugee status are therefore in constant fear of being sent home where their safety will be compromised if the government realises they claimed asylum in Britain, said the ZA spokesperson.



“People try to keep to themselves because they feel frightened,” she said. “If the next person knows what your situation is like, you have no control over what they do with that information.”



The ZA spokesperson said most Zimbabweans fleeing their country’s dire economic climate will head to neighbouring South Africa but London has become the most popular spot for those seeking political refuge.



“You’ll find that most Zimbabweans want to talk about what’s happening at home and they have strong opinions but they are very scared to say anything in public gatherings,” she said.



Even after they are settled, there remains concern about the threat posed by Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe’s secret services.



“There is a belief that members of Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organisation are everywhere and if you say anything, you and your family will be in danger,” said the ZA spokesperson.



That fear only increased during the violent lead up to a widely discredited run-off election in late June in which Mugabe ended up as the only candidate on the ballot.



Many Zimbabweans living abroad had hoped opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai would oust Mugabe from office and bring about peace and stability to the country so that they might return home.



Tsvangirai withdrew from the election shortly before the vote, however, citing concerns for the safety of his supporters.



“For a while you keep thinking that this can’t go on for any longer,” said the ZA spokesperson. “There was a lot of optimism with the [Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change] party, but this is the second election that Mugabe has overtaken and now all of that optimism has just turned to despair.”



In the past, families would leave Zimbabwe together, but she said that nowadays most Zimbabweans come to the UK alone so as not to arouse suspicion.



“It would be difficult to come as a family because the embassy is well aware of what is happening back home and they will start asking questions if a family suddenly says they want to go on holiday to Britain,” she went on. “Unless someone is really well-off, most often one member of the family will leave and then try and send money back for everyone still back home.”



Jennifer Koons is an IWPR reporter in London.