An NHS hero who fled war in Afghanistan as a teenager has today called on the government to show “compassion” as it weighs up a controversial immigration shake-up.
Dr Waheed Arian, who was once presented for a humanitarian award by Priti Patel and who has worked on the frontline during the Covid pandemic, warns the plans could host thousands of lives.
Today he speaks out against the Nationality and Borders Bill, which he warns will criminalise people who arrive like he did.
The bill – which has been likened to “dog whistles to racist football fans” by human rights groups – will be discussed by MPs today.
The frontline medic arrived in the UK in 1999 using a passport he later learned was fake.
His family had sold all their possessions to buy documents – determined that at least one member should survive.
But under new laws proposed by the government, those entering the country through unofficial channels could face criminal charges.
Dr Arian told The Mirror: “This is a matter of life or death, it’s a matter of refugees being treated as human.
“It’s not about left or right, it’s about compassion. We shouldn’t politicise them or make them criminals.
“Tens of thousands of lives are on the line, they will give up on humanity.”
As a child Dr Arian narrowly escaped death several times as rockets rained down during the Soviet-Afghan war, and he fled to a refugee camp in neighbouring Pakistan when he was just five years old.
Dr Arian was inspired to become a doctor when his life was saved after he contracted tuberculosis and malaria as a young boy.
His family later returned to Afghanistan, but he fled in 1999, at the age of just 15, as the country’s bloody civil war intensified and his family worried he would be targeted by militants.
“One day a rocket flattened my neighbour’s house, and that was a turning point,” the 38-year-old recalled.
“My family thought that if we’re going to die, we want one person to survive.
“We looked for all legal routes, but they don’t exist. There’s no legal route, people still have the same problem, they’re desperately seeking how to get out.
“The most important thing on their mind is ‘how do I get out and how do I get my children out?'”
His father sold the family home and possessions in exchange for documents which they were assured would give Dr Arian safe passage to the UK, where they had a family friend.
Little did he know that the passport he was handed was fake, and he was arrested on arrival at Heathrow.
“I was told it was likely I would be sent to prison and then deported,” he said. “My family would have been destroyed.”
Dr Arian said he benefitted from being shown compassion after lawyers argued for his release. He stayed with a family friend in London and took jobs as a kitchen porter, cleaner and salesman while he completed his education.
He was deeply affected by the trauma he had lived through as he settled into life in the UK.
“I started suffering from PTSD, I had hypertension and anxiety,” he said. “The sound of the Tube resembled a jet.
“Many asylum seekers come in with PTSD and anxiety, if you send them away they suffer more.”
Desperate to make a difference and save lives, he studied hard at AS levels, and in 2003 was admitted to Cambridge University.
“I always dreamed of being a doctor,” he said. “I had never had opportunities, so I used fully the opportunities I was given, and other refugees are the same, they come here with the same dreams.”
While working as an NHS doctor, he set up charity Arian Teleheal, which has provided vital medical support by linking healthcare professionals in the UK and Afghanistan and Syria.
He became the first UK citizen to win the UNESCO Global Hero Award in 2017 – which was presented to him by Priti Patel, who was Secretary of State for International Development at the time.
As Home Secretary she is leading the shake-up of the immigration system, but her proposed legislation has been branded an “anti-refugee bill”.
The government says it will crack down on people smuggling, but new criminal offences will also be added for those found to have entered the UK illegally.
It also includes limits on family reunion rights.
Sonya Sceats, Chief Executive of Freedom from Torture, said: “No matter how people enter this country when they are fleeing persecution, everybody deserves to feel safe. But this anti-refugee bill will destroy the principle of asylum and deny safety to men, women and children who need help.
“Stoking the flames of division and playing politics with people’s lives is entirely characteristic of this government – whether it’s a dog whistle to racist football fans, or treating people seeking protection with the utmost cruelty.
“This anti-refugee bill is not the answer to the efficient and compassionate asylum system we were promised. It must be scrapped.”
The government says that the new rules will prioritise people in “regions of conflict and instability” rather than “those who are already in safe European countries”.
In a statement the Home Office said: “We have a responsibility to put the ‘New Plan for Immigration’ into action so that we can fix the broken asylum system, helping people based on need, not the ability to pay people smugglers.
“People should be reassured by our track record – since 2015 we have resettled over 25,000 vulnerable refugees, many women and children so they can rebuild their lives here. We will continue to work closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ensure those in greatest need get our support.”
Dr Waheed Arian’s memoirs, In the Wars, is published by Bantam Press