Scotland’s fight for refugees gets personal

6 September 2022

Six months on from the start of the Ukrainian asylum crisis, two leading campaigners for refugees launch a devastating attack on British Government cruelty and Scottish Government complacency – and both reveal the dark personal stories which turned them into champions of the underdog.

THERE’S a secret key to all our souls - the deep, foundational event which unlocks who we are, explains why we live our lives the way we do.

For Sabir Zazai it was entering Britain in the back of a people trafficker’s lorry as a traumatised Afghan teenager, fleeing the Taliban, alone in the world, starved of education and terrified for his life.

For Robina Qureshi it was the humiliation of her mother and father, newly arrived Pakistani immigrants, at the hands of white Scotland.

Today, Zazai has a doctorate, an OBE and leads the Scottish Refugee Council. Qureshi is, perhaps, the most outspoken campaigner in Scotland. She heads the charity Positive Action in Housing, which has found homes for thousands of refugees.

We’re now six months on from the launch of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, meant to provide safe havens with ordinary British families for refugees fleeing Putin’s war. The Ukraine policy across Britain is a mess, however. Officials grossly underestimated the number of people needing help. Scotland’s super sponsor scheme was paused and refugees are currently housed on ships in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Scottish government is considering opening mass refugee reception centres to accommodate the thousands more Ukrainians expected.

To mark this critical juncture, both Qureshi and Zazai sat down with the Herald on Sunday to speak candidly about the reality of life for refugees in Scotland. Between them, the assessment is damning. The UK government is embarked on a cruel, brutal policy persecuting some of the world’s most vulnerable people. And the Scottish government - if it wishes to do more than just talk - needs to step up dramatically.


Zazai was in year seven when his family was forced into a refugee camp, as Afghanistan collapsed amid war between the Soviet invaders and mujahideen. They spent ten years living in a tent. The memories haunt him. By age 17, the Taliban was in power and looking for young men to recruit as fighters. “People in my age group who’d no education, no prospects, were being targeted,” he says. “I didn’t want to fight. I dreaded war.”

A decision was taken. Zazai had to escape. “My parents would’ve sacrificed anything - including their love for me - to get me to safety.” And so began a terrifying, lonely year long journey from Afghanistan through Europe - by boat, foot and lorry.

Zazai eventually fell into the hands of people traffickers. There was no other means to get to safety. One night, somewhere in Europe, perhaps Germany he believes, he was put into the back of a lorry with a group of other desperate people and taken on an eight hour journey. At one point, he realised, in terror, that they were at sea. Many refugees have suffocated in lorries, and Zazai had no idea where he was being taken or when he’d get out.

“You’re put in boarded up houses and not given a sense of where you are. Most journeys happen at dark. You aren’t allowed to see anything or speak. It’s very dangerous. There were times on that journey when I felt living under the Taliban might be better. We were treated like cattle.”

The terror of war and the Taliban, the horror of his journey through Europe at the hands of people traffickers, has left Zazai with PTSD. On a family picnic in the highlands, an RAF jet flew overhead. “I had to get under the bench. I thought it was going to drop bombs. I was just lost, I went back somewhere. The scars of war don’t go away.”

After the people trafficker’s dumped him in Britain, he was settled in Coventry. One day, he saw young people going to the local university and felt the pain of all he’d lost. “I’d hopes for that kind of life,” he says. He learned English, he studied. He got his first degree, then his masters. Eventually, he became chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, earned an OBE and an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University.

Zazai was now working closely with the Home Office and wanted to bring his family to the Glasgow graduation ceremony. “They refused.” Eventually, permission was granted for his father. When Zazai looked out into the audience, he saw his father crying. The only other time his father cried was during a bombing raid when his parents wept at the thought of losing their children. “He never thought one day his son, who stopped going to school because of war, would get an honorary doctorate.”

His father was immediately returned to Afghanistan and remains there. It’s Zazai’s greatest wish to one day bring his family to Scotland.

“They wouldn’t be a burden. I’d share whatever I have. But sadly we’ve a system that sees people as burdens.” Like Zazai, the refugees trafficked with him have all built successful lives. None are dependent on the state, all pay taxes. “I didn’t arrive in the back of a lorry as a chief executive,” he adds.


Zazai’s deepest criticism is reserved for the Conservative plan to pay Rwanda to take refugees. He describes it as a “dreadful policy”, “shamefully” it “trades” human beings, turning vulnerable people into “cargo”; it’s part of “a wider cultural war”. Many of those marked for Rwanda are victims of torture. The policy is creating terror within the refugee community.

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s parents were immigrants from Uganda to Britain in the 1960s. Idi Amin would later expel thousands of Asians from Uganda in the 1970s. “She needs to sit and think back to her own family,” Zazai says. The Rwanda scheme “renders people like me, like her parents, criminals”. Ukraine was once a safe country, not anymore, he points out. Anyone can become a refugee - even white Europeans.

Britain provides no safe route for most refugees to make it here legally. Thousands of Afghans, who worked for the allies, remain trapped in the country. “If someone worked for the British forces in Helmand and had no access to come here, and their life was in danger, and the only route was through France - should we send them to Rwanda?”

More than 10,000 refugees have been “dumped” in “temporary hotel-style accommodation” and given £8 a week to survive on - £40 if they’re housed.

The policy clearly prevents integration and fosters feelings of resentment among some in poor British communities. Far right groups have claimed that refugees are ‘living in luxury’. Many are destitute, however, some end up in sex work or homeless. There’s been suicides, and profound levels of mental health problems.

The media discussion, however, centres on illegal boat crossings from Calais, with claims that many are criminals or simply economic migrants. But Zazai points out that the UK government’s own statistics show that around 93% of those crossing end up making successful asylum applications on the grounds of fleeing war and persecution. “Every morning I wake up to WhatsApp messages saying ‘I served as a soldier with British forces in Helmand and I’ve arrived through Calais’. If there was decency, we’d give some form of amnesty.” Britain now has its lowest ever level of asylum applications with around 20,000 a year.

With huge shortages in the employment market and an economic crisis, however, many refugee campaigners say there’s an obvious benefit to getting asylum applicants working and paying tax.

Questions over why refugees don’t stop in the first safe country they come to “are valid”. But, Zazai points out, many - particularly from former colonies - speak English and so know it will be easier to settle here than elsewhere. However, we risk creating a situation where “Britain says ‘why not stay in France’, France says ‘why not stay in Germany’, Germany says ‘why not stay in Turkey’. We need global leadership.”

Nobody comes to Britain for benefits, he says. Apart from the period when he received £36 weekly as asylum support, Zazai has “never been on benefits”.

There’s been a markedly different attitude towards Ukrainians than refugees from the Middle East or Africa. “I wouldn’t jump to the race card, but it’s clearly differential treatment of people fleeing similar circumstances. It’s disheartening.” He’s glad Ukrainians are allowed to work and have a 'family scheme' which allows them to bring relatives into Britain, but asks why the same policy isn’t extended to other refugees from countries like Afghanistan. Zazai fears looking at his phone every morning in case something dreadful has happened to his relatives in Afghanistan.

The Scottish government needs to be much bolder - matching actions to words. Why not create a pilot project where asylum applicants are “given the right to work”, Zazai asks. “We’re reactive, not proactive.” The Scottish government should “push” the UK government. “But are we doing that? Hmm, no.” Around 900 refugees currently face “homelessness and destitution” in Glasgow. Edinburgh should speak to London about “granting them some sort of status” before they end up on the streets. “Proactive leadership is lacking.”

He warns that the Rwanda policy risks a clash between Edinburgh and London. If refugees in Glasgow are marked for deportation to Rwanda “where does Police Scotland stand in this? … What do we do? Pass them to the UK government? Or say ‘sorry, these are our citizens’?”

The Scottish government has a policy of “integration” but how does that sit alongside Rwanda deportations, Zazai asks. He’d be “gutted” if deportations happened and were then used it to campaign for independence. “That’s using refugees. That’s not right - use your voice now.” There’s a risk “we just end up with warm words like ‘New Scots’ and ‘friends and neighbours’,” meaning “the integration strategy is going to be nothing more than a nice shiny document”. The Rwanda policy renders Scotland’s “integration strategy redundant … it’s a bit of a power grab”.

Every day, Zazai says, when he drops his daughters off at school, he thinks of what his girls would have lost if he hadn’t fled Afghanistan and been given a chance to build a new life here.


Qureshi was born in Scotland after her family moved here from Pakistan in the 1960s. Her father wanted to ensure he'd enough money that his daughters didn’t grow up poor. An ex-soldier, her father found a job as a bus conductor but was sacked when he got into a physical fight with a boss who said: Pakistanis “don’t need showers because you’re brown”.

She recalls her mother being humiliated in shops when assistants wouldn’t serve her but served white customers instead. “This was normal for us.” Her sense of “injustice” made Qureshi “identify with people on the outside. We knew very well from a young age that we were second class as we weren’t white.”


Asylum applicants in Scotland live in “silent” desperation, she says. Silent because they “fear” what the Home Office might do if they speak out about the conditions they live in. “The far right rhetoric is that they’re in plush hotels - the reality couldn’t be more stark or depressing.” It was Qureshi’s charity Positive Action in Housing which thought up the idea of British families ‘hosting’ refugees way back in the early 2000s in order to get them out of temporary accommodation and away from the risk of destitution. So far, they’ve found homes for 4000 refugees.

Britain’s policy is “structurally racist”, she says. She’s worked tirelessly bringing Ukrainians to Scotland under current schemes, but says: “Other war refugees aren’t getting the same help.” Many are fleeing wars Britain started or had involvement in, like Iraq. Countries like Pakistan and Turkey have taken in millions. With few legal routes to Britain, “drownings in the channel happen because of government policy, not human traffickers. Human traffickers happened because of government policy.”

The Rwanda scheme is “plainly barbarism. It’s basically ‘they’re all black, send them to a black country’.” Referring to Patel, Qureshi says: “The Tory government has done a good job of making sure the people who aren’t white are leading the immigration policy.” On Patel’s immigrant roots, she adds: “Your history is as the child of immigrants. Put your parents into Rwanda, then tell us it’s legitimate.”

A fair and humane refugee policy would also help address the west’s massive threat of population decline - and Britain’s shortage of people to fill jobs, particularly in the NHS. This week a young Pakistani doctor who faces being killed by her family for falling in love with the ‘wrong’ man broke down on the phone to Qureshi after her asylum claim was refused. Qureshi’s charity is giving her destitution grants to survive.

The policy is “senseless. You want people working and engaged in society”. Our ageing society will be dependent on foreign workers caring for the elderly in the near future. In a way, the jobs crisis is “chickens coming home to roost”, as migration could alleviate Britain’s problem with employment and demographics. “People are suffering the outcome of voting for a government that has no interest in ordinary men and women. Look at the state of the country - and we’re supposed to blame immigrants? How much hate do you need to forget the seven grand electricity bill you’re going to run up?”

Qureshi is much more critical of the Scottish government than Zazai when it comes to refugee issues. When she communicates with the Scottish government “it keeps being put forward that this is because of English policy. People are tired of that reason”.

She’s fed up with the SNP “turning around and saying ‘Westminster is bad, vote for us’. They have to be proactive and show how this society will move ahead. You can’t do that by saying another country is bad. Saying ‘it’s their fault’, can’t be the reason we want independence’.”

Although the SNP’s Ukraine scheme is paused, Qureshi, however, feels the government “did the right thing”. It was a crisis, and action, in this case, was taken fast. Housing Ukraine refugees in ships, however, just isn’t good enough, Qureshi says. “Nothing short of house building will address this.”

Like Zazai, she warns that when it comes to the Rwanda policy “the Scottish police are involved in immigration raids”. However, with policing devolved, the government can chose for officers not to take part. “If they did that, then tomorrow there’d be no immigration raids.”

She sees the failure to act as sign of another “weakness in the position of a government that wants to be independent, world-leading and enlightening”. She contrasts the SNP’s lack of action with anti-deportation demonstrators in Glasgow, saying: “Where’s the stance of the Scottish government?”

Qureshi adds: “The Scottish government likes to be seen to do the right thing. Now, it has to act to do the right thing rather than put out statements - and we know the statements will be ‘vote for an independent Scotland as Westminster is a mess’."

Her anger boils over when she talks of the UK evacuating dogs from Afghanistan ahead of children, now being sold into marriage. “We allowed Ukrainians to bring pets. There’s complete abandonment of our moral obligations.” She knows of many refugees sent back to places like Afghanistan, Iran or Iraq and “never heard from again”. Britain’s policy means she got a text “at five this morning from an Afghan judge” asking how to get here.

It’s people like the judge who end up drowned in the Mediterranean or the Channel. Qureshi talks of fishermen pulling out limbs from their nets in the Mediterranean. Refugee boats have been turned back by European nations. The drownings lead her to another concern about the Scottish government. “You want to be part of Europe as an independent country? Will you be harmonising with the drowning policy of Europe? Choosing to be blind about these things isn’t an option.”

Rather than pity for victims lost at sea, the right-wing press simply vilifies those forced into boats. “Why are we so filled with hate? It’s poisoning our children. It’s absolutely a hangover of empire.”

Albanians crossing the channel are the latest targets of the right-wing media. Qureshi sees it as scapegoating and distraction. “The press is hand in hand with the UK government,” she says. “It’s not because Albanians are bad people. They just need a hate figure to divert us from how we’re all going to pay for our food and energy.”


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