By Elena Berton
LONDON, Sept 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A British court said on Wednesday it had no power to stop the deportation of a 10-year-old girl at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) after authorities rejected her mother's asylum application.
The girl's mother, who travelled to Britain from Bahrain and would be sent back there if deported, had expressed fears that Bahraini authorities could force her and her daughter to return to Sudan, where she is originally from.
Sudan has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world. Most girls there undergo the practice, which involves the partial or total removal of external genitalia, aged between five and nine.
A British family court had ruled that the girl, who was not named in court proceedings, could be subjected to FGM if taken abroad after social services applied for a protection order to stop her being deported.
But Britain's Home Office, which handles immigration issues, challenged the court's power to prevent her deportation and on Wednesday the court accepted it did not have such powers.
The court asked the Home Office not to enforce the decision to deport the girl until the conclusion of a separate application of the Female Genital Mutilation Act.
The act protects women from FGM in Britain as well as those who are taken abroad to be subjected to the practice.
A Home Office spokesperson said: "We will comply with the request and ensure no further action is taken in this case until the conclusion of the Female Genital Mutilation Act application."
Britain has invested heavily in efforts to combat FGM in countries where it is practised, notably in parts of Africa, and is viewed as an international leader in the field.
But Charlotte Proudman, the lawyer who represented the girl's mother in court, said there was a contradiction between the government's stated commitment to end FGM and its immigration policies.
"They are happy to prosecute FGM, they are happy to give money abroad to stamp it out, but they are failing to protect women who are at risk if deported," Proudman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
FGM is linked with severe long-term complications including cysts, infections, and complications in childbirth. In the most severe cases, the vaginal opening is sewn up.
The girl's mother said she had undergone FGM, as had her two sisters, who both died as a result, according to court papers.
One of the single biggest indicators that a girl is at risk is her mother having been cut, studies have shown.
About 87% of Sudan's women aged between 15 and 49 have been cut, and the majority have undergone the severest form, infibulation, according to the World Health Organisation.
Although FGM is a recognised grounds for asylum in Britain, the Home Office — the government department responsible for immigration — has previously argued that the risk in similar cases was low.
Proudman said she would now ask the government to accept expert assessments of the risks the girl faced if deported and grant her secure immigration status.
Anti-FGM campaigner Alimatu Dimonekene said authorities were failing to consider the rights of children when processing the asylum applications of their parents.
"This girl will be at risk not only of FGM if she returns to these countries, but will be at risk of other known extreme forms of violence," added Dimonekene, who runs the charity A Girl At A Time.
(Reporting by Elena Berton, Editing by Claire Cozens and Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)