Attempts by the British Government to force asylum-seekers to return home and lie about their political allegiance to avoid persecution will be challenged in the Supreme Court tomorrow. Thousands of people sheltering in Britain face deportation to some of the world's most brutal regimes if the Government wins the landmark legal battle.
The test case, to be heard over two days, focuses on the experience of a 31-year-old Zimbabwean woman known as RT, whose asylum claim was rejected in 2009. The Government argues that she can hide her opposition to the ruling party Zanu-PF and the country's despotic leader Robert Mugabe.
But the Appeal Court ruled in October 2010 that if RT, and others like her, are sent back to a country such as Zimbabwe and face interrogation about their politics, Britain could not require them to lie. The Home Office appealed, asking the Supreme Court for a final decision.
Jawaid Luqmani, RT's solicitor, said: "It is an issue of principle. If you are effectively saying, 'it's all right, you just go back and lie', you have the UK condoning lying as a means of self-preservation, and that smells horrible."
He said that the case would have an impact beyond Zimbabwean asylum-seekers, as the same arguments would apply "to a number of autocratic regimes".
RT comes from an area of Zimbabwe that is a stronghold for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). She left the country 10 years ago and came to Britain on a student visa, later seeking asylum in 2009, saying she was afraid to go back.
Dave Garratt of the charity Refugee Action said it was a matter of principle that "a person should not be expected to lie about their political belief in order to avoid persecution upon return to their country of origin". He added: "Even if they were willing to do so, individuals may struggle to convince the authorities of their loyalty to the regime. This may be for reasons of length of time spent in the UK, or their unfamiliarity with the political messages, activities or even campaign songs that they may be required to recount."
The challenge to the Home Office stems from a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that gay asylum-seekers should not be deported if their safety is dependent on them lying about their identity. But the ruling could also apply to other cases where Britain is deporting people on the expectation that they can lie about other issues, such as their politics or religion.
Dakarayi Mtisi, an immigration solicitor, said: "There are thousands of people from countries with oppressive regimes waiting on this case. Once the decision comes the reasoning behind it will be equally applicable to other countries."
The Border Agency said it is appealing "to clarify the extent to which the strength of an individual's political beliefs should be taken into account" when considering their claim.
But legal experts say the Government is trying to set a precedent that will force people to go home and pretend that they support unpalatable regimes so the UK can reduce immigration numbers.
Mr Mtisi said: "You can't compel someone to lie. Britain is saying you must lie so that you can go back safely. It means the UK is trying to run away from its international obligations under the UN convention."
Molly Ngaivambe is one whose fate could rest on the outcome. The 50-year-old Zimbabwean is a member of the opposition MDC who fled to Britain in 2001. Last year she was told that she could be safe if she returned to a different part of Zimbabwe and simply kept quiet about her politics.
"It doesn't work at all. I can't pretend to support Zanu-PF," she said. "They'd need you to have a card and do their slogans. Everything we are suffering is because of Zanu-PF, so how can I pretend I support them? People are dying because of them. The Home Office said I would not be at risk if I went to Matabeleland, but I'm not from there and I can't even speak the language."
Judith Dennis of the Refugee Council said: "We're very worried that government asylum policy is geared towards keeping people out. If people are going to be persecuted then they have to be recognised as refugees. We have to provide protection.
"The refugee convention says you must not return people to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. Asking people to lie threatens that – and the principle of what it means to be free. It would be very concerning if as a result of this case people were forced to choose between persecution and freedom."
A UK Border Agency spokesman said: "The UK has a proud record of offering sanctuary to those who need it, and carefully consider each individual case. But where they do not qualify for protection they must return to their home country."