15 August marks one year since the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan – but, after 12 months, some of the country’s most vulnerable still cannot apply to come to the UK

It has been one year since the world watched in horror at the chaotic scenes in Kabul as the Taliban re-took Afghanistan after 20 years of democratic rule and allied forces occupation. 

But campaigners warn that, 365 days since the US and UK were forced to evacuate from the troubled country, vulnerable women, religious and ethnic minorities, and LGBTIQ people – as well as those who worked with British forces since 2001 – remain in Afghanistan and at risk of serious harm from Taliban reprisals. 

“There are almost no safe routes out of Afghanistan for vulnerable people,” Rosie Shaw, co-founder of the Azadi charity that assists at-risk Afghans to evacuate and resettle, said. “The Government announced last August that it would launch the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, under significant pressure and media attention, and a year on the pathway to resettlement for vulnerable people is not open and it’s not clear when it is going to open.”

Shaw is referring to pathway three of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) which opened in June this year, but only initially for three categories of people: GardaWorld employees, Chevening alumni, and British Council staff. 

Following the Taliban takeover, the Government announced it would resettle 20,000 vulnerable Afghans in the coming years, with 5,000 resettled in the first year. It has exceeded that first year target, with 6,500 people resettled. 

Pathway one resettled those who were evacuated from Afghanistan in August or identified as people in need of evacuation as part of Operation Pitting. Data shared in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on the UK response to the crisis in Afghanistan, 11 women’s rights activists along with 54 dependents were evacuated. 

Other groups evacuated due to their status as “particularly vulnerable who had supported the UK’s objectives” were journalists (71 principals, 216 dependents); government and law officials (12 principals, 50 dependents); Chevening scholars (22 principals, 36 dependents) and “extremely vulnerable individuals” (eight principals, 29 dependents).

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The second pathway, launched in June, involves the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identifying vulnerable individuals for resettlement, mostly in third countries. 

The expressions of interest for the first phase of pathway three opened on 20 June, with the aim to resettle 1,500 people from the three prioritised groups within the first year. It closes today and the expressions of interest will be considered by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

This was already controversial. A December change to who was eligible for resettlement under the Afghanistan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) had meant some groups who would have once come to the UK under ARAP are now pushed into the ACRS and being prioritised. 

After the first year, pathway three will open to wider categories of vulnerable people to apply – such as women and LGBTIQ people. The FCDO guidance is clear that “if you are not a British Council contractor, GardaWorld contractor or Chevening alumnus, you will not be eligible for pathway three in year one”.

Further details on how this pathway will be delivered after year one are to be announced in “due course”, the Home Office told Byline Times.  

This means that it remains unclear when pathway three will launch to that second cohort, while the promise to resettle 1,500 people in the first year risks leaving some GardaWorld, Chevening and British Council staff behind due to the numbers of people potentially eligible for resettlement. 


Vulnerable Women

Right now, the Azadi charity is in contact with an all-female family – a widow and her adult daughters. Under Taliban rule, it is difficult for the women to leave their house to access even the most basic essentials. Women are expected to have a male guardian with them. One of the daughters had planned to move abroad and study. Now, because she can work from home, she is the breadwinner for her vulnerable family. 

“They’re a classic case of a family who would be eligible to come to the UK under the ACRS,” Rosie Shaw said. “All of them were involved in women’s rights activism, they are all well-known in their community. But, 12 months later, they are not even in line for processing, they don’t know when they will be able to apply to come to the UK, or how they can be referred to the scheme. It’s hopeless.”

While there has been some attention on high-profile vulnerable women – such as former MPs, judges and lawyers – both Shaw and Zehra Zehadi, co-founder of Action for Afghanistan, are keen to emphasise that ‘ordinary’ women are also struggling. 

“Of course there is one category of risk,” Shaw told Byline Times. “People who are military targets, for example. But you’ve also got incredibly vulnerable, widowed women, single women, women who don’t have male family members, who can’t go outside safely. They can’t travel anywhere. They can’t get jobs, they’ve been told that they can’t go back to work. And so they have no way they can exist. They can’t survive inside Afghanistan.”

At the same time, vulnerable, high-profile women are likely to have escaped Afghanistan already – not least because these are women who will have better contacts, access to information and support networks. 

“Last August, many​ highly educated, high-risk women fled, if they could, they got out if they could,” said Shaw. “Not all of them have been lucky enough to find permanent resettlement – some remain in limbo in Pakistan or Iran, others are in Albania or Greece without permanent status.

“What we will find over the next two or three years, or however long it takes for the Government to open up pathway three to vulnerable groups, the high-risk people who have been left behind​ will either be forced to cross illegally to neighbouring countries or they will find their way into Europe and create problems further down the line.

“They will have to go through horrific experiences to travel to safety. Or they will die.”

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It’s not clear if those who have already fled Afghanistan to neighbouring countries will be eligible to come to the UK on the ACRS, unless they are identified and referred by the UNHCR. 

As for those who have been unable to leave so far, there is a real risk, as Shaw said, that they could decide to attempt the dangerous journey to Europe and try to enter the UK via irregular means, such as crossing the Channel. The longer pathway three is not open to the second cohort of vulnerable people, the greater the risk of this happening, campaigners warn. 

“We need clarity on the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme and defined legal routes,” Zehra Zaidi told Byline Times. “Without legal routes, there is a risk that people who could be resettled are instead entering the UK via irregular means such as crossing the Channel.”

Those who enter the UK this way risk being criminalised or face deportation to Rwanda, under the recently announced Migration and Economic Partnership. 

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times that “the UK will welcome up to 20,000 people in need through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme” and that it is “delivering on that commitment”, having provided homes for more than 7,000 vulnerable Afghan evacuees in a short time.

“This scheme, which is referral-only, means we can carefully check who comes to the UK, while helping those who assisted our efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values like democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech, as well as vulnerable people, including women and girls, and members of minority groups at risk,” they added.  

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