“The sad thing is that we don’t see the humanity when we make decisions" - Sabir Zazai on his battle with the Home Office

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 4 June 2019 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview with the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council

Image credit: David Anderson

When Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, learned that the Home Office had overturned its decision to deny his father a visitor’s visa, so he could come and see his son collect an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow, his feeling was one of relief.

Sitting down with Holyrood the morning after he learned of the Home Office U-turn, he is obviously experiencing a mix of emotions, from happiness at the change to anger at being put through the whole nightmare in the first place.

Chief executive of the SRC since 2017, the honour had been awarded for his contributions to civil society over the past 20 years. And so Zazai, who was also 2019 winner of the Lord Provost’s award for human rights, naturally wanted his father, Mohammad Zahir Zazai, to come over from Afghanistan for the occasion.

His father has been denied a visitor visa three times in the past, and it happened again, with UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) denying him on the basis they didn’t believe he would return to his home country after the ceremony was over. And given the Home Office abolished the right of appeal against the refusal of a family visit visa application in 2013, on the basis it would save money, it seemed there was very little that Zazai and his family could do.

This was a successful man, being celebrated for the contributions he had made to UK society, yet it did him no good. To the Home Office, he was a case in a file, deserving of no more sympathy than anyone else.

A huge public outcry followed. MPs raised the case in the House of Commons. A whole range of civil society organisations spoke out to condemn the move. Nicola Sturgeon described it as “shameful and inexplicable” at FMQs. All the while, pressure was ratcheting up on the Home Office.

And so eventually UKVI relented, with an official ringing him up to inform him the visa would be granted.

Zazai had spent weeks living in a nightmare. “Whilst I am really grateful for all the solidarity and support the people of Scotland have shown, as well as friends and colleagues from across the UK, in this case, I am also sad in a way – why should it take a public outcry to restore our basic human rights? Is that the kind of society we aspire to be? I mean, should we do that for everything? Why should it take a public outcry to fight hostile policies?

“If there was an appeal right with this, I would have gone to the court and the court would have seen the common sense and humanity in this case, but in the absence of that appeal system, their decisions are driven by what they can find in that application to refuse a visa, rather than what they can find to grant one. That’s across the board, in different areas of asylum and immigration policy, where people have been refused things for very little or no reason.”

His father, aged 79, has actually visited Zazai in the UK previously. Yet the fact he had already come on a visitor’s visa, and then returned to Afghanistan as agreed, apparently meant little to the Home Office. Meanwhile, the rejection was littered with errors – not least the fact that officials seemed to be under the belief his father lived in Pakistan.

The error stemmed from the fact there is no visa application service for the UK based in Afghanistan, meaning anyone wishing to submit an application must leave the country to do so. Zazai’s father made the long journey to Pakistan, before being told he had not shown sufficient evidence of being from there. Mohammad would be unable to visit the UK without travelling to Pakistan, yet because he travelled to Pakistan, he was unable to come to the UK.

Zazai explains: “The reason, outlined in the refusal, was ‘you’ve not shown any links to Pakistan’, but why should someone show links to Pakistan if they’re not from Pakistan? He gave ample evidence of links to Afghanistan, which is where he’s from, but they didn’t even look at that. They asked for something that’s not even part of the decision-making process.

“My dad made all that effort, went to Pakistan to submit an application, and then they said, ‘what’s your link to Pakistan?’ His link to Pakistan is that visa to Pakistan, which is in his passport, because you cannot submit an application unless you have a visa for the country in which you are submitting an application. They were asking the impossible. If they were asking for something reasonable, I would just have gone to my dad and said, let’s apply again. But they didn’t. I am the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, I can raise this issue, but others will just live with it. They will live in suffering and they will just put up with that hostility, because people are given some really odd reasons. In my [father’s] case, one of the reasons was that you don’t have enough savings, but we are talking about Afghanistan. I don’t think anyone, apart from a few warlords, will have savings in Afghanistan.”

This was the third time he had been denied a visiting visa. One was to come and see Zazai graduate for his master’s degree at Coventry University, then the other was to come to his 40th and his daughter’s fifth birthday.

“He was refused on the basis he has no income – but he is retired, why would he have income? – and that his money is not in a bank, but banking in Afghanistan is only used for savings, we don’t have current accounts at all. Hardly anyone has spare cash.

“The Home Office know he’s visited twice, if he wanted to stay here, he would have claimed asylum. But he’s a man of integrity, he knows my position. Although in Afghanistan there is poverty, conflict, at that age, he is respected in that place. He has status. Here he would be another 79-year-old with no language skills, which is even worse.”

Zazai says that when he got the call from the Home Office, he gave his wife and three children a hug and then they sat down to dinner. Afterwards, while the family celebrated, his nine-year-old daughter, Zahra, snuck off to her room, and returned with her own thank you: a home-made card, which she dedicated to everyone who had helped with the case.

He laughs: “Well, children have got their own way of doing things. Last week she was very disappointed when she got the negative news [that the visa had been denied]. She was worried, asking when she would be able to see him again. Children don’t know about visas, about barriers, and all these security issues, but she knew there was a lot happening. I was on the phone most of the time, and she was asking why I was in the media.

“So I went to her yesterday and said, ‘Grandad can come over now’, and so she asked what had happened, why they said no before and why they were saying yes now. I said, ‘well, lots of people here in Scotland and across the UK were as angry as you are, and they wrote to different people and that led to the decision being overturned’. Then she just literally disappeared into her room and then came up with this really colourful card. She said, ‘This is for all those people, to thank them for helping make sure Grandad is allowed to come over’. It was quite a shock in a way, because we really weren’t expecting her to do something like that, but you could see how excited she was.”

Yet while the news was positive, it must be very difficult to explain to a child why they are not allowed to see their grandparent.

“It is difficult, because they don’t know these things. They’ve got classmates who will have their grandparents visiting from north or south or somewhere, they come to stay at Easter time or Christmas or at birthdays. I’ve taken her to birthdays where she’s met her friends’ grandparents as well, then at her birthday, the only family she introduced was me and my wife, and our other kids. You can see that children do feel that they miss that wider family, and that was one of the issues I wanted to raise, because this was never just about me, it’s about many, many others as well. Scotland has welcomed Syrian refugees, it has welcomed Afghan interpreters who worked with armed forces, we’ve welcomed Iraqi families, people from different conflicts, and they have set roots here. They’re not items, they’re individuals, and they’re people.

“The sad thing is that we don’t see that humanity when we make decisions. We only see it from the perspective that the person may stay here. My dad is 79-years-old. I love that guy, I respect him. He’s the last person I would want to put through the asylum system. That’s the same with many other families – the policy issue which needs to be addressed based on these cases is that there are many other instances of the immigration system which are set up in this way, with no appeal rights.”

That may be what people found so shocking about this case. Zazai is a very successful person, working as the chief executive of a large organisation, being rewarded for his contributions to Scottish society, but it did him no good. He may lead the Scottish Refugee Council, but to the Home Office, he is just another refugee, with an elderly relative from Afghanistan. It is obvious to anyone familiar with the case that Zazai was not working on an elaborate scheme to smuggle his father into the country unlawfully. But not to the Home Office. His credentials meant nothing in that context.

“What I learned from this case is that you can come to this country as an asylum seeker, you might have done everything you can to integrate, you might be part of that society and you may have made contributions to society as well. But are you accepted by the system? That’s a big question mark, and the answer is no.”

Zazai arrived in the UK twenty years ago, settling in Coventry, where he began volunteering at the Coventry Refugee Centre, while completing a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Coventry University. He went on to become chair of City of Sanctuary, a network of sanctuary buildings, campuses, villages and towns across the UK, all the while working in the refugee sector, eventually becoming chief executive of the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. He met his wife in 2008, raised a family, and eventually moved to Glasgow in 2017 to take up his current role.

“I left Afghanistan during the Taliban regime,” he says. “I fled the regime; it was a perilous journey which many other asylum seekers and refugees take. It took almost a year, of kind of moving between different countries, to get to the UK. One of the most shocking things in my life was saying that farewell to my family and leaving them in conflict, then me joining a journey where I didn’t know if my life would end, or be exploited.

“It wasn’t very different to what happened in the slave trade. I was just passed on to someone I didn’t know. My family basically had to sacrifice everything to get me to safety. They had to pass me onto a human trafficker, basically, to get me out of that conflict. When I read about history and about the slave trade, it’s still happening. It still continues, unfortunately. It’s what happens to people seeking safety, seeking asylum.

“But after such a difficult, perilous journey, you arrive somewhere and you feel that you want to have your human rights restored, and your dignity restored, but then you are told, ‘Hang on, we don’t believe your story’.”

Yet, if anything, the intervening years since Zazai fled the Taliban have been characterised by immigration controls becoming harsher and harsher. Hostile environment immigration policy, introduced by Theresa May in her time as Home Secretary, has ushered in an increasingly brutal set of restrictions, while responsibility for enforcement has spread further across society. Zazai says he is unsure how things would have worked out had he arrived seeking sanctuary under the current regime.

“I think the first thing would be whether I would actually arrive, because we have denied people all the safe and legal routes. There is no asylum visa for the UK – you have to arrive in Dover or one of the airports and claim asylum. It is really difficult for people to arrive. Then even if they did, we have put in place highly restrictive and inhumane policies which will make it very, very difficult for someone to go through the asylum process. Unfortunately, the UK Government uses destitution as a policy lever to deter people from claiming asylum, and it’s destitution which forces many people into hiding, vulnerability and into trafficking. If I arrived today, I’d be subject to exploitation, subject to a culture of disbelief, subject to trafficking, all sorts of other issues as well. The UK’s asylum system has become so restrictive that even if you come with a highly valid case of persecution, the UK Government will still have doubts about your claim.

“One thing that has changed, despite the negative approach of the UK Government, is that there is strong solidarity among the public. The public is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with hostile immigration policies. There’s a huge gap between public opinion and policy.”

But while the public have expressed outrage over aspects of Home Office decision-making – the Windrush scandal cost the Home Secretary her job – with the growth of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the UK, combined with the rise of Donald Trump in the US and an apparent resurgence in the far right in Europe, some have expressed concern that the world could be turning back on itself, with borders tightening and an increasingly hostile rhetoric deployed against those identified as different.

But Zazai refuses to bow to negativity.

“I am optimistic but we can’t take anything for granted. We need to be proactive and fight racism and fight negativity wherever we find it, in a non-violent way. We also need to raise awareness. In Scotland we have the Refugee Festival from 20 June and we’ve organised hundreds of events across the country. It’s a fabulous opportunity for people to see the richness and the values and the flavours that refugees bring to Scotland.

“I always looked up to Scotland as a place where there was always some inspiration, hope and solidarity coming. When the opportunity came up, I wasn’t prepared for uprooting the family again, but I think because of the increasing negativity that was following Brexit and everything, I just felt like moving to Scotland, and saying, ‘I want to be in a different place’. I wanted to be in a better place, where there was some positivity. I just thought, Scotland provides that platform for me to do better and reach out to more people than the way things are becoming more restrictive in the rest of the UK.”

Meanwhile, following the Home Office U-turn, Zazai’s children will be able to see their grandfather again. In fact, after moving at such a young age, they’re now growing up as Glaswegians.

“They are, they’re proud of their new friends and their new identity. Our three-year-old will have a proper Glaswegian accent,” he says. “The middle one is six and she’s picking up new [Scots] words. When we have visitors, they tell us they can hear her accent now.”

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