By Dominic Casciani
Mugabe and Tsvangirai: Power-sharing deal under pressure
The Home Office has announced it wants to resume the removal of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers.
Immigration minister Phil Woolas said the ground was being cleared to start enforced returns "as and when the political situation develops".
The BBC understands the UK Border Agency could start returns in the New Year, but no firm date has been set.
Asylum groups have reacted with alarm, saying the country is too volatile to consider forcibly returning anyone.
Some 28,000 Zimbabweans have sought asylum over the past decade, but none have been removed since late 2006 because of a series of legal rulings on the safety of the country.
Mr Woolas said officials were considering resuming removals following the launch of the power-sharing government led by President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition MDC party.
"As Prime Minister Tsvangirai has set out, including during a visit to the UK in June, there have been some positive changes in the situation in Zimbabwe over the past six months.
"While a great deal remains to be done to institute the political and other reforms set out in the Global Political Agreement, the indiscriminate violence which marred the elections of 2008 has abated."
Mr Woolas said the UK Border Agency would spend the autumn working "on a process aimed at normalising our returns policy to Zimbabwe, moving towards resuming enforced returns progressively as and when the political situation develops".
ZIMBABWEAN ASYLUM SEEKERS IN THE UK
Asylum applicants 1999 - 2008: 28,000
Given refugee status: 4,480 (19%)
Granted other rights to stay: 390 (2%)
Refused: 17,705 (74%)
Legal ruling barred most removals in 2006
Voluntary returns 07-08: 345
Voluntary returns 2009: 89
Sources: Official figures and refugee agencies
He also announced there would be more cash offered to any failed Zimbabwean asylum applicant who wanted to return voluntarily.
The new scheme includes up to £2,000 in cash and a further £4,000 of support-in-kind for education or starting a business.
The announcement comes during a tense week in Zimbabwe. The MDC says there has been increased violence from militants in President Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. Prime Minister Tsvangirai then boycotted the second cabinet meeting in as many weeks.
And on Wednesday the UN's torture investigator was refused entry to Zimbabwe. African ministers are now in the country for crisis talks.
Sarah Harland of the Zimbabwe Association said there was widespread evidence that some returning asylum seekers had already suffered abuse and violence.
She said that while those who wanted to return would welcome the additional financial help, that had come with the "threat of removal for those who don't".
"It's really disappointing that the UKBA is acting in this way," she said. "Our worry is that those who listen to what the Home Office is saying could put themselves at risk.
"The situation could not be more volatile at the moment."
Amnesty International said the decision was straight out of "Yes Minister", flying in the face of evidence of violence. And Donna Covey, of the Refugee Council, accused the Home Office of being cavalier.
"After the farcical attempts to return Iraqis and Afghans in recent weeks against UN advice, it is of great concern that the government are now considering returns to Zimbabwe," she said.