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Asylum seeker fights to stay on

Next Wednesday a 17-year-old student faces deportation unless a last-ditch plea succeeds, reports Adam Luck

The flight from Heathrow to Rome will take Amaniel Weldemichael just two hours. But for the student from Eritrea it will destroy a lifetime's dreams.

The Home Office has told the teenager that next Wednesday he will have to return to Italy, because that is where he first claimed asylum.

For Amaniel, aged 17, and his supporters at East Norfolk sixth- form college, the sole hope rests with a last-minute plea to the immigration minister Tony McNulty to grant him leave to stay on exceptional grounds.

Amaniel said: "Lots of people have signed a petition for me to stay and now my local MP is trying to help. I am hoping for the best.

"But I am very, very worried because I have made a new life in England. I have a foster family and friends. I am going to school and speaking good English.

"But if I go back to Italy there will be no help and it will be back to life on the streets for me."

A return to Italy would be a bitter irony for Amaniel, who arrived in the UK on a flight from Rome after being left destitute by the Italian authorities.

Originally from the Eritrean provincial capital Mendefera, he had taken two weeks to reach Europe in October 2003.

He said: "My big brother had been working in Saudi Arabia for 11 years, but when he came home to visit us he was taken away by the army.

"We were then told he had died. We don't know how or why, but when my father realised I was going to be drafted he decided to send me away."

Amaniel said the family paid pound;1,200 to smuggle him to Sudan and then another pound;575 to cross the desert in a packed Land Rover to Tripoli in Libya. He said: "It was very hot - 40-45C - and all we were given was half a litre of water and six biscuits.

"When we got to Tripoli, I paid pound;865 to cross the Mediterranean. It was 170 people in a very small boat and we had to keep throwing water out of it because the sea was so rough. It was very frightening."

When they landed in Sicily, Amaniel was given 150 euros and told to go to Rome.

He said: "I kept going to this social services office in Rome, but they kept on giving me excuses and telling me to come back. I ended up sleeping rough.

"Because I had no money, I worked in the black market selling onions and tomatoes. Eventually I saved up enough to pay a man nearly pound;2,000 to take me to the UK."

When he arrived at Stansted in July 2004, Amaniel was placed with his current foster family after claiming asylum. He is now attending East Norfolk, where he is studying for level 2 qualifications (GCSE equivalent) in English, maths, science, art and media.

Laurie Paulson, the college principal, said: "He is a gentle and earnest lad who is very popular with his peers. He mucks in with everybody and is good with sports.

"We understand the law, but moves are being made to make sure he completes his education. It would be folly to send him back to Italy, where he was not cared for."

Bob Blizzard, the Labour MP for Waveney, confirmed a request had been sent to the Home Office to allow Amaniel to stay.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that under the Dublin Convention, refugee minors were dealt with in the EU countries where they first claimed asylum, provided there was a "tailored care package" in place.

The Time to Care campaign aims to encourage action to raise the attainment of children in care.

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