High Court judges are set to decide the fate of thousands of asylum-seekers living in the UK this week as they consider whether the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo is "safe".
Renewed fighting broke out in eastern Congo yesterday as government troops and rebels exchanged fire for 10 minutes, perilously close to two makeshift camps of some 60,000 refugees created by the conflict. A special envoy from the UN has been flown in for emergency talks today, as the organisation said that the conflict had created a humanitarian catastrophe.
Against the background of this chaos, Britain has had a moratorium on removals of failed asylum-seekers to the DRC since August last year, pending a decision by an asylum and immigration tribunal.
The UK Government had ruled that the DRC was a safe place for migrants to return to, despite a body of evidence that those sent back from the UK face persecution on arrival. But an appeal against this ruling will be heard in the High Court on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
Current estimates suggest that there are between 4,000 and 5,000 Congolese people in the UK whose asylum claims have been rejected.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is currently advising against all travel to eastern and north-eastern parts of the DRC, and all but essential trips to the rest of the country, because of "continued insecurity and lawlessness". Yet the Home Office maintains that there is "no real risk of ill treatment" to failed asylum-seekers outside the eastern region.
Hani Zubeidi of the solicitors' firm Fadiga & Co, which has many Congolese clients fighting removal, said: "The risk of serious harm in the DRC is acknowledged by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but the Home Office has yet to acknowledge the same. The Home Office position is that the government of Joseph Kabila respects democracy; our evidence suggests that this is nonsense, but until the court acknowledges that, these people will be sent back.
"If the case is dismissed and the appeal rights are exhausted they will be returned to a country which, our evidence shows, will systematically abuse them. They will be sent to a place that does not respect human rights."
Lawyers involved in the case have submitted evidence that arriving in the DRC as a returned asylum-seeker in the current climate is a risk in itself. Travelling from the UK on emergency documents not passports, returned migrants would immediately be flagged up as people who had fled the country – an act lawyers say the Kabila government will view as confirmation of treachery.
According to the defence, a group of 38 asylum-seekers who were sent on a charter flight from London to Kinshasa in February last year were detained and tortured on arrival. Although they were accompanied by British embassy officials through the airport, their addresses were taken and within days of arrival they were arrested. In prison, many were beaten and – in some cases – raped by officials.
The human rights abuses taking place in the DRC since war broke out in the eastern region of the country have been well documented. But evidence suggests that the safety of those who have peacefully campaigned for democracy elsewhere in the country is just as precarious.
"Mary", 57, is one of those whose life hangs in the balance. She fled to the UK in 2005 and is now living in Cardiff. She has chosen not to reveal her name, as she fears that return – and the persecution she expects to go with it – may now become a reality.
"I'm very worried," she said. "I managed to escape prison, where I had been because I took part in demonstrations for the opposition party. They gave me every kind of punishment and told me I was going to die. I have scars all over my body. If I go back I'm scared they will put me in prison again. The conditions there are very bad; women are raped and beaten."
Innocent Empi, of the Congo Support Project, is one of the lucky ones who has been granted refugee status, but he continues to lobby the British Government to show compassion.
"We are just hoping that a good result will come," he said. "If they rule that there was no error of law they will be able to send back thousands of Congolese people sheltering here. People are very afraid of being sent back. They are having nightmares about it. I just hope the judge will take into account the persecution that failed DRC asylum-seekers are facing if they are forcibly removed to Kinshasa."
"Antoinette", also too afraid to give her real name, is another of the thousands of Congolese asylum-seekers sheltering in Britain who are terrified at the thought of being sent back. "Our country is still in war," she said. "It is not a safe place. They will kill us there, but the British Government still want us to go. I just hope they have mercy on us."
No safe homecoming: 'Britain will be sending people to their deaths'
Marie Ntumba Katamba, 51, who claimed asylum in the UK in 2005 after escaping prison, is living in fear that this week's court case will mean she is forced to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo. She was arrested in her home country after taking part in pro-democracy rallies in the capital, Kinshasa, for the opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress.
"I was abused in prison," she says. "I don't like to think about it; it destroyed my life." Her asylum claim was rejected because the Home Office maintains that Kinshasa is safe, but she says if she returns she will be put straight back into custody.
"I like my country, but as long as Kabila is in charge, it is not safe for me. In Kinshasa they kill people every day for their political beliefs. The British Government says the Congo is safe, but it will be sending people to their deaths."