The Labour leader of Manchester council attacked the Government's asylum system yesterday for placing a Kosovan described as one of the city's model citizens under threat of imminent deportation.
Councillor Richard Leese said Perparim Demaj, who is a social worker assisting HIV and Aids patients, as "the kind of citizen we would like all our citizens to be". Mr Demaj's requests for asylum have been exhausted, his pursuit of a work permit has been turned down and he could be removed from the country at any time.
The council says it is struggling to attract social workers like Mr Demaj, who earns £13,000-a-year - a fact illustrated when it was forced to recruit 12 staff from Canada last year to plug gaps in its child protection team. But the Home Office has rejected the council's request for a work permit for Mr Demaj, 31, because he has also made asylum bids and is deemed to be underqualified.
Mr Leese, who was joined by an Aids sufferer at an event that extolled Mr Demaj's virtues, said Mr Demaj's practical value to the council was being overlooked because the Home Office was failing to distinguish between his pursuit of asylum and his request for a work permit.
"Clearly immigration and asylum are high on the political agenda at the moment ... but the way asylum seekers and immigrants are portrayed almost entirely misrepresents [their] qualities," Mr Leese said. "Here, with Perparim, we have a more accurate picture of what asylum seekers are."
Mr Demaj left school at the age of 14 to work on the family farm in the village of Prekas, within the Drenica region, a stronghold for the Kosovan Liberation Army. He fled, in fear of genocide, in July 1998, two days before Serbian forces invaded.
His seven-year stay in Manchester has been a remarkable one. His English language teacher, Anne Fiander, testified yesterday that he arrived in the city, in July 1998, with "next to no grasp of the language". But he learnt fast, was granted temporary asylum and within 18 months was undertaking voluntary social work. He then started paid work as a translator, mental health nursing assistant and community support worker for people with HIV/Aids. He studied social care to NVQ level 2 and secured an NVQ level 3 in nursing.
But in July 2004, his solicitor informed him that the Home Office had decided he no longer had the right to work in the UK and that he may face deportation. Manchester City Council has been forced to dismiss him or face legal action from the Home Office. But it has left his post open pending its own appeal against the work permit decision. It is also unclear what would happen to Mr Demaj's wife and two sons, aged eight and 10, if he were deported.
One of the patients he has helped, Steve Barksby, has had HIV for 20 years and Aids for a decade. "It seemed he wasn't just doing the job to earn money," said Mr Barksby, 53. "He was a social compatriot. The nature of my illness has left me socially isolated, but when his work was complete we would make time to sit down and talk. I also commend him for his professionalism and thoroughness. If he thought I was not eating properly or that my health was deteriorating he would go back to his manager and say so.
"There's a national shortage of people to do jobs like this. People don't want to do it when the money they're getting - £7 an hour - is such a pittance. You'll find that he's paid back £19,000 in tax over the past five years to this country. To send someone so valuable out of the country when they are needed here just doesn't make sense."
The Home Office said that asylum-seekers were not in the "category" of individuals allowed to "switch" to a request for a work permit. "If you were making a fresh application from Kosovo then that could be considered on fresh grounds," a spokeswoman said.
But Emma Ginn of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation group, which has taken up the case, said: "The frustrating part of this case is that this individual would find it easier to get a work permit if he were out of the country. But he fears for his life if he returns to Kosovo."Reuse content