A model immigrant, betrayed by Britain

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The Independent Online

When Damilola Ajagbonna first sat down in a British classroom eight years ago his thick Nigerian accent earned him the nickname "fresh off the boat", while in the playground he was shunned because he didn't own a tennis racket.

But Mr Ajagbonna, now 19, was determined to succeed, and last year he was offered a place at Cambridge University to study social and political science.

Today Mr Ajagbonna, described by a judge as a "remarkable" young man, faces being forcibly removed to Nigeria because he was six weeks late claiming British citizenship under immigration rules for children.

The decision has perplexed those who have watched him emerge as a model citizen. At the same time, immigration experts say his plight highlights the injustice and arbitrary nature of the law, as well as raising unsettling questions about the purpose of British immigration policy.

For Mr Ajagbonna, the revelation that his new home regards him as an illegal immigrant is heartbreaking. His father deserted his mother, who suffers from sickle cell anaemia, when he was a child in Nigeria. In 1999 his aunt decided to give him the chance of a new life in Britain.

"I have come to love this country. But when you discover that the country doesn't love you it is very upsetting. It is even more so because I have done nothing wrong," he says. "It feels like my life has been taken away from me."

Paul Sutton, his former headteacher at the Greig City Academy in Hornsey, north London, where Mr Ajagbonna achieved thirteen GSCEs and three A-levels, says he is one of the school's greatest achievers. "He has been our head boy for as long as I can remember, an absolute star who has given this school unfailing support. It seems to me he is the very kind of person we need to keep."

Mr Ajagbonna's talents have been recognised by the United Nations, which in 2005 appointed him an adviser on youth issues to Unicef. He was closely involved in one of the flagship community projects run by the former Department for Education and Skills and has played prominent roles in the Children's Rights Alliance for England. At school he helped draft an anti-bullying policy and acted as a mentor to black students.

One of the judges who heard his case last year said: "I find the appellant's contribution to youth culture in our society as a whole, and to his school society in particular, has been remarkable... He is clearly an outstanding young man."

The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ordered the Home Office to think again, but it came to the same conclusion last week, saying that it was not enough for Damilola simply to show that he was a "good chap" to stay in the UK.

In a letter to Mr Ajagbonna, the Home Office wrote: "You have during your time in the United Kingdom received education at the expense of the British taxpayer for which you had no entitlement under the immigration rules to receive. Given your age we consider it reasonable for you to be able to support yourself independently without the need for direct support from any family members... Also it was considered that there was no serious or compelling family or other consideration which made your exclusion from the United Kingdom undesirable."

Under the Government's removal targets, hundreds of settled immigrants who have made a valuable contribution to British life have been deported. Emma Ginn, of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, said: "They have mortgages and families and are making a valuable contribution to society in all walks of life but are now being told to leave... The deportation targets set under Tony Blair triggered a mad scramble to deport people no matter what their personal situations."

Despite his treatment, Mr Ajagbonna intends to fight to stay in the UK. "I have done everything within the law but now this country seems determined to place me outside the law," he said. "I don't want to behave like an overstayer and drag out the process indefinitely, I don't want to break the rules, but I find myself the victim of a set of consequences of which I have no control."

A Border and Immigration Agency spokeswoman said: "Where a person has been refused further leave to remain, there is a full right of appeal against the decision to the independent Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. An immigration judge will fully consider all aspects of the case."

March 1988: Born in Vom, northern Nigeria.

May 1999: Enters UK with his aunt.

November 1999: Aunt applies to Home Office for Damilola to have indefinite leave to remain.

August 2004: Passes 13 GCSEs, two A* grades.

Autumn 2005: Appointed adviser to Unicef on youth issues.

Summer 2005: Volunteer researcher at think-tank Demos.

August 2006: Passes English, drama and biology A-levels.

January 2006: Offered place at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

September 2006: Home Office refuses application for indefinite leave to remain.

September 2007: Facing deportation.