Madonna is reunited with Mercy in London

Singer's three-year-old adopted daughter arrives from Malawi en route to a life of luxury in New York

Behind her: a country torn apart by poverty and disease, a father whom she has hardly met, a smouldering legal row about the wisdom of international adoption, and 10,000 toddlers who, as she once did, face growing up in orphanages.

In front of her: a life of comfort and privilege with the singer Madonna.

Chifundo "Mercy" James, aged three, was in London yesterday after reportedly boarding a private jet from Malawi with the singer's staff late on Friday night. Airport insiders and sources close to the long-running court case said Mercy was accompanied by a nanny, a child nurse and another of Madonna's aides as she jetted out of Africa, and was due to arrive yesterday morning. Madonna, her other children and a security entourage flew into Heathrow on Friday afternoon.

Mercy's flight marked the final chapter in Madonna's attempt to gain custody of the girl, whose teenage mother died in childbirth. The singer had been urged by child welfare charities to abandon the plan, and her application was denied by a Malawian judge in April on the grounds that she had not lived in the impoverished African nation for more than a year.

Madonna has been criticised for raising hope when thousands of children will not be treated to the same level of help. Mavuto Bamusi, national co-ordinator of Malawi's Human Rights Commission, said: "Inter-country adoption is not the best way of providing protection to children. They should grow up in familiar cultural and religious surroundings."

But as politicians and social workers argued about adoption laws, Madonna's appeal succeeded and on 12 June, a judge overturned the original verdict. The Malawi High Court noted the work Madonna had done for children through her Raising Malawi charity, including £12m of personal donations. In Malawi, a child who has lost one parent is classed as an orphan. Mercy's father, James Kambewa, withdrew an objection, asking only that he is given updates of his daughter's whereabouts and progress.

The singer is just weeks away from the start of a European tour and her publicists refused to be drawn on how Mercy will fit into family life over the next few weeks, confirming only that their client was "ecstatic" at the result of the legal proceedings.

She already has two biological children – Lourdes, 13, and Rocco, eight – and adopted David Banda, a Malawian orphan, in 2006. Madonna's representatives in Malawi suggested Mercy will grow up in the United States rather than London. A newly decorated room and a treehouse apparently await her in her New York home, a contrast to the Kondanani Children's Village orphanage in Bvumbwe where the singer first met Mercy. In a statement, Madonna said: "My family and I are looking forward to sharing our lives with her."