A child slave and forced cannabis farmer who was trafficked into the UK at aged 10 is pleading for a stay on his deportation to Vietnam by the British government. He has the backing of the vicar and family who rescued and raised him three years ago, as well as the support of more than 119,000 people in an online petition.
Now 19, and anonymised as 'Stephen' for security purposes, he was forced to work as a slave to cannabis farmers for six years, where he faced frequent transit, beating and imprisonment by his criminal gang captors, according to The Guardian. At the age of 16 he was rescued by the Rev David Tomlinson and his wife Davina in County Durham, committed foster carers who took Stephen in and welcomed him into their parish community. There Stephen has found education, relationships and a Christian faith.
In a move that critics have called 'grotesque', Home Secretary Amber Rudd told Stephen last year that the government was refusing his application for asylum and moving to deport him. The rejection letter said he had showed 'considerable personal fortitude' in reaching the UK – critics said the letter distorted the reality of the forced trafficking Stephen had faced.
Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, said: 'He did not travel here independently, which is what the letter from the Home Office seems to imply...In fact he was brought here as a trafficked child who was made to work in slavery. This is not evidence of his ability as a vulnerable young person to return to a country he left as a child. His victimhood is being turned against him, and that is grotesque.'
Stephen went before an asylum and immigration appeals court yesterday, with the decision reached expected to be revealed in the next two ot three weeks.
Stephen said of his situation, according to the Mail Online: 'My life has become bright and meaningful, this is the best time ever in my life. It is a wonderful life and I think I am so lucky to have this family and so much love from so many people.
'I want to be able to work and live in this community that has given me so much, I want to show how much it means to me that they rescued me from that life.
'To be sent back to Vietnam would be returning to my death. I have nowhere to go, I have no one and the gang warned all of us that if we ever escaped them they would find us and kill us. If I have to go back they will find me, the police are paid my them, they would simple hand me over.'
The bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, wrote a letter of support for Stephen after the former slave personally addressed the Durham diocese.
A petition advocating for Stephen to stay in the UK has gained just under 120,000 signatures. The petition warns that Stephen's new-found Christian faith would also put him at particular risk if he returns to Vietnam.
Rev Tomlinson said: 'It would be an appalling and cruel injustice to allow him to be rescued and given sanctuary only to then throw him away.
'It defies belief that anyone who has heard this young man's story could feel that he has somehow tried to play the system, he has been the victim of cruelty we can hardly comprehend for the great part of his life.
'Our nation is better than this. As a country we are in an angry place at the moment but that common human decency that has shaped us for so many generations surely must prevail in this case.'
A Home Office spokesman said: 'The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and every case is assessed on its individual merits.
'If someone is found not to need our protection we expect them to leave the UK.'