In the early morning darkness of Wednesday 16th January, immigration officials carried out what Plymouth Labour MP, Linda Gilroy, describes as a “dawn swoop” on a mother and her six children. They were then taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre in preparation for deportation to Lagos on the 12.50pm flight on Saturday 19th January.
The family came to the UK in 2003, but divorced because of the husband’s cruel treatment. He returned to Nigeria and his wife, Helen, sought asylum to prevent the family having to return to the risk of continued abuse. Since 2005 the family have lived in Plymouth. With asylum status preventing Helen from gaining paid employment, she has been a volunteer with a local refugee agency as well as becoming a governor of one of the schools attended by her children.
The head-teacher of that school told the Plymouth evening newspaper that he considered the Home Office’s actions ‘inhuman and un-Christian’, adding, “It’s a really sad loss. We are a Christian country and should have Christian values”.
At the church where the family worship, Father Sam Philpott called them ‘model citizens’, saying he hoped they would be allowed to stay in Plymouth: “They have made a real mark because they are decent people and make themselves at home in your hearts.”
Many local people feel it cannot be right that a family contributing so much should be treated this way. The manner of their detention makes it particularly cruel. Nineteen-year-old Siobhan Millar, a friend of Helen’s daughter Theresa, told me:
“My closest friends and I were supposed to be attending a meal to celebrate Theresa’s birthday on the day that we were informed she was actually being held in a detention centre. It was such a shock, the worst thing was not knowing how to contact her in order to tell her we love her and we’ll do all we can to help her and her family.”
Particularly distressing is the fact that Helen’s 14-year old son, Emmanuel suffers from sickle cell disease. As Helen told the Independent newspaper:
“I’m very scared about returning to Nigeria; firstly because of my husband, but also because of Emmanuel’s health. With his sickle cell, a single bout of malaria can kill him now and I’m scared for his life.”
My own 14-year old son, Daniel, said of Emmanuel:
”Emmanuel and I have been going to school together for several years. He came to my birthday last year and I consider him a very good friend. By sending them back to Nigeria, they are endangering their lives, especially Emmanuel’s, because he has sickle cell disease.”
This factor has now caused a delay in the deportation, as the Home Office acknowledged it would be illegal to deport under these circumstances. However, the current concession is to allow two to three weeks for anti-malarial treatment before deportation. Linda Gilroy has arranged a meeting to discuss the case with immigration Minister Liam Byrne this week, but explained in a letter to supporters of the family:
“I will certainly press the minister to use any discretion he may have – but I do not want your expectations to be raised that this will produce a change in the decision that eventually Helen and her family will have to return to Nigeria.”
Family supporters are now doing all they can to prevent this outcome, and none have done more than school friends of the children. This has included establishing a group on Facebook, which explains:
“We are all teenagers. We’ve been told we can’t make a difference – but we have. Yesterday we were told “to get back to our Playstations and stop playing politics”. But we have lobbied our MP and refugee bodies, and they have secured a three week reprieve for Emmanuel: they were initially going to fly him out today.
“Join with us, now. Join our group. We want thousands of names signed up to our campaign by Monday. We have to raise awareness of this situation. We have to save Emmanuel and his family, and we want to prove that we have real power.”
With a target of 25,000 names, within little more than 24 hours the group had received 2,500. Other ideas include a video on ‘Youtube’, an e-petition on the Downing Street web site, and a protest march. Siobhan Millar reflected the response of the organisers:
“It’s really good that everyone is pulling together across all generations to try and support this campaign.”
E-mail messages can be sent to the Home Secretary, Jacquie Smith:
Categorised in: Article
This post was written by Mike Sheaff