Today
Sun 5 December 2021

A runaway child bride whose sister is a British citizen is one of countless abandoned Afghans in hiding, with the ‘safe and legal routes’ promised by UK Government yet to materialise

Attiye, 15, meets the priority criteria for the UK’s Afghan Resettlement Scheme. She’s the dependant of a British national and girl in imminent danger. She’s also fled a forced underage marriage with a much older man.

But delays to the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, launched on 18 August with a promise to provide asylum to 20,000 Afghan refugees, mean this vulnerable teenager is stranded in the country – separated from her sister who lives here in the UK.

The Government described the much-lauded scheme as “the most ambitious plan of its kind in the world”. But three months on, it is yet to open, with Home Secretary Priti Patel admitting to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 27 October that “we are not able to operationalise that scheme. We simply do not have the infrastructure or the accommodation.”


Forced Marriage and Gender-Based Violence

Attiye’s family faced destitution when they agreed to sell her into marriage with a man whose grandchildren were already much older than she was. Such agreements are a growing problem in Afghanistan amid the economic turmoil that has followed the Taliban takeover.

The teen fled before her wedding day. She then disappeared for six months, according to her sister, Sonia, who lives in South London, but managed to cross the border out of Afghanistan and make contact.

Sonia and Attiye both fear she is being hunted by the family and fiancé who she fled.

She was not the first in her family to face violence and underage marriage. Both Sonia’s and Attiye’s cousin, Fatima, was raped, tortured and killed on family orders for refusing to marry, her body hung publicly as a warning. Their mother, for reasons unknown to them, disappeared nine years ago.

Sonia was brought to the UK as a child bride with a fake ID in 2008. She knows from her own experience the danger her sister is in. In an unpublished interview heard by Byline Times, she recounts her engagement as a 14-year-old girl, when a wealthy family flew from the UK to groom her.

“I didn’t have my period at the time, so they stayed with us and waited,” Sonia explained. When the day came, my mother and I were terrified and tried to hide it.”

Sonia and Attiye in Afghanistan, as children

She says her husband’s family beat her on her wedding day after she appeared not to be a virgin, having been raped by her husband during their engagement. “I wanted to kill myself,” she said. “I could not say that he did this to me.”

After a decade-long ordeal of forced labour and pregnancy, Sonia and her three children escaped with the help of social services in the UK. Now a full-time carer for her autistic son – who was beaten by her husband for his autism – she is trying to save Attiye from a similar fate.

“My only hope is that the UK Government helps me as a British citizen,” Sonia told the Media Storm podcast. “Just help me to help my child. I’m not going to call her my sister. She has only me.”

Attiye is now hiding with a displaced Afghan family and appears too scared to leave her room or open her curtains. The family has told Sonia they cannot afford to keep her much longer. They fear she is a threat to their own safety.

“If she goes out on her own I don’t know how she will survive,” Sonia said.

Speaking on the phone, Attiye told the Media Storm podcast in tears: “I’m too scared to breathe. If my brothers find me, they will behead me.”


Where is the Resettlement Scheme?

While the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme remains in development, other routes to the UK for refugee children have closed.

The UK’s Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme expired in 2020, while the Dubs scheme – named after Lord Dubs who fled to the UK from the Nazis as a child – to bring over unaccompanied children was capped with 480. This was a stark decrease from the originally planned 3,000 children eligible to be resettled.

People seeking asylum who make their own way into the country via so-called “irregular routes” will likely soon be criminalised under The Nationality and Borders Bill, due to pass through Parliament this year. The much-criticised Bill plans to create a tiered system, where those who arrive on small boats, in lorries or other irregular routes will have fewer rights than people travelling on “safe and legal” routes such as resettlement schemes.

“The Government talks about legal routes and safe routes, there aren’t any,” Afghan human rights campaigner, Gulwali Passarlay, told Byline Times.

His own brother, Hazat Pasarlai, who waited seven years to be granted asylum in the UK, is trying to bring over his wife and son under existing refugee reunification laws. But the UK maintains strict requirements for applicants to submit biometric data through British visa centres, and not a single one remains open in Afghanistan.

“The British Government publicly invites people to come through routes that they have legal rights to, while making it bureaucratically impossible to do so,” said Passarlay.

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An update on the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme website states that people will no longer be able to apply themselves, but must be referred by the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

For Attiye to have any chance, she will need to travel over 1,200km in a country whose language she does not speak, to make herself known to the nearest UNHCR office.

“Afghanistan is in crisis. There’s no food, there’s no money,” Passarlay went on. “But when it comes to UK responsibility, it has been in giving people false hope.”

Speaking on Media Storm, Steve Ali, Syrian refugee and director of Refugee Media Centre, explained how “the Government uses people’s suffering to score political points and turn our suffering into buzzwords. ‘Safe legal routes’ exist only in the Conservatives’ vocabulary.”

A Government spokesperson responded: “we continue to work at pace to open the scheme amid a complex and changing picture, working across Government and with partners such as UNHCR to design the scheme. We undertook the UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping over 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan who we are continuing to support.”

Operation PITTING, the UK’s evacuation mission which ceased in August, primarily consisted of British nationals and Afghan employees who are eligible for resettlement under a pre-existing scheme known as ARAP. These individuals do not contribute to the 20,000 people the Government pledged to resettle in the UK.

“It’s astonishing that the one group of refugees every member across the House agrees should be helped has, so far, been completely abandoned by the Government,” said SNP MP Anne Mclaughlin, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for refugees. “How many will be raped, beaten or even murdered before those routes open up?”

Labour’s Bell Ribeiro-Addy agreed. “The UK’s central role in the war in Afghanistan means we must play a major role in helping Afghan people to rebuild their lives in safety and stability,” she told Byline Times.

“People with credible protection claims – such as Afghans fleeing horrors at the hands of the Taliban – have been abandoned and will now be criminalised and sent to offshore detention camps under Priti Patel’s new plans,” Izzie McIntosh, Communications and Campaigns Officer at Detention Action, warned.

“If MPs want to do the right thing by the Afghan people they will vote against the Nationality & Borders Bill which will harm people Ministers say they want to protect,” she added.

Sonia and Attiye speak on Media Storm, an investigative podcast from The Guilty Feminist, launching Thursday 25 November.

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