Shetlanders force climbdown on Burmese woman's deportation

Squads of Vikings, wielding axes and flaming torches, will take to the streets of Shetland this month. They will march, singing and chanting, through the islands' towns, cheered on by crowds of thousands before setting fire to a huge Norse ship.

This is how the people of the Shetland Islands generally see out the cold winter nights – with a flurry of pagan festivity that makes the locals seem somewhat frightening to visitors.

Yet the Up Helly Aa fire festivals that celebrate Shetlanders' warrior past paint a misleading picture of Britain's northernmost people. For this week they once again showed that they are among the most welcoming of communities – willing to do battle on behalf of those who choose to settle there.

Their latest victory came when a Burmese woman, Hazel Minn, and her two sons were told that they would not, after all, be deported. Ms Minn fled Burma's military regime in 2002 but was told in 2004 that her application for political asylum had been turned down.

However the Government was forced into a U-turn after nearly four years of protest from islanders which saw more than 7,000 of the island's 21,000 population sign a petition demanding the family be allowed to stay. Ms Minn is not the only one to have benefited from the islands' unflinching community spirit in the face of the Home Office.

In 2004 Tanya Koolmatrie, an Australian national, was told she would have to leave the UK because she did not have a British passport; this was despite the fact she had a home and a child with a Shetland man. Again the Home Office backed down when the islanders rallied round.

And in 2006, in perhaps the islands' biggest show of people-power to date, Thai man Sakchai Makao was allowed to stay in Shetland after a deportation threat was thrown out by an immigration tribunal.

Mr Makao was told he would have to return to Thailand, a country he had not been to for 13 years, after a government directive stated that all foreign nationals who had served prison sentences in the UK would have to leave.

Mr Makao had spent eight months in jail in 2002 when he set fire to a car and a mobile cabin in a "moment of madness" after the death of his Scottish stepfather.

His case became another cause célèbre for the islanders, forcing another Home Office climbdown.

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for the islands, was involved in the campaigns to stop the deportations of Ms Minn, Ms Koolmatrie and Mr Makao, and one of 100 MPs who signed a petition supporting the latter.

He said: "The remarkable thing is that immigration is, in many ways, a unifying phenomenon in Shetland whereas in the rest of the country it is divisive. I think that is because we are an island community and every person is valued as an individual.

"There is a deep sense of fairness in Shetland and if people are seen to be treated unfairly it angers us.

"And I think in each case it has been very important that the community was behind them. The fact they were all able to demonstrate so evidently that they were a real part of their communities helped their cases enormously."

Davie Gardner, 52, started the campaign to allow Mr Makao to stay. He set up a petition which was signed by 10,000 people, including 100 MPs and the singer Elvis Costello.

Mr Gardner said: "In Sakchai [Makao]'s case, yes he had committed a crime, but he had served his time and was integrating back into the community.

"He was a well-known figure, he worked at the local leisure centre and everyone knew who he was. Sakchai may have been from Thailand, but to us he was a Shetlander."

The organiser of the campaign to help Mrs Minn was Bert Armstrong, the 71-year-old grandfather of her two sons, Simon, 15, and Vincent, 14.

He said: "People on the outside might see us as insular islanders, but these campaigns prove that's not the case. No matter where you are from you are welcome on Shetland."

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