The life and death of an asylum-seeker
How British policy drove an ambitious, young Afghan to
kill himself in a Glasgow high-rise
By Paul Kelbie
29 May 2004
Yesterday, Zekria Ghulm Salem Mohammed might have been
quenching his remarkable thirst for knowledge in his
local library in Glasgow - just as he had done most
days for the last four years.
Instead, his broken, emaciated body was being laid to
rest more than 3,500 miles away, in the country he had
fled to avoid the Taliban's persecution, only to die,
alone and desperate, in a top-floor council flat of a
tower block in one of Scotland's poorest areas.
Brought up in a wealthy family in Kabul - his father
works for the United Nations in Afghanistan; his
mother is involved in the Red Cross; and his brother
is a doctor - the fiercely independent young man
always seemed destined for a successful career in
public service. He too always wanted to help others.
But, in 2000, like so many others, his moderate
political views meant he fell foul of the Taliban
regime, and he was forced to abandon the University of
Kabul where he was in the third year of his studies to
become a dentist. He fled Afghanistan, in fear of his
Zekria believed Britain would best offer him the
sanctuary he needed. He already had family in
Southampton, and knew that the Home Office had ceased
deportations to Afghanistan several years earlier
because of its political and social instability. In
return, he wanted to contribute. He planned to
graduate, and then to work in the community. And so
began his gruelling journey.
After escaping from Afghanistan across the border into
Uzbekistan, he made his way - on foot and in the back
of lorries - to Hungary. There, he was arrested as an
illegal immigrant, and detained for two months.
He managed to get out of the country, made his way to
France and the notorious Sangatte refugee camp near
Calais. For 16 weeks, he plotted the final part of his
escape to a better life.
When he finally arrived in Britain and applied for
asylum, he was almost immediately "dispersed" to
Glasgow under Home Office rules - along with up to
8,000 other refugees now living in the city. For the
last four years, he lived in a flat on the 28th floor
of a tower block in Bluevale Street, Dennistoun,
provided for him by the National Asylum Support
At first, the optimistic young man with the "pleasant
smile and polite manner" was confident that the
authorities would allow him to repay their hospitality
as a hard-working, honest citizen.
Scotland is in desperate need of new blood. A
decreasing, ageing population - allied to a shortage
of skilled workers - is a creating a demographic time
bomb threatening the nation's economy, and taking the
number of its people below the five million mark
within five years. Jack McConnell, Scotland's First
Minister, is keen to attract up to 8,000 "educated''
immigrants a year.
With more than half the adult population in Scotland,
and a third of children, unable to get NHS dental
cover, dentists are among those most keenly sought.
Friends say that gave Zekria great hope, but, as the
weeks passed into months and then into years, the
27-year-old became increasingly despondent.
As someone who had taken the legal route and applied
for asylum, instead of disappearing and working
illegally, he was forbidden to work or study. He had
instead to rely on benefits, when he would have
preferred to have made his own way. "He was a good man
who wanted to work and make a new life," said a
neighbour too afraid to give his name in case it
affected his own asylum application. "He didn't want
charity or somebody to look after him. He wanted to
complete his studies as a dentist and be of some use
to the community."
Friends say that the introverted student's frustration
was compounded by the general feeling of resentment
many asylum seekers face from local people.
Although Dennistoun in Glasgow's East End is not as
bad as some other areas such as Sighthill, Castlemilk
or Pollokshaws for racial harassment, Zekria felt
deeply the anti-asylum seeker culture which pervades
some parts of Glasgow, with racist abuse and
Since Glasgow became the "asylum capital of Britain"
under the Home Office dispersal programme - it has
twice as many per head of population than London -
Strathclyde Police has recorded huge increases in
racist incidents. There were two racist murders and
five attempted murders in the city last year, and 28
per cent of ethnic minority families claim to have
suffered racial harassment in the last 12 months.
"His life was nothing in Glasgow," said his close
friend Ali Mohammed, one of a number of Iranian
asylum-seekers who befriended Zekria, who tended not
to mix with the local Afghan community. "He couldn't
understand why he was considered so low. Every day was
the same. There were threatening letters from the Home
Office, and racial abuse from gangs of teenagers in
Zekria's will to live began to crack when the
Government announced in May 2003 that, following the
fall of the Taliban, deportations of refused
asylum-seekers from Afghanistan would resume.
Although David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, announced
last October that more than 15,000 families could stay
in Britain if they had been seeking asylum for more
than three years, Zekria, as a single man, was
excluded, even though he had been here almost four
years by then.
After exhausting all legal attempts to stay in
Britain, he was told that he would have to leave his
flat and his £38-a-week allowance for food and other
essentials was stopped. Tokens from the National
Asylum Support Service which should have provided him
with food failed to arrive.
'He was too proud to beg and scavenge for food in the
bins. But he was starving," said Dr Amir Mohammed, 28,
another Iranian friend, who claimed he had to trick
Zekria into taking food so that he would not feel like
he was begging. "He was ashamed and broken. He felt
there was no hope left.''
On 18 May, just days after being told he would be
evicted from his flat and sent back to Afghanistan,
Zekria smashed a glass panel above a door. He looped a
rope around it. And then, he hanged himself.
"It was such a waste of a talented young life," said
Mohammed Asif, a friend of Zekria and director of the
Scottish Afghan Society. "He was a very quiet guy who
didn't have much to do with the rest of the Afghan
community here. He mixed only with a couple of people
but was well behaved and spent most of his time at the
local library reading because he wasn't allowed to
"He was a very proud man who did not want to beg for
food and he wouldn't break the law to work illegally.
A lot of people, if they didn't have any money to buy
food and were starving to death, would have worked
illegally but he was too honest."
Mr Asif, who called on the Government to halt
deportations, said Zekria had been frightened of
returning to Afghanistan because some of the
Mujahadeen wanted to prosecute him.
Mr Asif explained: "Men and women are being forcibly
removed from the UK back to Afghanistan under the
pretext that it is safe for us to go back. In fact,
Afghanistan has never been more unstable or dangerous.
"After the defeat of the Taliban, we were promised
democracy and human rights, but all that happened was
that the Americans and British replaced one set of
warlords with another. It may be difficult for the
Home Office to remember - and it is certainly
difficult for us to forget - that these are the same
warlords who killed 55,000 innocent Afghans between
1992 and 1996."
Zekria's suicide, believed to be the third by asylum
seekers in Scotland within the last 12 months, has
prompted refugee groups to demand a full inquiry.
Robina Qureshi, director of the lobby group Positive
Action in Housing, said: "We are worried that there
could be an increase in attempted suicides among
asylum-seekers because of the torture imposed on them
by the Home Secretary's policy.
"People are coming into the office absolutely
destitute and under threat of deportation, and saying
that they would rather kill themselves here than go
back to their countries and face imprisonment, torture
or death. We want a full inquiry.''
That, though, is too late for Zekria, whose body was
flown to Islamabad on Thursday evening and then on to
Kabul by a private plane, chartered by his family, for
Mr Asif explained: "His family hadn't seen him for
such a long time and they wanted him home whatever the
cost. They can't understand how he could escape the
trouble in Afghanistan and die like this in Britain."
Chat instantly with your online friends? Get the
FREE Yahoo! Messenger http://uk.messenger.yahoo.com/