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The life and death of an asylum-seeker - Independent, UK

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  • Zafar Khan
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 29, 2004
      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
      discrimination common-place.

      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
      the street."

      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
      his funeral.

      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."

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