If I were fleeing for my life today, I would be classified as an “irregular” asylum seeker and summarily removed from the country. Refugees deserve a fair and compassionate asylum system.
We all have pivotal moments that we can point to – a moment that changed the course of our lives. Going from a refugee camp in Afghanistan to an NHS doctor in England, I’ve had a few of those. I was five when I contracted tuberculosis in a refugee camp. The local doctor who was treating me gifted me a worn stethoscope and an outdated medical textbook. It ignited a determination to pursue medicine as a profession, however laughably impossible this goal felt at the time.
It is these pivotal moments and goals that the Nationality and Borders Bill threatens to destroy. Under this government’s proposed plans, I would not have been given the chance to become an NHS doctor, let alone learn English or study medicine at Cambridge University. I fled war-torn Afghanistan at the age of 15 and arrived in Britain with trauma, and the sum total of one hundred dollars to my name. If I were fleeing for my life today, I would be classified as an “irregular” asylum seeker and summarily removed from the country.
This anti-refugee bill proposes to create a two-tier asylum system. A person fleeing war or persecution will be criminalised or jailed if their journey was not pre-approved through the resettlement scheme. Most people in this situation don’t have the luxury of accessing this. In Afghanistan, there was no ‘legal’ escape route available to me. I know too well that when your life is under threat, you just run.
Not only does this Bill hurt us in practical terms, it poses an existential threat to our values and identity
Furthermore, by focussing on the method of entry into the UK, this anti-refugee bill breaches international commitments. The Refugee Convention could not be clearer: the right to seek asylum is universal, regardless of how refugees reach your shores. Governments may not impose penalties based on method of arrival, if they can “show good cause”. As we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of this Convention, one that Britain helped to shape following the horrors of the Second World War, this anti-refugee bill threatens to undo all of that work.
Refugees have long been part of the fabric of British society. Having spent most of my career working in the NHS, I have seen this first-hand. Refugee and British-born healthcare workers have stood shoulder to shoulder to save lives in hospital wards during this pandemic – and long before it. Our diversity is our strength. Refugees from all over the world bring their own set of knowledge and expertise. Not long after I qualified, I set up a charity, Arian Teleheal, which uses technology to connect local doctors with low resources in war zones, with clinicians in the NHS and across the world. The exchange of medical expertise and knowledge saves lives and benefits everyone.
Not only does this Bill hurt us in practical terms, it poses an existential threat to our values and identity. I was only able to rebuild my life and give back to this country because of the compassion shown to me by the British government and people. As I watch friends and family back in Afghanistan endure escalating violence following the withdrawal of American troops, I am transported back to the journey I made. I was struck by the important message from Conservative chair of the Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood MP. On this Bill, he said “we turn our backs on Afghanistan, and then arrest those who flee that country which now slides towards civil war”.
I want to continue living in the compassionate Britain that I arrived in and that made me the person I am today. My message to this government is clear: we must create a fair and compassionate asylum system that we deserve.
This Bill is anti-British and totally out of step with public opinion. It must be scrapped. Many of us lost so much in this pandemic – friends, families, service workers and healthcare staff. We can’t afford to lose the values that make us a great country too. 658 words
Dr Waheed Arian is an NHS A&E doctor, and the author of In the Wars: A Story of Conflict, Survival and Saving Lives.
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