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‘It is Dangerous for Us to Remain in Afghanistan’

Sian Norris speaks with an Afghan women’s rights activist in hiding, as she asks: will the Government come to her and others’ aid?

Workers at a beauty salon strip photos of women off the wall in Kabul on 15 August 2021 after the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital. Photo: BJ Warnick/Newscom/Alamy

‘It is Dangerous for Us to Remain in Afghanistan’

Sian Norris speaks with an Afghan women’s rights activist in hiding, as she asks: will the Government come to her and others’ aid?

“We didn’t think they’d take Kabul in one day. They took it in just one day.”

Somewhere in Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul, a mother, father and their six children are in hiding. The youngest daughter is aged just five years old, the eldest son is 24. He was born the last time the Taliban held power in Afghanistan. Too young to remember the regime’s cruelty. Old enough to experience the years of war that followed. 

The family are in hiding because their mother, Aadela (not her real name), is a defence lawyer and women’s rights activist. She has saved girls from underage marriage with much older men. She has supported abused women to leave their husbands. And she has locked up Taliban associates – men who have been freed since August and who are looking for revenge. 

One prisoner who Aadela helped to convict has been released from jail. She now fears he will find her and kill her. 

Over WhatsApp, Aadela’s eldest son Firash (not his real name) is translating his mother’s words. “If the Taliban find us, they will kill me,” Aadela explains. She says that on the day the Taliban fighters took Kabul, “they killed our soul.” 

Since the family went into hiding on 15 August, they have been forced to move three times. They have written to organisations in the US and in France, and to the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in search of support to claim asylum. Their hope now is to access the UK’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) and become eight of the 5,000 vulnerable people the UK Government has committed to helping this year. 

But, three months after the fall of Kabul, the ACRS is yet to open.

Speaking to the House of Commons on 22 November, the minister in charge of Afghan resettlement Victoria Atkins explained: “We are working at pace and we want to set the scheme up as an example of a safe and legal route under the Government’s new plan for immigration.”

The delays are not only causing distress and danger to those like Aadela’s family, trapped in Afghanistan. They risk pushing people towards making risky journeys to the UK.

This was the case for Sanowbar. The former Afghan soldier crossed the Channel with his family on the same day 27 people including children drowned making the same journey. Speaking to The Times, a man who gave him name as Khan explained his family had decided to risk their lives in a dinghy after they “waited so long for help” from Britain.

Threats Against Women 

When the Taliban first took control of Afghanistan in 1996, the regime instigated laws mandating violent discrimination against women.

Schools and workplaces were closed to women and girls, who were deprived of basic rights such as healthcare and freedom of movement. The laws dictated that women in public space existed behind the full burqa, their faces and bodies shrouded in blue fabric. The women’s rights activist Horia Mosadiq was once beaten after pulling her burqa back from her face to inspect some fabric she wanted to buy. 

In 2001, the US and UK war led to the Taliban’s defeat. Women re-entered public life. Girls started school, and women took up roles as MPs, lawyers, judges, journalists, medics and more – just as they had done before the war that led to the Taliban takeover six years earlier. 

The two decades of fighting and occupation that followed did not, of course, liberate women and girls from armed violence. In 2018, Time magazine wrote how Afghanistan was still the worst place in the world to be a woman. 

Since the Taliban’s return, however, the threat to women’s equality and safety has increased. The regime has banned girls from secondary education. Women MPs have been forced to flee, while women’s rights activists like Aadela have been pushed into hiding. Even the faces of women on billboards have been painted over. Women have been removed from the public space, confined again to the domestic. During the final days of the summer’s conflict, there were reports of Taliban fighters forcing girls into marriage – girls that Aadela had dedicated her life to defending. 

Women’s rights activists have already lost their lives under the new regime. Earlier this month, 29-year-old activist and economics lecturer, Frozan Safi, was shot dead in Northern Afghanistan alongside three others. Aadela tells Byline Times that the killing “is an alert for all people who worked for women’s rights in Afghanistan”. It’s also been alleged that Taliban fighters are circulating a list of women who have taken part in women’s rights protests over the past few months. 

“This is not life,” Aadela says. “We are all depressed. Myself and my daughters are imprisoned at home and cannot go out. We were never in this position before.”


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‘We Just Hope to Escape from Afghanistan’

The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme was launched on 18 August, with a promise to provide refuge to 5,000 vulnerable Afghan people this year, and 20,000 in the “coming years”. Those recognised as vulnerable include women like Aadela, who worked in the legal sector and defended women’s rights. 

However, more than three months on, the scheme remains closed. Those families in hiding and desperate to escape are left refreshing the website, or – as in Aadela’s case – writing to the FCDO to appeal their case. 

The Home Office is working with the UNHCR to design the scheme, which it aims to model on a previous scheme for families fleeing the conflict in Syria. The partnership means the UNHCR will help identify those in need of resettlement. 

The UK Government’s New Plan for Immigration places emphasis on “safe and legal routes” for people seeking asylum, including resettlement schemes. However, with the scheme not yet in place, there is currently no regular route for people fleeing violence and persecution in Afghanistan. This could lead to more people like Sanowbar taking risky and so-called “irregular” routes such as travelling on dinghies across the Channel. 

The plan – which includes creating a tiered asylum system and criminalising those who arrive via “irregular” routes – has faced intense criticism from campaigners and NGOs, while the UNHCR says the plan risks breaching the UK’s international commitments to refugees. 

The Home Office defends its Nationality and Borders Bill by saying that it will deter people taking dangerous routes across the Channel. But its own equality impact assessment throws such claims into doubt. The assessment instead states that the plan to “increase security and deterrence” could encourage people to “attempt riskier means of entering the UK”. It also states that “evidence supporting the effectiveness of this [security and deterrence] approach is limited”.

For now, Aadela and her family simply hope that their emails to the FCDO will help them safely reach the UK. “I beg from the UK Government to save my family,” she says. “We want to live in freedom, we want to study, we want to have happiness.”

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