Nusrat Ghani is the MP for Wealden.
The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago made for very difficult watching. Before becoming an MP, I worked for the BBC World Service and was fortunate to experience the country first-hand.
I worked closely with Afghans, and witnessed the reality of life in Afghanistan, hearing about the people’s high hopes and the severe challenges facing them. Many of those I met subsequently took great risks to help the UK and wider coalition forces.
When the Taliban took over in August last year, they pledged to respect women’s rights, forgive their former opponents, and ensure Afghanistan did not become a haven for terrorists. Some observers abroad may have hoped that the Taliban would change their ways if they were integrated to the international community.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, this has not happened, as illustrated by the revelation a few days ago that Ayman al-Zawahiri had been able to shelter in Kabul.
The new regime is also forging worrying ties with China. Chinese interest in Afghanistan’s resources is well known; the vast lithium deposits, for example, could become key to China’s production of batteries. Some have suggested the Taliban are turning a blind eye to the plight of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang in exchange for profitable mining deals.
But most concerning is the Taliban’s ruthless treatment of Afghans who helped NATO forces, as well as of women and minorities.
I have closely followed this fallout since the withdrawal and regularly hear from the women and girls I met who are now living in fear under the Taliban. I have pushed ministers here to speed up the process to bring these imperilled Afghans to safety in the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) or Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) programmes.
But thousands (over 15,000 in June) are still awaiting an initial eligibility decision. Many remain stuck in Afghanistan, and many who have survived the Taliban now risk starving to death.
Among them is K*, a British citizen with a widowed mother, single sisters, and now orphan nephew and nieces. Three of her sisters, all former senior government officials, have been unable to work since last August as the Taliban have progressively stripped women of their rights and forced them out of public life. Her mother and sisters can no longer work, travel on their own without a “mahram” or even go shopping on their own. The nieces have lost their right to education.
With no surviving male relative, these ladies are now entirely dependent on K. For a time, they sheltered in an orphanage but it quickly ran out of money. They have now moved to an unfamiliar area of Kabul in the hope they will not be recognised.
K sent her family’s details to her MP in early August 2021, when it became clear that their situation was deteriorating. She was referred to the FCDO special cases address and was told she would hear directly if their case progressed. She has not heard anything.
She spent weeks phoning the dedicated Home Office hotline, but was never able to get through. She sought pro bono legal advice but was told her family were not eligible for family reunification, because they are fall outside the narrow definition of “immediate family members”.
In contrast, K’s brother – who fled to Ukraine years ago as a refugee – was able to apply to join her in the UK through the more generous Ukraine Family Scheme. It took under a month for his case to be processed and for him to get here with his wife and children.
There is still no way for K’s mother and sister to apply through the ACRS scheme, despite their being plainly eligible as vulnerable women and having spent their professional lives promoting good governance and democracy. There is no “Afghan Family Scheme” which would allow K’s family a route to safety. K cannot support them forever, and it’s clear that they have no future in Afghanistan.
Sadly such difficulties are common.
I recently heard of an activist who worked for several NGOs, including the British organisations War Child UK and Committed to Good, as well as local organisations. This involved travelling to villages around Herat (the third-largest city in Afghanistan) and implementing the NGO’s projects. She regularly met community leaders and explained the NGOs’ objectives. As a result, she is a very well-known face in the area.
In August last year, she and her mother fled to the suburbs where she hoped she would not be recognised. But she has been forced to move again, three times. She regularly hears gunfire outside her flat amid increased ISIS-K activity – as a Shia she is particularly likely to be persecuted by that group.
As a single, at-risk woman, she cannot leave the house to work and has to rely on trusted friends to deliver food and coal. The Azadi Charity have helped her with food aid packages and financial assistance, but they will not be able to do so forever.
Like many others, including K’s family mentioned above, she had hoped to be able to apply to the UK under the ACRS scheme. But she is still stuck. She and her mother will not survive in Afghanistan. But after a year without any income at all, they do not have the money to flee to a neighbouring country. This seemingly inextricable situation has understandably taken a heavy toll on her.
This illustrates the urgent need to widen the ACRS scheme and to improve the ARAP scheme by pushing the Government to dedicate evacuation routes from inside Afghanistan, rather than letting people make their way on their own to Pakistan before they can find any assistance.
Once they are here, we must also ensure they get support to find a stable and permanent home in order to integrate into society. A 21-year-old Afghan girl who was evacuated to the UK in August 2021 said that while she is thankful to the Government for the help she has received so far, living alone out of hotels for the past year has not been easy.
She has found a full-time job but is still waiting for stable accommodation, hinting at the impact of the war in Ukraine. “After what happened to Ukraine, they stopped offering houses to Afghan people.”
While I am pleased that Lord Harrington recently appealed to councils to help house the 10,500 Afghans currently living in UK hotels to help them integrate and to reduce the burden to the taxpayer, we must do more for those still stuck in Afghanistan. We cannot let people who took great risks for us or supported our effort in there to fend for themselves against the Taliban.
Loyalty works both ways. We have a moral duty to help them and the best way to do that is by widening the scope of the ACRS and ARAP schemes, as well as committing more resources to processing these visas.