Zimbabwean asylum seekers in Britain face an uncertain future after a High Court hearing on April 12 effectively gave the Home Office the power to send them home.
The government was challenging a ruling from October in which the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal judged that it was unsafe to deport asylum seekers to Zimbabwe, and that refugee status should currently be given to anyone from that country.
Three judges allowed the appeal, but the cases of the individual asylum seekers involved — known as A.A. and L.K. — will be referred back to the tribunal to be heard again.
Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, says although the Home Office maintains it does not intend to begin forcibly returning asylum seekers to Zimbabwe, the decision leaves a question mark over their future.
"We are very much back into a game of legal ping-pong, but it's not a game for the thousands of people who are waiting to find out if they will be sent back to face Mugabe's regime. We should not underestimate the dangers they face — people fleeing to the U.K. are seen as traitors, and a conviction for treason in Zimbabwe can carry the death penalty."
Maeve Sherlock says the original decision was a common sense reaction to what is currently an extremely volatile situation in Zimbabwe under the regime of President Robert G. Mugabe:
"It did not result in masses of Zimbabweans coming to our shores. It merely meant that people could get some temporary respite from the dangers they faced. Unfortunately they will now face uncertainty once again.
"We would ask the government to show compassion by ending this legal limbo and restore the moratorium on returning people to Zimbabwe, so that Zimbabweans who have come here looking for safety can actually go to bed at night without worrying they will be returned home the next day," she said.
Since the ruling in October, most Zimbabwean asylum seekers have effectively been left destitute, as they get no state support. They are not entitled to housing and are not allowed to work.
"The government has described the situation in Zimbabwe as a 'nightmare regime' and has pledged to support those who can restore good governance there. We should be supporting those who have sought sanctuary here until they feel it is safe to return, and equipping them to rebuild Zimbabwe and restore democracy," Maeve Sherlock added.
John O, a campaigner for the rights of refugees and immigrants with the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns described the decision by the High Court to uphold the government's appeal against the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (A.I.T.) as "devastating."
"In short, the courts ruled that A.I.T. erred in ruling that Zimbabwean asylum seekers should be automatically recognized as refugees. That each case had to be decided on an individual basis rather than introducing an overall ban on removing failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers from the U.K.
"More worrying was the court's observation that if there was no danger to those who had returned to Zimbabwe voluntary then it would follow that those who did fear persecution as a result of forced removal could not be refugees," he said.
The tribunal will now have to hold a new hearing and reconsider all the issues afresh.
"They will also have to look again at whether returning failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe voluntarily or involuntarily would put them at risk. There is no indication yet as to when the A.I.T. will hold the hearing.
"Though there is no immediate danger of a resumption of removals to Zimbabwe, failed asylum seekers from Zimbabwe are once again living in uncertainty as to whether they will once again face deportation," John O said.
One Zimbabwean asylum seeker, a journalist in her own country, said that if she returned at present she would face "interrogation, torture or worse."
"People don't realize quite how bad the situation is there. It really saddens me," she said. "I'm going to fight until the end of the world to ensure my children and I are not sent back there to suffer."
She added that she felt "in limbo" while she was here, not being able to work.
"It's so frustrating it hurts your mind to know you are capable of so much but you are not allowed. Since I've been here I've volunteered here, there and everywhere but it's very hard to support my family. I feel trapped, and I just wish they would allow us to contribute by working."
The judgment was made at the Royal Courts of Justice, by Lord Justice Brooke, Lord Justice Laws and Sir Christopher Staughton.
The Home Office was appealing the decision in October on the Country Guidance case A.S.A., which found that it was not safe to remove Zimbabwean asylum seekers forcibly from the U.K. back to Zimbabwe.
The Conservative's shadow home secretary, David Davis, called on the British government to put in place a rigorous method of monitoring the continuing safety of those returned to Zimbabwe.
"The reason for this whole court case is the abject failure of the government's policy on Zimbabwe, with its dreadful consequences for the citizens of Zimbabwe and their opposition to the Mugabe regime.
"Last year we called for the government to put in place a rigorous method of monitoring the continuing safety of those returned to Zimbabwe. The government must now show they have done this and not simply wasted the past few months. Otherwise, we will not know the fate of the people sent back and what the Mugabe regime does to them," Davis said.
This article first appeared on the World Press Review.