Thousands of failed Zimbabwean asylum-seekers face enforced removal to their home country after the Government won a landmark court ruling that clears the way for deportations.
Refugee groups warned that the decision could result in Zimbabweans who sought sanctuary in Britain from Robert Mugabe's regime facing persecution upon their return.
They have fought a legal battle with the Home Office, which insists it has the power to deport Zimbabweans to deter other unwarranted asylum-seekers.
Between 7,000 and 9,000 people could be affected by the ruling by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (AIT) that failed asylum-seekers sent back to the African nation did not automatically run the risk of ill treatment. The Home Office signalled last night that it hoped deportations could begin within weeks.
It urged care over the return of people who were prominent in opposition parties or had criminal records, but said deportations were safe in principle.
Protesters outside the tribunal registered their alarm over the decision and warned it could have dire consequences.
Arthur Molife, who already has leave to remain in the UK, said: "The Zimbabweans have lost here today. It hurts."
He told supporters: "If you people are serious, take it up on the British streets today."
Tim Finch, spokesman for the Refugee Council, said the Government had won a legal victory, but lost the moral argument. "We still think it's not safe to remove anybody to Zimbabwe in the present circumstances. Ministers should exercise the principle of safety first," he said.
More than 750 Zimbabweans claimed asylum in the first three months of the year, more than any other nationality. Fifty-five have so far been given permission to stay, while 540 applications have been rejected. Over the past five years an estimated 15,000 Zimbabweans have sought asylum in Britain.
Liam Byrne, the Immigration minister, welcomed the removal of the blanket ban on sending people back to the country. He said: "Enforcing the return of those who have no right to remain here is a key part of upholding a robust and fair asylum system.
"We recognise there are Zimbabweans who are in genuine fear of persecution and that is why we have granted them asylum, but it is only right we remove those who seek to abuse our hospitality."
The wrangle over the removal of Zimbabweans dates back four years, with deportations suspended over much of that period.
The AIT had initially ruled that applying for asylum in Britain meant people were in danger if they were returned. But the Court of Appeal ruled three months ago that the tribunal had "erred in law" and ordered it to reconsider its decision.
In hearings last year, Mark Henderson of the Refugee Legal Centre, said failed asylum-seekers sent back were considered "traitors" and "Blair's spies" by the Mugabe regime.
The legal centre said last night: "We are disappointed with the result in this case and we are considering the legal options available for challenging this decision. In the meantime, we urge the Home Office to maintain the suspension on removals to Zimbabwe."
Mafungasei Maikokera: 'We just wanted to sleep peacefully'
The 25-year-old claimed asylum in Britain four years ago, but her application was rejected seven months later.
She has since taken a lead in the campaign against enforced removals.
After a spell in a detention centre, immigration officers tried to deport her last year. But they abandoned the attempt after a scuffle on board a plane about to take off for southern Africa.
She said yesterday she was resigned to being returned and feared for her safety from the Mugabe regime. "I was expecting something better from the decision here that would allow us to sleep peacefully. Instead we have nightmares."Reuse content