Afusat Saliu, 31, fears her daughters will become victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) if the family returns to Nigeria.
Afusat arrived in the UK in 2011, heavily pregnant with her younger daughter, Rashidat, now two. She claims she fled her native Nigeria after her stepmother threatened to subject her older daughter, Bassy, now four, to the ritual cutting.
Female genital mutilation is often carried out by untrained 'cutters' in unsanitary conditions and has been linked to serious health problems. A 2008 survey indicated that 30 per cent of Nigerian women had been cut, 80 per cent of them before the age of five.
Afusat underwent the procedure as a child, and says she refuses to let her daughters meet the same fate. But Home Office officials arrived at the family home in Leeds yesterday with orders to deport her and her daughters back to Nigeria after her asylum application was rejected.
The story caught the attention of Twitter users, who bombarded Virgin Atlantic and owner Richard Branson with messages in support of Afusat, asking the airline to refuse to carry her.
Billionaire Branson appeared sympathetic to Afusat's plight, posting an official statement on the company's website in which he called FGM a 'horrendous practice'. It called upon the UK and Nigerian governments to work together to stamp out the procedure.
And it seems to have worked, for the time being at least. The family were scheduled to leave the UK on a Virgin Atlantic flight to Lagos at 10.20pm last night, but a family friend said they had received a last minute reprieve and were not on board the flight.
However, Afusat and her daughters could still be deported any day unless their case is reassessed by the Home Office. The family's legal counsel are now pushing for a last-ditch judicial review which they hope might keep the trio in the UK.
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