Glasgow race riots of summer 2001- When a refugee’s murder caused a deadly war in Sighthill

The recent crisis in Syria and the vast number of refugees travelling across the ocean with the hope of a better life in Europe has meant the plight of refugees and asylum seekers has been at the forefront of discussions on newspapers and social media comment sections.
Some people are passionately for bringing in more and helping as many as we can while others are vehemently against the idea that Scotland has already taken in its quota of 2000 Syrian refugees ahead of schedule.
To put that number into context it was only 16 years ago when one small housing scheme in the north-east of Glasgow took in MORE refugees into their one little area than the whole of Scotland has taken in since the crisis in Syria kicked off.
But the story of refugees in Sighthill is not a story with a happy ending or one even remotely resembling the inspiring Glasgow Girls story that was unfolding just a few miles away in Drumchapel at the same time.
It is instead a story that still leaves deeps scars in the community to this day- a story that ended in murder-riots and jail time…..

For weeks one small area in Glasgow petered on the edge of an all-out race war after a young asylum seeker was stabbed to death in a brutal and unprovoked attack by a known ned who also stabbed another foreigner in a separate incident that same summer night.

As terrified immigrants started to form gangs and arm themselves with bats and chains violent clashes became a nightly occurence. In one night in August a local man suffered fractured skull in a bat attack and a Kurdish woman had two teeth kicked out in seperate incidents just yards from each other and hours apart.

A few days earlier an Iraqi man- accused of sexually assaulting a young girl- was beaten up and had his clothes set on fire. It was later pointed out to the teenage ned attacker that a local man had already been charged with sexual assault- he replied that the Iraqi would have done something else to deserve it anyway.

Gangs made up of Kurds, Somalians and Palastinians fought with local young teams in the street and local parks as shops, houses and cars were also targeted.

It got so bad the Scottish Government had a crisis meeting and changed their policy on the distribution of refugees and asylum seekers.

But how did it come to this?

It all started one morning at the end of April in 2001 when Sighthill residents woke up to the surprising sight of council officials lugging household appliances into flats that had been lying empty for sometime.

Sighthill at the time was a particularly run-down area in a city that had really arrived at breaking point with large chunks at the point of ghettoisation. Closes had been neglected to the point of decay, windows were boarded up, every spare bit of wall was covered in graffiti and young teams would regulary beat each other literally to death for a Friday night thrill.

For some residents it was a living hell that they felt there was no way out off and no one willing to give them a helping hand to anything.

Within a few days of the council officials kitting out the new homes all of a sudden a lot of stranger started moving in to the scheme, unfamiliar faces wearing unfamiliar clothes clearly from unfamiliar lands. Giving the fact that barely no new residents had been moved in to Sighthill for about 20 years to this point the people of Sighthill were surprised to say the least- and lot quickly became resentful of the newcomers.

They wondered what the new tenants had done to deserve a new washing machine from the council when they had been left to rot for years in an area surrounded by drug dealers, junkies, gangs and misery on a nightly basis and never received any such assistance.

Others were infuriated at the suddenness of it all and how no one living in the area had been informed that it was happening.

           Displaced: 3000 asylum seekers arrived in Sighthill.

The people, men, women, children, elderly and teenagers from all walks of life, that had been more or less dumped into Sighthill was Asylum seekers who had been forced to flee their homelands through persecution- mostly for religious and political reasons- displaced from their homeland and brought to Glasgow.

And within a few weeks in the summer of 2001, 3000 of them were crammed into full the empty homes in the area’s high rise flats.

In the most part the people who were being moved here had previously been professional people with, it could be argued, a better standard of life than those already living in Sighthill.

Some of them were doctors, teachers, engineers and scientists so to say they weren’t exactly thrilled about being left in a small flat in the middle of an area like Sighthill- and it’s fair to say they wouldn’t have been feeling much sympathy or warm welcomes from the locals.

Malicious rumours started to spread through the scheme that the refugees had been ‘trouble makers’ back in their home countries, that they were criminals, rapists, terrorists and were getting thousands of pounds a week from the government and houses filled with all the best ameneties at no expense spared.

For one irrational reason or another lot of the residents were terrified of the asylum seekers and at the same time, many of the asylum seekers were scared out of their wits over the locals and daren’t venture outside.

Soon the hostility of the indigenous population spilled over into racist abuse and harassment with the newly arrived immigrants becoming the new number one targets for the local young team- taking some heat away from the local heroin addicts that had been the previous targets of the violent youths.

  • 3000 asylum seekers and refugees were housed in Sighthill in the summer of 2001
  • Suddenly they made up one fifth of the area’s population
  • Tensions began to rise in the already crime-ridden area of North Glasgow
  • Local ned Scott Burrell attacked a young refugee and stabbed him to death
  • Firsat Dag had just visited the city centre for the first time when the attack happened
  • Burrell stabbed and slashed a second foreigner just hours later in separate attack
  • The murder brought chaos to the streets of the housing scheme for months
  • Burrell was later jailed for 14 years for the unprovoked murder

They then began to feel vulnerable and without protection and soon a small number of young asylum seekers started arming themselves and clashing with local young teams.

One of the local gangs who called themselves the Sighthill Mafia had been gaining a feared reputation throughout the city.

A small but ruthless gang of young men in perenial war with their counterparts from nearby Royston they were an offshoot of the original Sighthill Young Team and were keen to enforce their position as the ‘top-men’ in the area.

One baking hot Friday afternoon in Glasgow two of the gang’s members Scott Burrell and Martin Gould met up with another 6 or 7 of the gang members to stock up on Buckfast, MD 20/20 and Frosty Jack cider.

They then met up with with the much larger but younger Sighthill Young Team who had congregated at a park nearby.

                    Ned: Scott Burrell

The young-team were like the up and coming version of the mafia aged mostly between 14 and 18 and respected guys like Burrell who was in his mid-20s at the time.

Burrell on the other hand liked to show his authority by bullying the youngest and smallest members of the gang and had a reputation as guy that had a keen eye for young (drunk) teenage girls- something that was in high-numbers with the young-team.

But he was left furious that Friday night when one of the young girls spurned his advances and decided to winch with another young gang-member.

Ginger Burrell, by this time fuelled by a 7-hour drink and coke binge, tried to attack the young couple but was quickly held back by the young-team who numbered at around 25 in the park that day.

Noticing that they were outnumbered by around 5 to 1 Gould managed to get enraged Burrell out of harms way and convinced him to leave the park to walk towards the city centre: “Don’t need to mess with these wee jailbait burds around here mate- mon head in to town for the real talent.”

As they made their way out of the park Burrel, still clearly enraged at his earlier knock-back, was ranting and raving: kicking lamp posts, bins and gravestones as Gould attempted to calm him down.

Then in the distance he seen two men stepping off the nearby motorway bridge and said “It’s them” before making a charge towards them like a man possessed.

The two men were Kurdish asylum seeker Firsat Dag and his teenage mate Erkan Ayyildiz who had left their flats in Sighthill to take advantage of the rare Glasgow weather and walk in to town for something to eat earlier that night.

It was the first time either of the youngsters had ventured in to town and made it back later than planned after being distracted as they took in the bright lights of the city centre for the first time.

Refugee: Firsat Dag was from Turkish Kurdistan.

The pair were shocked when they seen raging Burrell charge at them at full pelt shouting like a mad man- they couldn’t make out his thick and slurred Glasgow accent but knew his shouts weren’t shouts of friendliness.

As he approached 25-year-old Dag he pulled a lock-knife from up his sleeve without either the two men seeing and slammed the blade into the young man’s chest at full force before running off in the other direction.

It happened so fast that both men thought Burrell had merely punched Firsat Dag but moments later he dropped to the ground: “Oh my god- I have been stabbed.”

He was rushed to the Royal Infirmary but they were unable to stop the bleeding and he died a short time later.

Burrell soon caught up with his mate Gould again and they continued into the city centre- when Gould asked Burrell what had happened back at the motorway he said “I stabbed that guy”. Gould dismissed the comments as drunken boasts.

But when they got into the city centre Burrell was still agigated and he attacked German tourist Stephan Herold in full view of dwellers in a busy part of town.

In a completely unprovoked attack he slashed the German’s face before stabbing him twice in the stomach leaving him permanently scarred and requiring emergency surgery.

Burrell was arrested and admitted the attack on Mr herold but blamed his mate Martin Gould for the murder of Firsat Dag.

Martin Gould in turn put the blame back on Burrell and was backed up by 16-year-old asylum seeker Erkan Ayyildiz who witnessed the murder.

In the aftermath of that incident, many asylum seekers were afraid to leave their homes and some fled to London begging for sanctuary, fearful that they would be next.

It would linger on for months until Burrell was eventually jailed for 14 years for the murder of Mr Dag and 8 years for the attack on Mr Herold.

A racial aspect of the attack was dropped half way through the 6-day trial.

On the day of the sentencing flashes of trouble erupted throughout the scheme but in the weeks and months to come it started to ease out slightly.

But almost exactly a year later it was almost egnited again when an Iranian asylum seeker was stabbed just yard from where Mr Dag was murdered.

The 32-year-old was approached by a gang of teenagers as he left Sighthill shopping centre before being assaulted and stabbed twice in the stomach.

To this day there is less violence and crime in the area but in Sighthill there will always be a tension bubbling underneath with some people that could erupt at any moment.

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