Zimbabweans who fail to gain asylum will be forced to return

Britain is to begin the forced return of thousands of failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe in a change of policy condemned by human rights groups.

The Immigration minister, Damian Green, told MPs yesterday that Zimbabweans would now be treated like any other failed asylum seekers.

But he added that the policy will not be enforced until the Immigration and Asylum Chamber of the Unified Tribunal Service (IAC) gives further guidance on the "general safety of return to Zimbabwe".

The forcible return of refugees from the UK to Zimbabwe was halted four years ago, after the High Court ruled that opponents of President Robert Mugabe would be at risk.

Ministers first considered lifting the ban on removals after the presidential election of Morgan Tsvangirai in March 2008, but Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF followers embarked on a campaign of intimidation and violence in which more than 180 people – mostly supporters of Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change – were killed.

Those who are perceived as a threat to the regime are said to have been randomly abused, and supporters of Mr Mugabe in the UK are reported to have used videos to identify Zimbabwe refugees protesting outside the embassy building.

The Foreign Office says the situation in Zimbabwe has improved since 2008, but "remains unpredictable and could deteriorate". UK travellers are warned to avoid demonstrations and known trouble spots as "human rights abuses and instances of political violence continue, particularly in agricultural and mining areas".

Among those who could be affected by the decision is Gamu Nhengu, the former X Factor contestant whose family fled Zimbabwe eight years ago and now faces deportation. The UK Border Agency has refused to extend the family's visas. Sarah Harland, co-ordinator of the Zimbabwe Association, said: "We do not believe this is the right time for enforced returns, with control of the state security forces remaining in the hands of the perpetrators of violence." She said a recent international report warned of a further decline in the rule of law in Zimababwe.

She said it was important that the Government had conceded there were some Zimbabweans who still have a well-founded fear of persecution and would benefit from protection in the UK, and that no action would be taken until the end of the court case.

Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "We are concerned the Government plans to resume forcibly returning Zimbabwean asylum seekers to their country. However, it is encouraging that they recognise each individual case needs to be carefully considered before deciding whether to send them back."

Mr Green said the change in policy "does not reflect any change in our categorical opposition to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe", adding that the decision to resume enforced returns reflected the "improved stability in Zimbabwe since 2009 and the UK courts' view that not all Zimbabweans are in need of international protection."

He said: "Those who have no right to remain in the UK, and who choose not to return voluntarily, will then face enforced return, in exactly the same way as failed asylum seekers of all other countries.

"The courts have found that not all Zimbabweans need international protection, and given the improved situation since the formation of the inclusive government in 2009, the time is now right to bring our policy... into line with that of every other country. Those found not to be in need of protection have always been expected to return home."