Hundreds of Afghans who risked their lives to work with the UK in Afghanistan and fled the Taliban are now stuck in neighbouring Pakistan as they wait to be relocated to the UK.
Some have told the BBC their days are spent living in fear, as Pakistan starts a crackdown on migrants without visas after cross-border tensions rose.
New court documents from Britain show that many face longer waits in part due to instructions by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – apparently to save money – banning their accommodation in hotels in the UK in all but extreme cases.
The UK runs two schemes to resettle Afghans in Britain. The first is the Afghan Relocation and Assistance policy (ARAP) and the second is the Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme (ACRS).
The first is for Afghans who worked directly with British forces and their families, while the second is for those who worked in British-run civil schemes or are in vulnerable minority groups.
Marzia, an assumed name, was an English teacher for the British Council. She is heavily pregnant and has been waiting for a UK visa for eight months.
“My physical and mental health are not good,” she says. “When the Taliban took over Afghanistan our lives were in danger. We had to live in hiding.”
Marzia is just one of many Afghans who worked for or with the UK before the Taliban retook power in 2021.
Others include translators for the British army or worked on British-led projects to encourage democracy and equality.
All were told they qualify for one of the UK’s resettlement schemes.
All are in Pakistan because the UK asked them to come to process their visas. Some have been here for months, others for more than a year. They have no legal access to education or work.
Most we spoke to did not want to be quoted. Those who did asked for anonymity; we have changed their names. Many told us they were afraid of repercussions on their case, or that they or their family in Afghanistan could be targeted by the Taliban.
The Taliban government has said there is an amnesty for Afghans who worked with international forces.
Now there is a new fear: Pakistan has announced a crackdown on illegal migrants and plans to deport any without the right paperwork from the start of November.
Marzia says her passport was taken by the UK authorities on her arrival and that her Pakistan visa has now expired.
In late September she says she was told by her caseworker at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) – her point of contact in Pakistan – that she should not leave her guest house.
That has meant she has already missed a doctor’s appointment and doesn’t know what to do about the birth.
“It’s impossible for me to give birth to my baby inside my hotel room. There isn’t any facility [or] anyone to help me,” she says. “Me and my baby’s health will be in danger. We worked for them, [now] it’s time for them to help us.”
Five other people with expired Pakistan visas also said the IOM, or their guesthouse quoting the IOM said, that they should not leave the premises.
When asked, the IOM told the BBC that they had “not given the advice mentioned”, saying: “IOM only advises to leave information about their whereabouts at their accommodation reception when leaving the premises to ensure follow up and support when and if needed.”
Their plight comes as the British government and several ministers are sued by two Afghans, who say that their promised resettlement has been delayed in part by a November 2022 decision made by Mr Sunak.
An email from the prime minister’s office, submitted as evidence to the High Court in London yesterday, shows that Mr Sunak wanted to “manage the flow” of ARAP cases. His direction stated that those on the scheme would only be flown to the UK once suitable housing was found. Hotels were no longer an option.
The email says that this “should represent an overall net saving to the taxpayer”. Other emails show that the Ministry of Defence thought this applied to both UK schemes.
Lawyers for the two refugees said that Mr Sunak’s directive had effectively halted relocations – no visas had been issued between December 2022 and July of this year unless accommodation had been secured – and that this was done to save money.
The government’s lawyers said that accommodation in Pakistan was “not ideal” but “adequate”, that those on the scheme had access to case workers and that there was “no legal obligation” for the government to provide education in this situation.
While resettlement attempts had ‘accelerated’ this month – the BBC understands there are still flights bringing some Afghans to the UK – the government lawyers said there would still be about 2,300 in Pakistan on one scheme alone at the start of November.
Waiting for answers
We spoke to people on both of the UK government schemes.
There is no way for the UK to process visa applications in Afghanistan so those approved for the schemes are asked to make their own way to a third country – usually Pakistan – for final checks.
Even leaving the country is difficult; there is a long waiting list in Afghanistan for passports and obtaining a visa for Pakistan can take months. We spoke to several people who, despite the amnesty, said they lived in hiding from the Taliban government.
In Pakistan, the UK government pays for their rooms and food, and many told the BBC that they had been told to bring minimal money to avoid issues at the border.
They say they were told or assumed they would only spend a few weeks in Pakistan but have found themselves stuck with no answer from the UK.
One charity that works to campaign for Afghan interpreters, the Sulha Alliance, told us that many had waited for more than a year – some were nearing two.
The group’s co-founder Sara de Jong said the schemes were essential lifelines, but that “their execution has been too slow and ineffective”.
“Too many Afghan interpreters and others, who we promised to bring to safety more than two years ago, are still left in Afghanistan, or waiting in Pakistan or other third countries,” Prof de Jong told the BBC.
A UK government spokesperson said: “We continue to honour our commitments to bring eligible Afghans to the UK, and will arrange and pay for their travel when suitable accommodation in the UK has been secured.”
“The UK has so far brought around 24,600 people to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan resettlement schemes.”
This figure includes British citizens and others with settled status already who were evacuated from Afghanistan during the operation in 2021 as a government website explains; 21,526 were on the ACRS and ARAP programmes.
The government’s lawyers have said there is no set time within which a visa must be issued or people must be relocated to the UK.
‘Our lives are 100% in danger’
Jamal was a translator with the British army. He proudly shows me pictures of his time in uniform. He has spent more than five months in Islamabad and is currently staying with his children and wife in one room. He is unable to work legally, the only lessons his children have are English lessons online.
“I left my parents in Afghanistan who need my support. I don’t have a job here. My children missed a year of education because of Covid. After that the Taliban came [and] we missed the education of our children in Afghanistan. Now we also missed the children’s education in Pakistan.”
He is joined by Qasim, who worked with UK authorities. He has spent six months living with his family of 10 in one room. He says he wishes he had not come.
“In Afghanistan, girls can’t get an education, but here none of my children can either,” he told us.
He feels that by joining the scheme, he would be at more risk were he to return.
“Before we left Afghanistan, if our lives were at 50% danger, now they are in 100% danger.”
Their fear of the police in Pakistan has intensified. While they say that they were always aware of the risk of being stopped while on the street, a little over a week ago others on the ARAP programme told them that police had entered their hotel in the early hours, taking several to a police station, only to release them a few hours later.
“After the police started raiding hotels, Afghans have been under a lot of stress – it has caused them psychological problems,” says Qasim. “This is a severe action that no one can tolerate.”
Jamal agrees, saying that there are “no guarantees” he won’t be among the next to be arrested.
The BBC has been shown a message from the British authorities saying that they “are continuing to work with the Pakistani authorities to resolve issues around expired visas… and will take action to quickly resolve incidents should they arise”.
But like others the BBC spoke to, Qasim and Jamal remain nervous. As with Marzia, they do not have their passports and their Pakistan visas have expired.
‘British government – do something quick’
We asked the government about the legal status of those on the ARAP and ACRS programmes in light of the recent crackdown by Pakistan authorities on illegal migrants, but were not given a response.
Pakistan has said its efforts to crack down on illegal migrants are not specific to Afghans. However, the minister who announced the policy said that 1.7 million Afghans live in Pakistan illegally.
Analysts say the move is the result of increasing tension between the two countries – Pakistan has accused the Taliban of harbouring militant groups that attack Pakistanis.
Afghanistan denies this and says that Pakistan police are harassing Afghans even if they have proper documentation. The fallout will affect the many Afghans who have fled across the border to Pakistan over decades.
Amid the politics, those on these UK government schemes wait daily for an email or call that they will be leaving.
“I supported them; I stayed with them side by side; shoulder by shoulder, and I supported them on the frontline, but I don’t know what the British government is doing with us,” says Jamal. “They left us behind, many years ago.”
“My request to the British government is to please, do something quick, and take us to the UK because [it is not] good for us here.”
Source : BBC