The Australian Government has received an application for a protection visa from Zimbabwean Ambassador Jacqueline Zwambila who fears her life would be in danger should she return home. She received the appointment during the previous power sharing agreement, when Morgan Tsvangirai was the prime minister and Robert Mugabe was president. The election results in July 2013 saw Mugabe’s regime regain complete control causing the Movement for Democratic Change Party (MDC) to lose its ministerial posts. Zimbabwean Home Affairs Minister, Kembo Mohadi, has been quoted as questioning Ambassador Zwambila’s asylum bid, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion but her remarks are surprising because all the leaders of the MDC-T are here. So, why does she feel threatened? What is so special about her? If she is threatened by anyone, she should tell us as we are responsible for security here as central government.”
Ms. Zwambila has responded, telling the ABC in an interview, “My colleagues in Zimbabwe might be there but they are not safe, it’s well documented what has happened to the members of the Movement for Democratic Change. For him to tell me I am safe when they are the perpetrators of the smear campaign which has been perpetrated against me, what did you expect him to say? They never responded once to the smear campaigns which were going against me, they were the ones who were actually feeding their own newspapers.”
Her claims are supported by remarks Mr. Mugabe made to the New York Times after winning the July elections. He told the opposition to either accept defeat or commit suicide, that “dogs will not sniff at their flesh if they choose to die that way,” as well as declaring that they are “never going to rise again.” Former Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has argued that due to the Australian investment in Zimbabwe being confiscated, withdrawn or nationalized, a lacking economic relationship will limit how, or if, Zimbabwe can impose an effective protest to a potential protection visa being granted.
Australia’s relations with Zimbabwe over the last decade have been uneasy at best. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Foreign Minister Bob Carr openly questioned the results of the 2008 and 2013 elections. Mr. Carr also oversaw the amendment to the Autonomous Sanctions Regulations 2011 which targeted sanctions regime, authorizing thirty-three travel and financial bans on individuals and charging one Zimbabwean entity for seriously undermining democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe. Former Prime Minister, John Howard, openly criticized Zimbabwe and Mr. Mugabe personally, referring to him on one occasion as a “grubby dictator” and likening his regime to the Gestapo. Howard also banned the 2007 Australian cricket tour of Zimbabwe and frequently called upon other nations to take a tougher stance towards Mugabe’s undemocratic rule.
Australia’s unique history with Zimbabwe was not always this troubled. In 1979 the prime minister at the time, Malcolm Fraser, was one of the strongest advocates for Zimbabwean independence and was a close friend of Robert Mugabe. Since then however, relations have soured due to the concerns of corruption, coercion, and murder under the Mugabe regime. The historic relationship Australia shares with Zimbabwe is not the only international issue brought to light by Ambassador Zwambila’s defection.
Preventing asylum seekers from illegally entering Australia has remained one of the government’s most contentious policy topics for the past decade and adds to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s agenda in dealing with the issue. The current management of the issue has been focused on reducing Australia’s image as a possible haven for illegal migrants. This issue potentially highlights Australia as a possible refuge to escape violence or fear and will play into how the government publicly responds to the pending application.
Ambassador Zwambila, however, is not the first notable Zimbabwean to seek refuge in Australia. Rumbidzai Tsvangirai and her sister now call Australia home, due to the death threats received by their father, Morgan Tsvangirai. Her entire family has fled Zimbabwe to escape persecution. Other family members have settled in Canada and South Africa. Henry Olonga, Zimbabwe’s first black cricketer, also found temporary refuge in Australia to escape a warrant from Zimbabwe charging him with treason for wearing a black armband during the 2003 Cricket World Cup. The armband protested the death of democracy in Zimbabwe. The penalty for treason in Zimbabwe is death. Eddo Brandes, another Zimbabwean cricketer, escaped to Australia after deteriorating political conditions and the forceful loss of his family farm during Mugabe’s land reallocation movement.
Jacqueline Zwambila’s defection is another milestone in Australia’s unique historic and political relationship with Zimbabwe. Scott Morrison’s impending decision will be considered on merit through the normal application process. Ambassador Zwambila’s official post will be officially over on January 1st, 2014. In the meantime, Australia and Zimbabwe, despite their geographical distance, continue to share a close and evolving political history.