A ONE-TIME street child from Vietnam, fostered by a priest and his wife, in Co. Durham, is facing deportation.
Criminals kidnapped Stephen (not his real name) when he was 12, and trafficked him into Britain, where he worked for four years as a slave in illegal cannabis farms. In 2015, he was freed by police and found sanctuary with the Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Shildon, the Revd David Tomlinson, and his wife, Davina.
But last month his application for Asylum and Humanitarian Protection, which was supported by the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, was rejected by the Home Office. The decision has angered his MP, Helen Goodman, who, in a letter to the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, described it as “grotesque”, and labelled the officials’ assessment as “inadequate”.
Stephen, who is now 19, was born in rural north Vietnam, but was abandoned as a baby into the care of an older woman. She died when he was nine, and he moved to Hanoi to work on the streets — shining shoes, selling papers, and delivering drugs to survive. Eventually, gangsters promised him a job in Europe, and a loan of $5000 to get there. But he never saw any money, and was told when he arrived that he had to work to pay it off.
Mr Tomlinson said: “He was kept in houses with no access to the outside world for about 12 weeks at a time, until the cannabis was harvested, and then moved on. According to the Home Office, trafficked children are meant to be treated differently, because they don’t come here under their own efforts; but the rejection of his request to stay treated him as an illegal immigrant rather than a trafficked child.”
Stephen is appealing the decision at an immigration tribunal on Tyneside next month. Mr Tomlinson said: “The letter of rejection says ‘You came to this country.’ He didn’t, he was forced to come.
“They argue that he has had a family life since 2010, which is quite simply not true: he was in captivity. He had known no normal home life until he came to us.
“He spoke no English. We communicated using an iPhone translator app. He is a quiet, hard-working person who wants to get on. He would like to have his own business, maybe a restaurant: he is very keen on cooking. He now goes to college, and is desperate to work, but he is not allowed to. He wants nothing more than to be able to earn a living.
“He has all the interests of an average English teenager: he enjoys music, social media, going on YouTube. He has made friends and has a girlfriend; he is making a life here for himself. He has no family in Vietnam, and has no one to go back to.”
Stephen has become a Christian, and was confirmed by Bishop Butler in 2016, but his faith could put him in danger in Vietnam. “While it is nominally a Buddhist country, any kind of faith is discouraged by the regime, and Christianity is persecuted,” Mr Tomlinson said. “The official view is that Christianity is the interference of foreign powers in the life of the nation.”
He could also fall prey to trafficking gangs, who patrol the airports looking for people like him. “He is a skilled cannabis grower, which is worth money to them.”