16 Sep 2012

Kidney patient may die if deportation goes ahead

The home secretary is to decide whether to deport a kidney transplant patient whose life depends on anti-rejection drugs despite claims that deportation would mean certain death. Fatima Manji reports.

Rose Akhalu had never left her home country of Nigeria. She had never even made a journey by flight. Eight years ago for the very first time at the age of 40, she boarded a plane and headed to the UK.

Rose came to study development at the University of Leeds, after receiving a scholarship from the Ford Foundation and a student visa.

She says her aim to was always to return to Nigeria and use her education to try and improve social conditions for women back in Nigeria. She hoped to change her own country, yet she soon found it was her own life that was entirely changed.

‘Death sentence’

In 2004 at a regular check up with her GP, Rose was unexpectedly diagnosed with end stage renal failure – her kidneys were no longer functioning properly. She describes the moment she heard it as feeling like it was “a death sentence”.

“I cried because I felt I was alone,” says Rose. “I was in a strange land, its like my dreams were going to shatter.”

For the next four years for four hours each day, Rose was on dialysis. But her luck began to change. As she volunteered in local charities and a church in Leeds, she began to make friends who helped her through her illness.

More importantly, she managed to a get a new lease of a life with the help of a kidney transplant. But it meant she needs to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life, in order to survive.

Rose says she is so grateful to the doctors and nurses of the NHS who have given her life, the irony is if she is deported it will now be the British state who is taking it away.

As far as the UK’s immigration rules are concerned, Rose has overstayed on her student visa, she has no basis to be here in the UK. Yet her doctor and organ donation specialists say sending Rose back to Nigeria would mean sending her to die.

‘Cruel and unjust’

Long term kidney care is not widely available in Nigeria. Few can could afford to import anti-rejection drugs, meaning effectively it is only available to the rich and powerful.

Rose’s kidney specialist Dr James Tattersall believes that sending her back would mean the “the kidney would not last very long”. He says for Rose it would mean certain death.

That position is supported by the UK’s National Kidney Federation. They have described Rose’s situation as “cruel and unjust” and “a stressful position no transplant patient should find themselves in”, adding “a journey leading to a mortal end is a frightening position for anyone to face, let alone one that could be easily averted.”

Dr Tattersall also says if Rose’s kidney is wasted, he believes the entire system of organ donation in the UK is endangered, because of a breakdown in trust. He says: “When a family gives permission for us to use an organ, they have to trust that we will use that kidney in the best possible way.

“If this decision goes ahead that would undermine that trust and reduce the possibility of people giving permission to allow us to use their organs.”

Rose is now awaiting a decision from Mrs May, who can use her discretion to allow her to remain here.

Ethical questions

Rose’s case raises several ethical questions. Is Britain responsible for the long term healthcare of foreign nationals and those on short stay visas? And if Rose is allowed to stay could this encourage so called ‘health tourism’ – immigrants and visitors who come to the UK expecting the NHS to pick up the bill for their healthcare.

The Home Office told me that they could not comment on the case saying it would be “inappropriate while there are ongoing legal issues,” and adding that they “consider all cases carefully”.

But if Theresa May rejects Rose’s case, her campaigners say they will go to court. Tessa Gregory of Public Interest Lawyers represents Rose.

She told me they will apply for Rose’s case to go to judicial review, where a judge could overrule the Home Secretary’s decision and allow Rose to stay, which could set a legal precedent.

It is the story of one woman and her battle to stay in the UK, but Rose Akhalu’s fate could also determine that of others.