Thai immigrant 'is a soft target for Home Office'

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Indy Politics

To his fellow residents on Shetland, Sakchai Makao is a popular, sporty young man who has overcome a youthful indiscretion and integrated into a notoriously close-knit community.

To the Home Office, he is an easy way of deflecting weeks of intense criticism over the hundreds of foreign criminals who have not been deported following their release from jail - and of boosting the statistics on the number of former prisoners rounded up.

Because of a minor offence he committed as a teenager four years ago, Mr Makao now faces being deported from the island he has called home for the past 10 years and forced to return to his native Thailand, despite the fact he no longer speaks the language and has no ties there.

A huge campaign has now been started by Shetlanders, calling on the Home Office to scrap his deportation notice. More than a third of the island has signed a petition of support for the young man, which has also been backed by the Church of Scotland, and protests are taking place throughout the week. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Mr Makao is languishing in a top-security jail, bewildered as to how he has become embroiled in a political row that he believes has nothing to do with him.

Mr Makao came to Britain from Thailand when he was 10 after his mother married a Scottish man. The family, together with Mr Makao's older sister Uthai, moved to Shetland and, despite the fact that he spoke little English, he settled happily into island life after being granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK. He went to the local school and was a talented athlete, representing the island at county level and Scotland in the under-17 long jump and triple jump.

But when his stepfather died in 2002, he briefly went off the rails. One night, while drunk with a friend, he set light to a car and a mobile cabin, causing several thousand pounds' worth of damage. Although the procurator fiscal accepted that the act was "totally out of character" Mr Makao was jailed for 15 months in 2003. He came out after eight months, described as a model prisoner.

Davie Gardner, the father of a friend of Mr Makao's who is running the support campaign, said: "He was very nervous about coming back. This is a small community and it can be very judgmental, but everyone wanted to give him a second chance because he was such a nice lad and the whole thing had been so out of character.

"He got his old job back as a lifeguard at the local pool and really seemed to have learnt his lesson. He shared a flat with a friend, played football for the local team and was great with old and young alike.

"Sakchai considered himself to be Scottish - he spoke with a Shetland dialect and had forgotten how to speak Thai because he hadn't used it for so long."

Mr Makao believed he had been rehabilitated. But then earlier this year came the revelation that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners had been released into the community without being deported. The Government has struggled to contain the crisis, admitting that serious criminals such as murderers and sex offenders were still unaccounted for and that others had committed other crimes since being released.

While some ex-prisoners may have been hard to find, Mr Makao was all too easy, particularly as it appears that he may have just applied for British citizenship. At 7am on 6 June, eight immigration officers broke down his front door and dragged him from his bed. He was put on a flight to Aberdeen and denied contact with anyone for 30 hours.

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) has now served him with a notice of deportation and he is being held in the top security Durham Prison because he is considered to be at risk of absconding.

Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for the Northern Isles, said: "The way in which Sakchai has been treated is abominable. He is a soft target for the Home Office because they knew where he was and was easy to pick up; it is sheer political expediency."

Ironically, the Scottish Executive has invested heavily in its Fresh Talent initiative, aimed at attracting young foreign migrants to the country in order to address problems of an ageing population and a shortage of skilled workers. Mr Makao's employers, the Shetland Recreational Trust, are funding legal attempts to get him bailed and appeal against the order. The Scottish Executive does not have the powers to prevent the deportation as responsibility lies with the IND.

Mr Makao's sister Uthai, 26, visited her brother in prison on Saturday. She said: "He is feeling low because he doesn't know what is going to happen to him. He hasn't been back to Thailand since we came to Scotland. If he goes back he won't know anyone. He will have to join the Thai army, which he doesn't want to do."

The Home Office said: "We do not comment on individual cases. Foreign nationals must obey the laws of this country in the same way as everybody else and those who have committed criminal offences here are therefore subject to the same legal processes as anyone else in the UK. Anyone breaking the law can expect prosecution and, where appropriate, a custodial sentence and deportation."

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