AT THE age of 25, when Damir Duheric had just completed a law degree at Sarajevo University, he took a decision that would change his life.
"There was a simple choice – to take a weapon and fight your friends or to grab your rucksack," Duheric says. "Obviously I took the second option."
Some 16 years later and Duheric has just taken up a post as a senior solicitor at Morton Fraser, in Edinburgh, where he will advise businesses and private clients on how to deal with changes in the immigration law.
Qualified in both Scots Law and the law of England and Wales – as well as in the legal system of the former Yugoslavia – Duheric's personal history gives him a unique insight into the immigration process, both from the point of view of the law and of the experience of the person involved. He may be an example of an immigration success story, but he faced his fair share of struggle, hardship and misunderstanding along the way.
"When I first came I never imagined I could practise law," he says. "When I first came, I couldn't speak a word of English. There were only certain jobs I could do and those jobs were quite limited."
The turning point came on a weekend trip to the Lake District, when Duheric was invited to join a group of young Bosnians. There met David Zucker, then a lawyer and now a judge. Duheric says: "We were having a barbecue and I asked him why all the land was divided up in such a way, with little walls. He said the division of land went back to the feudal system – and I said I understand that, I learned about it when I was studying the development of law at Sarajevo University."
Zucker encouraged the young Bosnian to resume his studies and, after learning English at a further education college in Leeds, he was able to enrol in a part-time postgraduate diploma in law at Leeds Metropolitan University. Although he had resumed his studies, Duheric still found it hard to believe he could end up practising law in the UK.
"Sometimes during that time I had that feeling that I don't know if I will be able to do this," he says. "I didn't know at the time if I was going to stay here or go back. At the time we had been granted political asylum, but the government didn't grant many people refugee status.
"You would be given 'exceptional leave to remain'. At that time you would be given three years and then another three years and then you could apply for settlement. So it's quite a long period to wait and that uncertainty in many ways stopped me taking anything seriously – like practising law here."
But following the 1995 Dayton Agreement – the peace accord which ended the war in Bosnia – Duheric and his fellow Bosnians were granted refugee status and he started to realise the idea of practising law in the UK was possible. After gaining a diploma at York University, he found at job as a trainee solicitor at a firm in Bradford which specialised in immigration issues.
When working as a bilingual case worker at a reception centre in North Berwick, he met his Scottish wife, Catriona. In 2002, the family decided to move north and Duheric came to work at the Scottish Refugee Council in Glasgow and began the process of converting his qualification so as to be able to practise in Scotland.
His new appointment at Morton Fraser shows just how far Duheric has come since he arrived in the UK with a rucksack and barely a word of English. For the law firm – which has offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London – the appointment of an immigration specialist comes as new laws are introduced, which will mean new responsibilities for businesses and institutions wishing to employ staff from outside the European Union. From Friday, a new points-based system, based on the Australian immigration system, will be gradually introduced, in what has been described as the biggest immigration shake-up for 40 years.
Under the new rules, employers who wish to employ workers from outside the European Economic Area will have to become licensed sponsors. Employers will have to prove that a job has been advertised and cannot be filled locally and will have to keep detailed records showing how a person fulfils the criteria laid down by the Border and Immigration Agency. Prospective migrants who have been issued a sponsorship certificate will then apply for a visa at a UK government office in their own country.
Duheric says: "For many employers this will mean they have to introduce a whole set of new procedures. There is a much greater onus on employers. Employers will have to go through all these new procedures and either have to train someone or employ someone to do that for them."
The new system also introduces new criteria for highly skilled migrants and investors. Entrepreneurs will have to prove they have a minimum of 200,000 with which to establish a UK business, while investors will have to prove they have a minimum of 1 million that they intend to invest in this country. Highly skilled workers will have to show they have a minimum number of points, based on language skills, qualifications and experience.
A new UK-wide post-study category will replace Jack McConnell's Fresh Talent Initiative, which aimed to encourage highly qualified students to stay and work in Scotland.
The new systems are being introduced in stages, but from 29 February, businesses that employ illegal workers from overseas will face maximum penalties of 10,000 for each illegal worker found.
Duheric anticipates a lot of businesses will find it difficult to deal with all the changes – which is one of the reasons Morton Fraser has recruited him.
Although most of his work will be dealing with immigration from the employer's side, his own experiences give Duheric a constant awareness of the human implications of immigration and employment law.
"I will always do my best to help people," he says. "Because of my own experience I am in a position that I understand when people come who are suffering in all this. I know exactly what that means and how it feels."