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Panxhi Family

Volume 401: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Woolas.]

7.32 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House this evening the case of the Panxhi family and their application for asylum in this country. As you are aware, Mr. Speaker, the family currently reside in your constituency of Springburn; I know that you are very familiar with the circumstances of their case and have taken a close interest.

The family consist of Mrs. Valentina Panxhi and her children—Brikena, aged 12, Enea, aged 9 and Grace, who was born in 2001 when the family had arrived in Scotland. Mrs. Panxhi's husband, Edmond, was a prominent member of the minority Albanian Monarchist party and had suffered a period of harassment, including a number of violent beatings and death threats. In January 2000, their daughter Brikena was harassed at school by the secret services. On another occasion, Mrs. Panxhi was stopped in the street by some men and threatened. As the threats intensified, the family went into hiding. Mr. Panxhi was arrested in September that year, but after his release the family decided that their safety was not secure in their home country and they made plans to escape. Mrs. Panxhi, then pregnant with Grace, together with the two older children, left Albania in November, with the intention that her husband would join them at a later date when he was able to get enough money. There is no doubt in the Panxhi family's mind, and in the minds of all the many people who have taken an interest in their case, that they were in genuine fear of persecution and the threat of violence if they remained in Albania at that time.

Sadly, a short time after Mrs. Panxhi and her children had arrived in the United Kingdom, they were advised that Edmond Panxhi had been killed. It is difficult to imagine how the family must have felt: strangers in an unfamiliar country, their initial application for asylum refused, terrified of returning to their home and grief-stricken at the sudden, violent death of a beloved husband and father. However, it was their resilience and courage in facing up to that tragic news that so impressed the many, many people in Scotland who support their request to remain in this country. I very much hope that, even at this late stage, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), will agree to reconsider her Department's earlier decision.

Such was the tremendous response to the family's plight that a small number of local Glasgow people went to Albania on a fact-finding mission in June last year. They were led by the Rev. Bryan Owen, a Church of Scotland minister who has just retired after more than 30 years as minister of St. Rollox church. As you know, Mr. Speaker, he is a well-respected figure in the local Springburn community.

The group interviewed a large number of people in Elbasan and Tiran and received a great deal of corroboration of Mrs. Panxhi's story of the problems faced by the family before their escape to the UK. However, as I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will appreciate, it is difficult to discover hard evidence that can be put to a UK tribunal or court system. Although members of the fact-finding group could not prove that Edmond Panxhi was killed for political reasons, they were convinced that he was dead.

All the people who knew Edmond Panxhi told the group that he was a somewhat secretive person who did not tell others about his business, but that he was loving and caring to his family and could not have remained out of touch with them if he was alive. Members of the group were also told by all their Albanian contacts, including the Elbasan police, that he had absolutely no contact with crime and thus no reason to fake his own death.

Rev. Owen and and his colleagues spoke to a number of local people in the small village at Gjinar where the family had hidden in 2000. They confirmed that the Panxhi family had stayed with them and that during that time Mrs. Panxhi had been terrified of suffering further violence. In particular, she had been afraid of Colonel Koseni, the now discredited chief of police in Elbasan. I hope that the Minister will accept that the family's motives for leaving Albania were genuine and not economically motivated.

The Minister will be aware that, although there have been improvements in Albania, widespread corruption and violence are still common. Mrs. Panxhi fears greatly for the safety of her son, Enea. Albania is still blighted by a blood feud culture; when a son comes of age he is expected to avenge the death of his father. Commenting on the case, Jim Wallace MSP, Minister for Justice in the Scottish Executive, said that there was
"a very real danger that Enea will himself be murdered by his father's murderers before he comes of age, to pre-empt any revenge he may seek".
As I have already mentioned, despite the many harsh problems faced by the family over the last few years, their courage and dignity have impressed many. There has been widespread media interest in Brikena's musical talents. When she arrived in this country she spoke no English but she is now bilingual and has an exemplary record at her local school, St. Roch's secondary. She also studies violin at the junior academy of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, where she was awarded a Wolfson scholarship last year. She was also among the three finalists for The Scotsman young achiever of the year award in November 2001, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) will be aware, since I understand that he was one of the judges.

Brikena's violin teacher, Mr. Hugh MacGilp, who has taught young musicians for more than 40 years, has written personally to the Home Office on her behalf. He strongly believes that she has the potential to be a professional musician provided that she receives the level of support from which she currently benefits. Specifically, he pointed to considerable gaps in her knowledge when she arrived from Albania. The head of the junior academy has also written to the Home Office to confirm that despite the enormous pressures and uncertainties that she faces, she is making excellent progress and is developing a musical ability that will enable her to make a positive and constructive contribution to society in her later life.

If the family were to return to Albania they would meet extreme hardship. They could not expect accommodation or financial help from Mrs. Panxhi's family, as they are already living under straitened circumstances. Mrs. Panxhi would have difficulty in finding work while looking after a young baby and, in all likelihood, Brikena would have to leave school at the earliest opportunity to earn money, and her musical education would not continue.

A musical talent such as Brikena's is a rare gift. I played a musical instrument—not terribly well—at school but I watched one of my school colleagues develop her skills at the Royal Scottish Academy and go on to become a professional musician. Playing music well is a genuine joy, but that talent, especially for those who want to be classical players, needs a huge amount of work and practice from an early age.

The UN convention on the rights of the child speaks about the need to
"ensure that children will be able to develop talents and abilities to their fullest potential".
Of course, many children in today's world unfortunately never get the opportunity to develop their true talents, but to have been given that opportunity and then have it taken away is just as cruel.

Mrs. Panxhi and her family have made a real and positive contribution to the local community in Springburn and, if they had an opportunity to stay, would seek to be economically independent at the earliest opportunity. They have suffered great trauma in the past few years and wish only to live peacefully and quietly in our city. In Springburn, they have experienced some feeling of security, but they genuinely remain very afraid for their safety and future if they must return to Albania at this time.

I thank the Minister for taking further time to consider this case, and I ask her to consider the very strong compassionate reasons for allowing the family to remain in the United Kingdom. The people of Springburn and Glasgow have welcomed them and ask the Minister now to allow them to stay with us.

7.41 pm

It is a very great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) in this debate, and I endorse everything that she has said about the case history of the Panxhi family. She was right to say that I had the pleasure of meeting them for the first time slightly more than 14 months ago, at The Scotsman young achiever of the year award in November 2001, when Brikena was one of the finalists. I therefore took an interest in their case. The hon. Lady has spelled out extremely well the circumstances that the family face.

I want to try to underline in some very brief remarks the compassionate grounds for ministerial intervention. Although I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that Valentina Panxhi has shown exemplary courage and fortitude, given the circumstances in which she has found herself, I want to speak about the three children in the case, because therein lies the strongest argument for intervening on compassionate grounds.

First, Grace will be two years old this June. She was born, obviously posthumously, in Scotland. I know full well that being born in a country does not confer a legal right of citizenship, but I make the case that that young lady has no other circumstances or home but Springburn in Glasgow and, morally, she is as much a Glaswegian as you are, Mr. Speaker, and as much a Scot as I am. That is a consideration, because the world has moved on and that young child has been born in Glasgow, where she is being nourished and is growing up.

Secondly, Enea, who is nine years old, was mentioned by the hon. Lady, and I want to draw attention to the point that she made because it is fundamental. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest—it cannot be proven—that Mr. Panxhi was murdered for political reasons. Even if he was murdered for another reason, the Home Office case has rested on the argument at various times that, because Mr. Panxhi is dead, the rest of the family are no longer in danger. That is fundamentally mistaken, and I shall repeat the quote that the hon. Lady read out. No less a person than the Scottish Justice Minister, Mr. Jim Wallace, said that there is
"a very real danger that Enea will himself be murdered by his father's murderers before he comes of age, to pre-empt any revenge he might seek."
That culture of the blood feud is a very important consideration in this case, and I shall illustrate that by quoting a brief extract from an Albanian news service. It is dated 2 April 2002 and reads:
"Murder in Bajram: on Tuesday April 2nd the sister of the four Haklaj brothers, who have been murdered in blood feuds, killed two and wounded two others. One of the wounded was a passerby … a teacher … has stated that she will not marry nor will she die until she has taken revenge on the deaths of her brothers. This killing occurred at 12.00 midday in the middle of Bajram".
That illustration of the culture of blood feud must surely be a consideration in intervening on compassionate grounds. It is not the case, just because the father is dead, that the rest of the family are not in danger if they return to Albania.

Thirdly and finally, Brikena has been awarded a Wolfson scholarship to attend the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Such scholarships are not easily won or awarded. Obviously, I was hugely impressed not only by Brikena's talent, but by her having overcome considerable difficulties to gain that scholarship and reach the final of the young achiever of the year award. I cannot believe that Scotland is so overflowing with young talent that we can afford lightly to send back to Albania a young woman of such potential.

The underlying point that arises in respect of all three children and shines out in the family's story is the amount of support and succour that they have been given by the local community in Sighthill and Springburn. The hon. Lady mentioned the church connections. I have had the pleasure of visiting St. Rollox church and meeting the various people who have surrounded the family and given them such support.

It is not that long since we all thought—I know that you, Mr. Speaker, were deeply concerned about this matter—that we faced in Sighthill a particular problem that has been seen in many areas with regard to the influx of asylum seekers. That situation has largely been turned around in the past year by the strength, support and infrastructure of the local community. Indeed, only a few weeks ago, BBC Scotland broadcast a programme called "Rabbie's Bairns" that focused on the Springburn area of Glasgow. One of the children who achieved a high accolade in that programme was a young asylum seeker. The programme was so inspirational in showing the integration into local schools and the local community of asylum seeker children that it managed to win an award in celebration of the works of Scotland's greatest poet.

That is an illustration of how the community is supporting this and other families. I ask the Minister to consider whether the achievements of Springburn, which have been supported by so many good-minded and good-willed people, would be put at risk if we were to return this family to Albania, when there are so many arguments to suggest that an intervention on compassionate grounds would be not only appropriate, but undoubtedly the right thing to do.

7.47 pm

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) and, indeed, to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for the opportunity to debate this case, which is a very difficult one. Sadly, it is not by any means the only difficult case to have come across my desk. I know that it has gathered considerable support from the local community in Glasgow.

I shall begin by providing a brief background to the family's case. As my hon. Friend said, Mrs. Panxhi and her children arrived in the United Kingdom clandestinely on 9 November and made an asylum application the following day. As has been said, that claim was based on her husband's political activities. Mrs. Panxhi claimed that her husband was a candidate for the vice-presidency of his political party. She was interviewed a month later and a decision was taken to refuse her application on 15 December 2000. She appealed against that decision and gave oral evidence at her appeal in April 2001.

An independent adjudicator carefully considered Mrs. Panxhi's asylum claim, but did not feel that there was any merit in it. The adjudicator rejected her claim that her husband was a candidate for the vice-presidency of the party, further noted that she and her children had never been harmed in Albania, and also considered the family's rights under the European convention on human rights. He concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the Panxhi family could not lead a normal life on return to Albania, so he dismissed the appeal in May 2001. Mrs. Panxhi appealed to the immigration appeal tribunal, which upheld the adjudicator's decision in October 2001. She then applied for leave to appeal to the Court of Session, but that request was dismissed in January last year.

Mrs. Panxhi has had several opportunities to state her case to be allowed to remain in the United Kingdom. She applied for asylum in November 2000 and completed the appeals process in January 2002. During that 15-month period, she has been interviewed and has had two substantive appeals, which were both conducted by independent judicial adjudicators. She gave oral evidence and was given the opportunity to raise additional reasons why she should be allowed to remain in the UK. In fact, Mrs. Parixhi's case was dealt with under the one-stop appeals process, which required her to outline all the reasons why she should be allowed to remain. Furthermore, during the course of that process, and following representations by the Speaker and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, Mrs. Panxhi was invited to provide evidence that her husband was, as she claims, dead, but no evidence has been forthcoming.

I do not believe that Mrs. Panxhi or her children would suffer any ill-treatment should they be returned to Albania and I want to outline why I have come to that conclusion. The immigration appeal tribunal concluded that there appears to be
"negligible, or minimal, risk of ill-treatment of the appellant or family, either at the hands of the authorities in Albania, or at the hands of parties against whom the Albanian authorities would be unwilling or unable to provide effective protection."
Hon. Members know that the Government believe that Albania is safe. The objective country assessments indicate that the Albanian Government respect the rights of their citizens, and our statistics on asylum claims confirm that. In the past two years, 139 families have been returned to Tirana, and Albania has taken the first steps towards EU accession.

In terms of quality of life, I understand that the Albanian authorities provide at least eight years' free education. The main focus of support within Glasgow has been on Brikena's considerable talents as a violinist. I am aware that she has been awarded a music scholarship. However, I am told that opportunities exist within Albania for Brikena to develop her musical talents and that she gave up a place at a specialist music school before coming to the UK.

In summary, it is clear that the Panxhi's case has been carefully considered and that the decisions are right.

Will the Minister concede that it might be difficult for Mrs. Panxhi to establish that her husband has been murdered? The murderers would be unlikely to advertise themselves to people who make inquiries. Does she accept the concerns outlined by the Scottish Justice Minister that if Mr. Panxhi has been murdered, his son might be at risk in Albania? Does she accept that there is a culture of blood feud in that country?

If it is accepted that Mr. Panxhi was murdered, our approach would depend on whether that was as a result of persecution or a criminal matter that the authorities in Albania would be expected to respond to appropriately. Someone being murdered does not of itself engage the terms of the European convention on human rights. Whether a death constitutes persecution under the convention depends on the circumstances and the reasons why someone has been killed.

Regardless of the circumstances of the murder, a blood feud is a blood feud. The example that I gave from an Albanian news agency was not of a political murder, but of a murder that was the result of a blood feud that had developed. The Minister is right about the convention, but the safety of the child returning to Albania would still be in question if it could be established that Mr. Panxhi was murdered. Does the Minister accept that that could be a danger?

I have two points to make on that. It would depend on the ability of the authorities, and the judged ability of the authorities, to provide adequate protection and a proper system of criminal justice to deal with a risk that engages if not the convention, but a human rights issue in terms of a need for protection.

As I said earlier, I understand that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill are conveying the probably very sincerely held views of the family. However, the case has been examined thoroughly by a judicial adjudicator in an independent appellate hearing. The leave to appeal has also been examined by another tier of authority at the tribunal. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not for me or for him to judge the facts of the case. It has been through a proper process, and I have described the judgment that emerged.

I now turn to a point that is important in how we deal with such cases. On top of the process that I have described, there has been ministerial involvement since July 2001, when Mr. Speaker wrote to my predecessor and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan took up the case. The ministerial involvement continued when I took up my post and I met Mr. Speaker in January this year. At that meeting, I undertook to review the case again, and I did that. I went through it chapter and verse. I considered it very carefully, and that took me a long time. I went through all the evidence and all the determinations and gave it very careful scrutiny before deciding, at that time, to uphold the decision. I wrote to Mr. Speaker outlining why.

I understand absolutely the compassion and the good intentions that are motivating Members of Parliament and the local community, because I have been in the same position with similar cases with families in my constituency. I have seen many similar families in many similar circumstances who report similar experiences. The problem for me is that, although I can and do exercise discretion—that is allowed within the law—I have to do so on the basis of very exceptional circumstances. Such circumstances involve cases that have been through a proper judicial process in which a person is able to cross-examine, hear the cross-examinations of both sides—neither the hon. Gentleman nor I are able to do that—and come to a decision.

The Minister will accept that any process is limited by the time available to interview and cross-examine. For example, the appeal tribunal of 19 September noted in its evidence:

"For all that was known"—
about Mr Panxhi—
"he might have died, for example, in a road accident."
That strikes me as a particularly crass way to comment on a case involving such emotions.

Any tribunal can interview people only over a period of time. The local community in Sighthill has known the family for a number of years. Does the Minister really think that, unless the family had impressed the community with the total veracity of their case, the community would campaign so hard and show such absolute determination in this case? Does that not weigh in her judgment if there is a balance of doubt?

With due respect to the Albanian schooling system, Brikena's scholarship to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama is exceptional. It is an indication of the exceptional talent that the academy wishes to keep in Scotland. Does that weigh with the Minister in terms of compassionate grounds even for the length of the child's schooling and exercise of the scholarship?

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I do not think that the extent to which a community takes to its heart a particular family can be a substitute for a proper judicial examination of the claimed facts of the case. The fact that a community does that is understandable. It means that they are a good family, that they are worthy people, that the children are talented and that the family have made connections and relationships in the community. Those are all very good things in their own terms. But that does not differentiate the family from many others, and it does not substitute for a fair and transparent process.

We must have a system that is open and fair, with decisions based on rational, defendable principles, so that people in similar circumstances can expect that they will be treated similarly. It would not be right, would it, to allow to stay those people who happened to have gained the support, for all the right reasons perhaps, of their MPs and local people, but to continue to return those who do not get such support or who do not have a campaign developed for them in the community?

As I said, there is discretion, and I exercise discretion, but very rarely. It must be on the basis of truly exceptional circumstances. When people have been through a judicial process, there must be exceptional circumstances to justify my intervention. The circumstances of this case, as worthy, as delightful and as talented as the family are—I have read all the press reports and seen the pictures; I am not trying to make the decision easy for myself by not getting to know something about the family—are similar to those of many other families who have already been returned to their home country or who will be returned in the future.

In conclusion, I have come, more or less, to a final decision. So that it is clear that I have completely exhausted the process, there is one particular piece of evidence that I will ask to see before finally making that decision—that is, the second piece of evidence to which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan referred concerning the commentary on blood feud and the potential risk to the son. I will look at that further evidence. I do not want to raise hopes, but I want to be able to say that I have taken every opportunity to consider anything that might be relevant.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eight o'clock.