A Nigerian mother who claims her two small daughters will have their genitals mutilated if they are deported back to Lagos has had a temporary reprieve, but remains in an immigration centre.
Afusat Saliu, 31, and her two daughters Bassy, four, and Rashidat, two, were detained on Wednesday and were due to fly to Lagos on a Virgin Atlantic flight last night. A social media storm followed, with Virgin owner Richard Branson bombarded with tweets and accused of hypocrisy because the company has previously campaigned on female genital mutilation.
Lawyers acting for Saliu launched an application for judicial review in a last-ditch attempt to keep her in Britain, and the family have remained in Britain overnight.
The trio were first taken to Sheffield, then to Cayley House near Heathrow, where they spent Wednesday night, and were moved again late on Thursday to Cedars detention centre near Gatwick.
Speaking from the detention centre, Saliu told ITV News: "I feel let down because (the Home Office) didn't give me the chance, they didn't care about my children and I came here to this country for protection.
"I'm scared of my extended family. My two girls, how can I protect them?
"I know how traumatic it is and I don't want my girls, these two innocent girls, to go through it."
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who was quizzed about the case yesterday on his LBC show has written to the Home Office to ask for further information on the case. Political pressure is mounting, with shadow immigration minister David Hansen MP and Saliu's MP, George Mudie also writing to Theresa May to ask her to halt the deportation until an application for a judicial review is heard.
Saliu, who fled while pregnant with now two-year-old daughter Rasidat, along with her toddler daughter Bassy, now four, underwent a traumatic mutilation herself, and was married by her family to a man 40 years her senior. The birth of Rasidat, after she was taken in by a women's shelter in London, was particularly traumatic because she had been cut, she said.
Friends of the family, who are Christian, have also warned they could be targeted by Islamic terror group Boko Haram, who recently kidnapped around 250 schoolgirls in Nigeria, if they are deported.
Anj Handa, the director of People Help People who has been campaigning on Saliu's behalf said the Home Office had "totally ignored" the rule that Saliu had to be given 72 hours notice of deportation. "Finally they have accepted that. She has been given an overnight reprieve, but the campaign is still very much ongoing and the lawyers are still working on her judicial review.
"We are still urging people to keep up the pressure to help her stay in this country while the case is reviewed."
Branson and his daughter Holly wrote a joint blogpost after the issue blew up on Twitter. "If Afusat Saliu and her family are deported to Nigeria, we call upon the UK and Nigerian governments to do all they can to protect the family and ensure they are not put at risk of female genital mutilation," it read.
"As we have previously stated, FGM is a horrendous practice and a serious violation of internationally recognised human rights. The authorities must ensure the Saliu family are given all support and protection possible.
"While Virgin Atlantic cannot confirm whether any passengers are or are not flying with them due to data protection laws, they would view any case like this with the safety and welfare of all passengers their primary concern."
The company has campaigned strongly on FGM, with Holly Branson writing a blog for the company website entitled: "It’s time to speak out against female genital mutilation."
More needs to be done, she said, to give "shelter and protection to victims and those at risk".
More than 120,000 people have backed a petition on Change.org to keep Saliu in the UK, where she fled from Nigeria after her family told her of imminent plans to take her toddler and then-unborn daughter to have their genitals cut.
Bhumika Parmar of BP Legal, Saliu’s solicitor, said on Thursday they had previously notified the Home Office that Judicial Review proceedings were underway to stop the deportation.
“Normal practise is that once Judicial Review is issued, the Home Office rarely removes [the person]," Parmar said. "In fact, their own guidelines state that detention should be a last resort. The process also requires 72 hours’ notice prior to removal and this was not given.”
A Home Office spokesperson said it could not comment on individual cases but said: "The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and we consider every claim for asylum on its individual merits.
"We believe that those who fail to establish a genuine fear of persecution should return home voluntarily. If they do not, we will enforce their removal.”
The case echoes the mass public outrage over the deportation of 19-year-old Mauritius-born student Yashika Bageerathi. More than 175,000 people signed a petition to keep Bageerathi in the country to take her A-Level examinations but the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.
It was reported at the time that British Airways refused to fly the teen back to Mauritius, but she was eventually taken back to the country via Air Mauritius.