Britain is set to deport a 31-year-old Nigerian woman and her two daughters to Lagos tonight, despite the mother's fear that her daughters will be subject to female genital cutting if they return to their native country.
Afusat Saliu left Nigeria for Britain in late 2011 and filed an asylum claim there in May 2012, according to Bhumika Parma, her lawyer. She fled following threats by her stepmother to perform a ritual cutting of her daughter's genitals. Saliu had been subject to the same experience as a young child, and was determined to protect her daughter from the practice, Parma said.
The practice, called female genital mutilation or female genital cutting, is banned in the United Kingdom. It is also illegal for any British citizen or permanent resident to perform the practice in the UK or abroad, or to assist in getting the practice performed by a citizen or national.
Saliu and her daughters are ineligible from these protections because they are not citizens or permanent residents, Parmar said.
The British Home Office, which oversees immigration and which issued the deportation order for Saliu, in February published a public statement opposing FGM. The aid arm of the British government, known as Dfid, launched a campaign in February to end FGM around the world within a generation.
Saliu's asylum claim was based on the likelihood that her daughter would be subject to FGM and was "refused based on her credibility as they say," Parma said. Parma filed a judicial review application, which is still pending.
It's the first time in Parma's six years as an immigration lawyer that the British government has moved to deport someone before the judicial review has been concluded, she said.
Saliu's eldest daughter is now six; she also has a four-year-old daughter, who was born in Britain. The girls and their mother are being held at Heathrow Airport awaiting a 10 p.m. flight to deport them to Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital.
"The eldest one can't even remember Nigeria and the little one's never been because she was born here," Parmar said.
The British Home Office, which handles asylum claims, does not comment on individual cases. Generally, though, it is up to "the asylum seeker to provide evidence for their particular case on the above grounds, which may or may not include FGM. A decision will then be made by immigration judges based on the strength of the evidence before them," Sarah Buxton, a press officer for the Home Office, wrote in an email.
Pressure is mounting on Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines, to block the deportation, which is scheduled to take place on a Virgin flight.
A Virgin spokesperson told the Guardian in a statement: "It is not for the airline to refuse to carry a deportee passenger on the grounds of their immigration case, as the airline has no knowledge of individual cases. It is for the Home Office to make immigration policy and take decisions of this nature."
Branson's daughter, Holly, spoke out against FGM in March in an article for "Virgin United," the non-profit and social advocacy arm of her father's company. "I want to live in a world where FGM is a thing of the past, and I know that if we stand together, we can end the practice once and for all in our lifetimes," Branson wrote.