Elderly Britons in Zimbabwe will get help to leave

LONDON Mon Feb 23, 2009 3:37pm GMT

LONDON (Reuters) - Hundreds of elderly British nationals living in Zimbabwe will be offered help to resettle in Britain, the government said on Monday.

Due to the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, some British people living there were facing severe difficulties getting access to food, medicines and care, Local Government Minister John Healey said in a statement to parliament.

The government was concerned about "older and vulnerable British people who may be increasingly unable to support themselves in Zimbabwe and who are unable to return to the UK without assistance," he said.

The government was ready to offer resettlement help to British nationals in this situation who were aged 70 or over and who needed care or medical treatment, he said.

Up to 750 elderly Britons are expected to take up the offer over the next 18 months, Healey said.

Zimbabwe has suffered an economic breakdown under President Robert Mugabe, 85, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980.

It suffers unemployment levels above 90 percent, prices double every day, half the 12 million population need food aid and a cholera epidemic has killed nearly 3,500 people.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister this month as part of a power-sharing deal that has raised hopes among Zimbabweans of an end to widespread hardship.

Nevertheless, Healey said, some British people had been badly affected by the collapse of the Zimbabwean infrastructure "and we cannot expect this to be put right overnight."

He said the government would provide accommodation and early access to benefits for people who resettled in Britain.

He stressed the British Embassy was not advising people to leave Zimbabwe.

The British Foreign Office says about 12,500 British nationals are registered with the British Embassy in Zimbabwe.

Despite Tsvangirai joining the government, Britain has said the lifting of sanctions is dependent on Zimbabwe releasing political prisoners and pushing through economic reforms.

(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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