Shouts of racism as popular family are deported to Malawi

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Alongside her on the minibus that would take them to Heathrow at the start of a long journey back to Malawi, were her four children, the youngest of whom was just six when they moved to Dorset in 2001.

Upile, now 11, solemnly followed her older siblings aboard. The night before she had been inconsolable, sobbing for three hours at the prospect of leaving her home and school friends.

Campaigners said the family would fly out to Harare last night, en route to Blantyre, where they face an uncertain and possibly dangerous future.

Despite a passionate crusade from neighbours in Weymouth, as well as cross-party support from MPs, their eleventh-hour application for asylum was rejected by the Immigration minister, Tony McNulty, on Tuesday.

Mrs Kachepa, resigned to her fate, insisted she and her children Natasha, 21, Alex, 17, Anthony, 16, and Upile would not fight it.

"Somewhere in my heart I thought we would be staying and so when the rejection came through I was devastated," she said as they packed up the last of their belongings yesterday. "This time it is really hard because I know we have no hope.

"We have wonderful friends. People have worked so hard for us to stay but the Government did not listen. It is heartbreaking to have to leave."

In the street outside the family flat, there were emotional scenes as campaigners came to bid the family goodbye. Many have fought tirelessly for six months to keep them in the country. "She is talked out. She is cried out. She is still acting with tremendous dignity," said a friend, Ralph Johnson. In an echo of other supporters, he accused the Government of lacking compassion, adding: "This is an appalling travesty of justice. It is cruel and inhumane."

Natasha Kachepa, who was leaving behind her fiancée - Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers soldier Tom Sanderson - as well as a place at Southampton University to study nursing, said: "We are not coping too well but we are trying to put a brave face on it. We don't want to go. We love it here."

Mr Sanderson, 20, said: "I don't know if I'm ever going to see her again. I'm gutted she is leaving."

Two female immigration officers led the family away as half a dozen police officers watched the emotional crowd and removed a man who sat in protest in front of the vehicle.

The family first arrived in Britain legally in 2000 with Mrs Kachepa's pharmacist husband, Alex. But he abandoned them with debts six months later and returned to Malawi to be with the niece of the former president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

Having been warned never to return to her homeland, Mrs Kachepa feared her young family would be targeted and treated as an embarrassment to her husband's powerful new lover. So she sought asylum.

The polite, hardworking family became popular members of the local community. A regular at the local church, Mrs Kachepa took up jobs in a charity shop and pregnancy care centre.

Their priest Father Philip Dyson, of St Augustine's Catholic Church, said yesterday: "It is a very sad day. We have tried every legal avenue possible but they are an easy target for the Government because they are a law-abiding family."

Before the general election their case hit the headlines when Labour's South Dorset MP Jim Knight attacked the Conservative candidate Ed Matts for doctoring a photo of the family in his campaign literature.

But, despite becoming a political football, in the words of some of their supporters, they were ordered to be deported. Attempts to send them to Malawi last month were aborted due to an administrative fiasco with their tickets.

Human rights lawyers applied to the Home Office for discretionary leave for them remain in the UK, insisting the family would suffer if they were returned to Malawi. Helen Bamber, founder of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, backed their case, insisting the family would be irreparably damaged if they were sent back to Malawi. But Mr McNulty ruled their circumstances had not changed and their deportation order should stay in place.

Yesterday the older children, Natasha and Alex, said they hoped to return - either through her marriage or with a work permit gained through promised employment. Meanwhile, the family faces an uncertain and risky future. Shortly before leaving yesterday, Mrs Kachepa gave an insight into her fears. "They will be waiting for me there and I will be alone."

* The United Nations official who warned of impending disaster in Niger fears Malawi will also face a severe food shortage that will affect the 4.5 million people living in the country.

Jan Egeland, the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, said Malawi is "perhaps the most worrying country crisis in the world today".

"Today I am as worried for Malawi as I was for Niger earlier this year," Mr Egeland said yesterday.

The fight to stay

* JANUARY 2001: Verah Kachepa and her four children arrive in Britain to join her husband.

* JULY 2001: Alex Kachepa abandons them with debts and goes back to Malawi to be with another woman. Mrs Kachepa is warned not to return.

* DECEMBER 2002: The family claims asylum.

* FEBRUARY 2003: Asylum is refused.

* JUNE 2004: First appeal hearing turned down.

* 13 MARCH 2005: Police take family to Yarls Wood detention centre.

* 25 MARCH 2005: Family released 24 hours before being due to be deported. The Home Office grants them four months leave to remain in Britain.

* 12 APRIL 2005: Their case comes to national attention during the election campaign.

* 22 AUGUST 2005: Lawyers apply to Home Office for leave to remain in UK, insisting the family would suffer in Malawi.

* 23 AUGUST 2005: Minister Tony McNulty rules the deportation order should stay in place.

* 25 AUGUST 2005: The family is deported.