Afghanistan women - how UK failed the people

How the UK has failed the people of Afghanistan

In the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the world needed to react fast. By summer 2021, British forces had been in Afghanistan for over 20 years, with Afghan employees serving alongside them from the beginning. The British government were aware that once their troops were withdrawn, many of the Afghan staff and employees they left behind would be at high risk of torture and persecution from the Taliban. Anyone who worked for the British would be left seriously vulnerable. Announced twenty months after the signing of the Doha agreement, the Home Office introduced the UK government’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy on 1 April 2021.  

The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy 

The ARAP scheme is aimed at Afghan citizens who worked for or with the UK government in Afghanistan; this includes roles such as military personnel, intelligence officers, army medics, and interpreters. Unfortunately, the speed of the Taliban takeover was unprecedented and it was clear that the British government had made drastic errors in their contingency planning. The British Council contacted a number of Afghan employees in sensitive job roles to advise them to apply for ARAP. However, due to the failures by the British government to ensure knowledge of the scheme was widespread, many individuals were just applying during the heat of the evacuation. There are currently still thousands of eligible Afghan citizens whose fate has been left in the hands of the Taliban.

BBC File on 4 recently undertook an investigation into those people who have been left behind. Their findings demonstrate that the UK government seriously failed the Afghan teachers employed by the British Council. Many of these teachers had worked out in the field but they were not told about the ARAP scheme in the lead up to Operation Pitting. Yet in contrast, British Council office staff were not only told, but given assistance in applying for the scheme. It soon dawned upon the teachers that they were going to be left behind. It was then decided that they didn’t qualify for the scheme, despite being in a public facing role and at a higher risk of Taliban retribution than any of the office staff. The Taliban have been outspoken in their views of British Council teachers, who they see as the embodiment of anti-Afghan and anti-Muslim values. Based on this, the teachers should have ranked highly on any proposed evacuation lists.

A British Council whistle-blower suggested to File on 4 that the office staff did not tell the teachers about the scheme because they knew there were limited spaces and did not want to risk losing a spot for themselves. The excuse given was that the teachers were on fixed-term contracts rather than permanent contracts; a shockingly feeble excuse given that many teachers’ identities were already known to Taliban forces. Many British Council teachers had already been abducted, beaten and tortured, clearly demonstrating that the small print on employment contracts is of little or no interest to the Taliban.

A spokesperson for the British Council shifted responsibility onto the government, who they claim were only considering applications from British Council employees and not contractors. But why was a difference in employment terms permitted to be the deciding factor between freedom or death? 

The case of KBL, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for the Home Department & Ors [2023] EWHC 87 (Admin) (23 January 2023) offers a helpful insight into the difficulties Afghan citizens continue to face with the government schemes. It seems the claimant is being forced to jump through rigorous procedural hoops in order to achieve resettlement, despite being a high-ranking government official and former Women’s Rights Unit Leader for the Afghanistan Independent Humans Rights Commission. This case is not isolated; there are many examples of Afghan citizens, such as former British Council university professors and GardaWorld interpreters, having their applications under ARAP refused.  

The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme 

On 6 January 2022, the UK government stated that it was making ‘one of the world’s most generous humanitarian offers to vulnerable Afghans’ and proceeded to introduce the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme. This was a beacon of hope for many citizens whose applications had been refused under ARAP. The Home Office pledged to resettle up to 20,000 Afghans in four years under the ACRS. But has it been successful?

On the same day, the Home Office announced that around 6,000/7,000 people already evacuated and in the UK would be included under Pathway 1, meaning a third of the places were wiped out from the start. As of October 2022, only four people had been brought to the UK under Pathway 2. This pathway relates to those who have fled Afghanistan to a third country and are in the care of the UNHCR. 

 Pathway 3 was designed for the people that remain in Afghanistan who supported the UK and international community effort, as well as members of minority groups and vulnerable women and girls. In the first year, the government promised to consider people for resettlement from 3 groups: British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni. The Home Office closed expressions of interest from these groups in August 2022. There were around 11,000 applications for just 1,500 spaces. Yet one year on, none of these people have been evacuated and brought to safety. After the first year of pathway 3, the Home Office pledged to work with international partners and non-governmental organisations to welcome wider groups of Afghans at risk. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon given the government’s failure to relocate anyone in the first year.

A group drastically failed by the ACRS and ARAP schemes alike is journalists. The recently decided case of CX1 & Ors, R (On the Application Of) v Secretary of State for Defence & Anor [2023] EWHC 284 (Admin) (13 February 2023) concerned the plight of 8 Afghan BBC journalists who had their initial applications under ARAP refused. The BBC were asked to put together lists of staff eligible for evacuation and decided to only put forward names of current staff members. Former staff including these journalists were excluded. Notably, the claimants had to apply under ARAP and not the ACRS. A pitfall of the ACRS is that it only offers resettlement to journalists who made it out during the airlift and not those who are still stuck in Afghanistan. These journalists are well-known and easily recognisable – they reported from the frontline of the war and some are even known as the face of BBC Pashto. For this reason, the Taliban have labelled these journalists as British spies. They have used intimidation tactics and extreme violence, such as death threats and petrol bombs, against them and their families. 

Mr Justice Lane ruled that the claimants’ judicial review only succeeded on one of the five grounds advanced. One of the reasons the Defence Afghan Relocation and Resettlement team had refused their applications was because they considered the BBC to be independent from the government. Mr Justice Lane disagreed, he ruled that “the caseworker erred in confining their decisions to the issue of whether working for the BBC amounted to working for HMG, at the expense of considering whether… a journalist working for the BBC or any other news organisation could be said to have worked alongside an HMG department, in partnership with or closely supporting that department”. Additionally, the fact the Taliban strongly consider the BBC to be a part of the UK government should have been relevant to the decisionmaker. 

Curiously, Mr Justice Lane rejected Ground 1A, which claimed that the defendant had not provided legally adequate reasons for the refusal of the claimants applications. He stated that if caseworkers had to give detailed reasoning for every refusal decision, it would divert resources and not allow applications to be decided as quickly. Yet it has been reported that there are only around five to eight Foreign Office staff working on the ACRS. In contrast, there are around 540 staff working on the parallel Ukrainian Schemes. Government support for Afghan refugees dwindles in comparison to the assistance provided for Ukrainian refugees. As of 21 February 2023, the UK has received a total of 271,600 Ukraine Visa scheme applications and issued a total of 219,400 visas. There is a clear disparity in how these refugees are being treated. The recent case of AB, R (On the Application Of) v Secretary of State for the Home Department & Ors [2023] EWHC 287 (Admin) (10 February 2023) discussed how the biometric data requirement for Ukrainian citizens has been waived until they have entered the UK, but there has been a failure to provide Afghans citizens with any similar scheme for applications under ARAP or LOTR. This disparity was justified by a concern for immigration control and security... 

Boris Johnson dubbed Operation Pitting the evacuation effort of the century. In June 2022, medals were presented to RAF personnel who had assisted on the operation. However, it seems the British government have been celebrating their successes prematurely, as people eligible for safe evacuation have continued to live in fear for their lives ever since the last flight to freedom left the tarmac at Kabul airport. The controversial twenty-year long  ‘British mission in Afghanistan’ which aimed to teach ‘British values’ across the country, clearly demonstrates the sheer hypocrisy of the UK government who have abandoned the people who helped deliver their ideals and values. The current government schemes are defective and the UK must act fast to rectify its broken promises to the people of Afghanistan. 

Find out about the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, and how Afghan citizens can resettle in the UK. Call our expert solicitors today on 0300 131 6767 or fill in the enquiry form below and we will get back go you.

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