W hen I arrived alone in London, a bewildered 15-year-old with nothing to my name but $100 and my hopes and dreams, I had no idea Iâd end up two decades later working as an NHS doctor fighting Covid-19 on the frontline in A&E. As a former child refugee from Afghanistan, under the UK governmentâs so-called New Plan for Immigration, it is doubtful I would be here at all.
Born into the Soviet-Afghan conflict, I grew up through the savagery of the civil war. My whole childhood was spent moving from one place to another to escape the bombs, much of it in unbearable conditions in refugee camps devoid of basic sanitation and rife with disease. It was at the age of five, when I almost died of tuberculosis, that my ambition to become a doctor took root. I was so impressed by the power of medicine to relieve the suffering I saw all around me.
In Kabul, my terrified family sheltered from rocket attacks in cellars and empty, looted houses. Schools and hospitals were destroyed, the streets strewn every day with the dead and dying. After the Taliban came, my parents sold their home to raise the money to save my life by sending me abroad.
The UK government and the British people showed me tremendous compassion and kindness. They provided me with a safe haven where, having received only the barest education, working by day and learning by night, I was able to study for A-levels and progress to Cambridge University, Imperial College and Harvard.
It was not easy. I was initially advised I would be better off settling for a job in a chicken shop. I was lonely, I missed my family and I struggled with social isolation and the lack of guidance.
After qualifying as a doctor, I went on to establish Arian Teleheal, an award-winning international telemedicine charity which helps to save lives in war zones and low-resource countries by working directly with clinicians on the ground, and provides governments, global organisations and the NHS with a blueprint for delivering innovative healthcare and education.
In the UK, the opportunities to achieve my potential and to give back, to my family, my adopted country and my homeland â opportunities that were nonexistent in Afghanistan â were within my grasp, and I was determined to seize them with both hands.
None of this would have been possible under the proposed overhaul of the asylum system, which would have classified me as an âirregularâ asylum seeker. The plan threatens to breach the UKâs international commitments by creating a two-tier structure that discriminates between refugees entering the country via âregular routesâ such as resettlement schemes, and those using âirregular routesâ, who may have passed through other countries deemed safe.
The right to seek asylum is universal, regardless of how refugees reach our shores. To refuse, or restrict, this right purely because it could have been claimed elsewhere would tear apart the fabric of international cooperation. If all refugees remained in the first safe state they came to, the systems of a handful of countries would be overwhelmed.
And the UNâs 1951 Refugee Convention recognises that those in flight from the chaos of war and persecution often have no choice but to arrive unauthorised. In Afghanistan, there was no legal escape route or resettlement scheme available to me. For most asylum seekers from any troubled region, there still isnât. My parents put their faith in the âtravel agentsâ who were our only option. I did not find out until I landed in the UK that the route I had taken was âirregularâ.
The new plan, while granting immediate leave to remain to those entering the country by the governmentâs favoured means, would penalise âirregularâ arrivals by restricting their rights, benefits and security, including their family reunion rights. Having lived with the distress of separation from my own family, I appreciate how vital social support is to the mental wellbeing of asylum seekers and how it helps them to acclimatise and assimilate more quickly.
These constraints will not deter âirregularâ asylum seekers who have endured horrors and privations unimaginable to most of us. Nobody would risk such arduous and dangerous journeys if the perils or brutality they were fleeing were not infinitely worse.
Inevitably, many arrive traumatised. I experienced bouts of depression, chronic anxiety and PTSD, a condition that, when I first came here, I could not yet name: a flashback would be triggered by a siren or loud bang on a London street, and suddenly I would see a tank bearing down on me.
The punishment of âirregularâ refugees can only exacerbate the widespread mental health problems we routinely see in the NHS among asylum seekers, while denying them the right to study and work would bar them from performing a useful role in society.
Of course, not every arrival is entitled to refugee status, and claims procedures must be just and fast. But seeking asylum is not a crime, and it is entirely possible for the government to achieve its objectives, to simplify and accelerate the processing of refugees and to protect the countryâs borders and security in a fair, humane and compassionate way.
The UK government and the British people have a proud record of welcoming refugees. There are thousands of others like me who have come, and may come, âirregularlyâ. They, too, have their hopes and dreams. They bring with them a range of talents that can enrich our society and valuable qualities, such as courage, determination, resourcefulness and resilience, that have helped them to survive this far. All they need is to be treated as human beings and allowed the chance to fulfil their potential and give back to their host communities, just as I was. Letâs not abandon them now.
Dr Waheed Arian is an NHS A&E doctor, and the author of In the Wars: A Story of Conflict, Survival and Saving Lives