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No compassion or common sense

11 April 2014

Did the Home Office need to deport an 18-year-old, weeks before A levels, asks Steve Chalke


Family campaign: demonstrators outside Parliament on 29 March protest over the deportation of Yashika Bageerathi

Family campaign: demonstrators outside Parliament on 29 March protest over the deportation of Yashika Bageerathi

A TEENAGE student at one ofour academies was deported on Wednesday of last week. I am angry about it.

I am angry because she has been sent into a dangerous situation. I am angry because she has been torn from her mother and prevented from finishing her education, and, most of all, because, with a dose of common sense, this could have been avoided.

No one pretends that these situations are simple. Nor has any part of our "Fight For Yashika" campaign, which is being led by students, sought to pretend that we do not need robust laws that govern asylum and immigration. But we have certainly been fighting against the status quo - against a system that has become so bureaucratic and blind to the circumstances of those it deals with that it has grown unable to show any compassion or common sense.

YASHIKA BAGEERATHI and her family arrived in this country because they were fleeing a dangerous and violent situation in Mauritius. Eventually, they claimed asylum in the UK. Sadly, this request was turned down. I may not like the decision, but I recognise that we have to live within the law.

On behalf of Oasis, however, I made an open offer to the Home Secretary: Let Yashika remain in the UK for just a few more months, to sit her A levels. Then, in the summer, after her exams are complete, along with the GCSEs of her younger sister (also a student with us), we will work with Yashika and her family to ensure that they leave the UK safely together, as a unit.

In fact, Mrs Bageerathi had publicly stated that, if her family's asylum case failed, she would leave the UK after the exams that her two daughters are sitting this summer.

The Home Office, however, responded by taking this vulnerable girl away from her family, and placing her, alone, in Yarl's Wood Detention Centre, for six weeks during December and January (including Christmas and New Year), and, again, for two weeks in March.

Moreover, three times she was put through the ordeal of suddenly being informed that she would be deported imminently. On the first occasion, she was driven to Gatwick in a van, only to be turned around at the last minute and returned to the detention centre.

On the second, she was informed at the eleventh hour that the decision had been reversed - both confusing and distressing events in themselves. On the third instance, escorted by five guards, she was placed on a flight from Heathrow, seated in an isolated position in the plane, and flown to a country where, as far as our authorities were concerned, there was no one to meet her.

THE Bible is clear: it is our God-given responsibility to take care of the widow, the fatherless, and the refugee. These words, originally given to an ancient people, still challenge our culture's moral consciousness. Perhaps it is true that, in the end, you can judge any society by its sense of compassion for those who are most vulnerable. So I have some questions.

Separating young people from their families and removing them when they reach the age of 18 may well help meet government removal targets, but it is surely not humane or compassionate. Although young people reaching 18 are classified as adults, in reality, this does not necessarily denote that they are suddenly able to look after themselves and operate autonomously. It is time to review the law.

I understand that there are occasions when detention is needed to ensure the removal of unsuccessful asylum-seekers, but I cannot see the necessity for Yashika. Leaving her in her local community would not have represented any risk of her absconding. She could be easily found, on any day, at our academy or at home with her family.

Home Office guidance itself states that a young person under the age of 18 may not be removed from the UK within three months of his or her examinations. But the 18-year age limit is a nonsense, as the vast majority (83 per cent) of A-level students have turned 18 by the time they take their exams. The criteria should surely be linked to the completion of the course rather than age.

Why would a compassionate response, which would have allowed Yashika to remain in the UK until the end of June, by which time she would have completed her A levels, have been so difficult to allow?

The rule of law exists to protect us, but, of course, a blind and unthinking commitment to the rule book achieves the opposite. Then, those facing removal are treated as targets to hit rather than human beings with cases to consider.

I call on the Home Office to review its guidance in relation to the asylum claims of 18-year-olds in relation to these issues. If this happens, I believe that our country will be nearer to treating young asylum-seekers with the compassion and dignity that they deserve.

The Revd Steve Chalke is founder of the Oasis Trust, a social-care charity that runs a number of academies.

For more information on the campaign for Yashika, visit www.oasisuk.org/article.aspx?menuId=34680.

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