Gamu case just tip of the iceberg

X-factor singer Gamu Nhengu is facing waves of public support. Her immigration case outlines critical problems with Britain's prescriptive system.

Our guest writer is Ruth Grove-White policy officer at the Migrants’ Rights Network

The usual watercooler gossip provided by the X Factor has suddenly got serious, with the ITV show proving an unlikely springboard for a growing debate about government enforcement of immigration policy against migrants who fall foul of the rules in the UK.

Public sympathy is pouring out across the blogosphere and mainstream media for the young female ex-contestant, Gamu Nhengu, who is now facing deportation alongside her family from the UK to her country of origin, Zimbabwe. Although the exact details of the family’s case have not yet been made public, the plight of the Nhengu family has raised urgent questions about whether government efforts to ‘toughen up’ on immigrants in the UK have gone too far.

According to media reports, it seems that 18 year-old Nhengu had been living in Scotland with her mother, a nurse, for eight years, until her mother’s leave to remain expired this August. Although her mother had applied for further leave to remain, she reportedly filled in the wrong bank details on the form, delaying her application and leading to it becoming ‘out of time’. Under the immigration rules, out of time applications are generally refused on administrative grounds, leaving the applicant without legal permission to be in the UK and no right to appeal the decision. Nhengu and her family were served a deportation order, giving them a few days in which to return to Zimbabwe voluntarily, or face forced removal from the UK.

Nhengu and her family are now seeking a judicial review against the decision to remove them – their only chance of staying in the UK beyond the coming weekend. 245,800 people have pledged their support for the singer and her family, increasing the pressure on officials to review the case. There are also hopes that the pledged support of local MP Gordon Banks and Member of the Scottish Parliament Keith Brown will help to bring about a last minute change in the Home Office’s decision to remove the family.

But whatever happens, issues about the capacity of the UK’s increasingly squeezed immigration system to produce fair outcomes have been exposed.

The last government made the enforcement of increasingly tough immigration rules a core priority, with the aim of sending a strong message to the general public that the UK is no pushover when it comes to Johnny Foreigner. As a result, the capacity of the UK Border Agency to exercise proportionate levels of discretion in assessing people’s visa applications has been whittled away, leaving us with a system which is increasingly likely to make decisions that much of the public, if they knew about them, would view as unfair and irrational.

The overwhelming support for Nhengu and her family indicates that many people think it is not right that people who have lived and worked in the UK for years can be removed within a matter of days because of an administrative decision. How many of the 67,000 people who left the UK at the behest of the immigration authorities in 2009 also lost their right to remain here on similar grounds to Nhengu and her family?

The immediate issue facing the authorities now is whether they are prepared to act in accordance with public opinion as it is writ large in this case, by reviewing the removal order on Nhengu and her family. But their bigger challenge will be whether to address the wider causes of this case – never mind the watercooler, this is the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

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