Precious Cargo

Anne McLaughlin was unexpectedly elected to the Scottish Parliament in February 2009 after the death of fellow SNP MSP Bashir Ahmad. She has campaigned for Scotland’s Independence for more than 20 years. Her approach as a parliamentarian is a practical one and saw her experiencing a full night shift with a Glasgow ambulance crew to find out how alcohol abuse was affecting their already tough job.

Anne met Florence Mhango at an event in the Scottish Parliament last June – and has represented her and Precious since their first detention last August. Here is her account of the campaign she has been waging to protect the Mhangos from explusion by the UK Immigration authorities. We publish this piece now to coincide with a Politics Show on BBC Scotland at 12 noon this Sunday (Scotland only) where there’s a feature on the detention of children. Please also see Close Dungavel Now.

People often say why is independence important? What are the practical changes that would result? One is outlined here, we wouldn’t lock up children at the behest of the British State.

The child sat trembling on the huge aeroplane one hour before take off. She looked round at the other passengers, most of them smiling and happy, some apprehensive. If only she could be described as simply “apprehensive”. She was petrified. She hadn’t flown since she was 3 years old, some 7 years ago. But it wasn’t the flying that terrified her so much.

She could barely remember that day when her mummy and daddy had brought her to the UK to start a new life. Her mum, now sitting next to her sobbing quietly, remembered it only too well. She had really believed it would be the start of a wonderful new life for them all. Her husband was going to study, she would get a job and her daughter would eventually go to a British school where she would have a better chance of making something of her life than she would back home in Malawi.

Home. Where was that? What was it? “Home” was something they’d talked about so much over the past couple of years, something the Borders Agency of the British Government had talked about. Something their lawyers had mentioned a lot. Cranhill, a tight knit community in the East End of Glasgow had become home yet here they were, 60 minutes from take-off heading “home” to Malawi. And the little girl was terrified.

Not of the flying. That was the least of her worries. No, this ten year old had never really been afforded “normal” ten year old’s problems. This little girl knew that once she and her mum landed in Malawi, her daddy’s family would take her and she would likely never see her mummy again. She knew that it was different in Malawi. It was a good country but the laws there were different. A thing called a patriarchal system she’d been lead to believe, meant that these strangers could do that to her, could take her away forever.

The tribe she belonged to also believed the child belonged to the father and his family. So she was stuck. In lighter moments, in the past, she’d always giggled at the idea that she had a “tribe”. She kind of liked it because it meant she was different to her friends and made her sound quite exotic. But it was strange all the same that this pupil of Primary 5 at St Maria Goretti School, living in Cranhill in Glasgow, should have a tribe.

Those lighter moments had been few and far between of late. Knowing she could lose her mum was more than she could bear. She loved her mum. So much. They had been through it all together – coming to the UK, escaping her violent father, making a new home in Glasgow and finally, settling down at last and becoming a real part of the community.

That is until she was carted off to the prison that is Dungavel Detention Centre and then to Yarls Wood. The nightmares would never leave her now, not now that she’d been locked up for so long. And no matter how many times her mum or visitors told her she’d done nothing wrong, when she looked up at night and saw the barbed wire atop the wall keeping them penned in, when she had to be accompanied by a guard wherever she went, when fresh air was a treat she had to get permission for, she couldn’t help but feel that she must have been really bad.

But right now she would have gone anywhere (even there) to get away from where she sat on this aeroplane, this huge aeroplane. She’d have swapped the passengers, the smiling, happy, the apprehensive passengers for the security guards at the detention centre in a flash. She’d have taken the depression and the misery of Dungavel in place of being as petrified, no doubt about it.

Because in 52 minutes time, this flight would take her and her mum away from her home forever. Away from her friends and neighbours, her teachers and fellow churchgoers. She would never see the UK again, she would never see Glasgow again. The thought was almost too much to bear for her ten year old mind but just as panic threatened to overwhelm the child, she became aware that her mother was standing and talking to someone. She couldn’t hear what they were saying but now they were taking the bags down from the overhead bit. She was crying more now but it was a different kind of crying.

“Come on Precious, we’re going home” she heard her mum say through the tears. And with that the steward gently undid her seatbelt for her and lifted her out of her seat. With only 51 minutes to go, they’d been given a reprieve, they’d been saved.

All of that sounds pretty melodramatic, a cliffhanger of a moment, a real page turner. But when it really happened, exactly like that at 6.09pm last November 23rd to Florence Mhango and her ten year old daughter Precious, it was anything but exciting. It was all too hideously real.

And it’s only a taste of what many people seeking asylum in the UK are put through. What the case of the Mhangos did however that’s different to most other asylum seekers is that it caught the imagination of the public. For some reason, people who normally didn’t notice or didn’t care what happened to asylum seekers sat up and paid attention. And they didn’t like what they saw.

When I got the call late on 18 November to say that Florence and Precious had been detained, my stomach was in knots. As their MSP and friend, I was only too aware that Precious had long been terrified each time she and her mum went to the Home Office to sign. Other asylum seekers describe their children playing with each other as they wait to sign but always they noticed Precious sitting quietly, head down, motionless, scared out of her mind. They’d been detained the previous August so they knew what to expect. And Precious was always expecting it.

But as I say, people didn’t like what was happening to them. Individuals, families, trade unions, schools, hard bitten journalists, politicians and not just from the SNP (the party I represent in the Scottish Parliament), Scottish Government ministers, the First Minister of Scotland, churches and most importantly of all, -Florence and Precious’s not-normally-political-at-all friends and neighbours in Cranhill all stuck up for them. People wrote in their hundreds to protest to the British Government.

Euan McColm of the News of the World read my blog and emailed me thinking they’d been deported. He’d been away and he was catching up. He assumed they’d gone but still he emailed to ask if there was anything, anything at all he could do to help. The ensuing open letter to Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy MP published as his weekly column last December and entitled “Precious Mhango is a real Scot” had me in tears.

Visiting Precious in Dungavel and trying to find the right words whilst her eyes looked up at me, never leaving my face once, silently pleading with me to “do something” and not knowing if I could, had me in tears.

Finding out that this little waif had lost 10lbs of her body weight in 3 weeks of detention and her mum saying she hadn’t wanted to tell me because I was “doing enough” had me in tears.

And witnessing a lovely Glasgow policeman welcome her back as she arrived at Queen Street Station in the early hours of 18 December last year after spending a month in detention. Seeing him gently touch her arm as he asked her “is that you home then Hen?” and reassure her that “we’re not ALL bad you know and it’s good to have you back”. That had me in tears.

It was an emotional time for everyone involved. Because we’re not talking about a point of principle here, or a lofty idealism, we’re talking about two human beings, one of them a ten year old girl who’s been here since she was just a baby of 3. And I truly believe the vast majority of people if they got to know about the human suffering, would do everything they could to help.

That’s what they’ve done for Florence and Precious. And now they need them more than ever. As things stand today, they don’t yet have a judicial review and they may not get one. If they do, they have to win it. It’s going to be a long haul and meantime Precious is back signing with her mum at the Home Office every week. Head down. Motionless. Scared out of her mind.

Alan Johnson MP, the Home Secretary is the one man who can do something about this. He can stop it all now. He doesn’t have to lose face because many more families who’ve been here for far fewer than seven years have been granted leave to remain and rightly so. But he need not fear it will set any precedents. He can use his discretion and put an end to the legal wrangling, the sleepless nights, the nightmare sleeps. He can do that any time he likes. So if you do anything, write to him. Ask him to use his discretion and grant leave to remain to this family who I am absolutely certain will be a positive asset to our country.

You can write to
Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP
Home Secretary
2 Marsham Street
London
SW1P 4DF
Or you can email public.enquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk

You can also donate to their legal fund. Paul Chen QC is a private advocate and he is responsible for them still being here. He and the hundreds who donated to the fund enabling us to secure his services. Please send anything you can afford to the following account: CRANHILL WORLD CAFE sort code: 83 21 27 account number: 10015466. Royal Bank of Scotland 1304 Duke Street Glasgow G31 5PZ.

Or you can send cheques payable to CRANHILL WORLD CAFE, Cranhill Community Project, Cranhill Parish Church, Bellrock Street, Glasgow, G33 3HB.

And if you tune into the Politics Show on BBC Scotland at 12 noon this Sunday (Scotland only) there’s a feature on the detention of children. Florence and Precious will be interviewed and I’ll be debating with a British government minister about the wrongs and wrongs. I’m struggling to think how they might attempt to justify it because there is no justification. It’s wrong for any innocent child to be locked up and it was cruel to do what they did to Precious. Whatever the eventual outcome of the Mhangos’ claim, I don’t know if this child will ever fully recover but we can all work together to give her the best possible chances with the rest of her life.

Finally, as with all good page turning, melodramatic stories this one has a twist in the tale because as this wee girl sat petrified on the Kenyan Airways flight having been rejected by the country she saw as her own, she knew she was also leaving behind her dad. The man who had beaten her mother, who had caused the frightened pair to flee, whose family had vowed to rip them apart. She’d not seen him for years but now it was goodbye forever because her father had been granted leave to remain and was currently living and working in London. We’ve got them off the flight. We’ve got them out of detention. The very least we can do now is afford this man’s victims some treatment equal to his own and allow them to come home and stay home, don’t you think?

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