Monday, December 17, 2007

Home Office angers Hornets

FOOTBALL supporters are not en mass thought of as a liberal or left-wing crowd, whatever they may be like at home or work. Some of my football-following friends who have done much to combat racism on the terraces would probably be first to agree.

But a crowd of them cheered a Black asylum seeker at the weekend, applauding his moving plea to remain, and the call for support from his Labour MP. It happened at Vicarage Road, Watford, before the home team played Plymouth Argyle, and though he hasn't played a a game this season because of injuries and was recovering from a dislocated ankle, the Hornets' 19 year old midfielder Al Bangura was the star the crowd were cheering.

Alhassan Bangura escaped from the bloody chaos of war-torn Sierra Leone, where his father had been killed, and was brought to this country when he was just 15.

Back home he had been expected to join a secret witchcraft society whose rituals included self-mutilation. He fled to Guinea and was befriended by a Frenchman who promised to help him get to Britain. But the traffickers who brought him here intended to sell him for male prostitution.

The boy ran out into the street, and shouted for help. He was taken to a Home Office reception centre in Croydon, and there he pleaded for asylum.

Al Bangura's luck took a sudden turn upwards when he was spotted by Watford scouts when playing for a youth team in Chertsey. He signed up to train with Watford, and two years ago, aged just 17, he made the first team.

A couple of seasons ago the Sierra Leonian was voted Young Player of the Year, and he was captain for one game earlier this season. So far, a modern magical story, of one young lad's escape from the horrors of barbarism (European as well as African) to the dream of football stardom.

Maybe it was too much of a dream come true for the mean-spirited if not malicious bastards in this government and the Home Office to let alone.

Al Bangura's father was killed during the civil war in Sierra Leone. He has lost touch with any relatives there, and fears for his life from the gangs and secret societies if he returns. He has begun a new life here, with a fiancee who just two weeks ago gave birth to their son, Samal.

At a hearing in June the young footballer was given discretionary leave to stay in Britain. But on November 26 he had to face a 're-trial' after the Home Office decided there had been a mistake in the judge's summing up. Their Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled that he should be forcibly sent back to Sierra Leone.

International footballers' organisations have urged that Bangura be allowed to stay, and Watford football club is backing an appeal as well as speaking out against the decision. ""We hope to get other people in involved. The Home Secretary can get involved now. We are speaking to people through the club", said Watford boss Adrian Boothroyd.

"We thought we could put our faith in British justice but obviously not. We have to keep trying everything we can to make sure he stays.

"To escape civil war twice and avoid what he has avoided in his life, we cannot imagine what this boy has gone through in his short life and then somebody somewhere thinks it is a good idea to send him back to all of that."

"After the immigration hearing I said that I had faith in British justice but obviously I was totally mistaken because it’s a completely ludicrous decision," Boothroyd said. "“This country, great as it once was, seems to allow anybody in to send benefits wherever they fancy and we have one young man here who pays his taxes, has a fiancee and a newborn son and somebody somewhere thinks it’s a good decision to send him back to Sierra Leone. It’s ridiculous.

“We’ve been sent a document with the reasons why he’s being deported and they are ridiculous. We are appealing and I only hope that rather than these pen-pushers someone higher up - perhaps the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith herself - can look at it and make a decent decision instead of the one we’ve got.”

Watford’s Labour MP, Claire Ward is asking the Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, to use his discretionary powers to prevent Bangura being deported. She urged the club's fans to e-mail her via her Parliamentary website, , so she can add their names to a petition she plans to present to the Home Office.

Labour veteran Tony Benn has said more than once that he had lived to see the day when the majority of the British public was to the Left of a Labour government on major issues. We can now add that we have reached the day when a football club and its supporters (and on Saturday the visiting side's supporters too) showed more humanity and decency than a Labour Home Office.

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