Afghan embassy staff remain in hiding despite being eligible for resettlement in UK | Global development

More than 170 people who worked for the British Embassy in Kabul are still hiding in Afghanistan, fearing for their lives, nearly a year after the Taliban took over the country.

A list of Afghans currently in hiding, seen by the Guardian, shows nearly 200 former interpreters, security guards and local staff awaiting a response from the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, the departments responsible for relocating people to risk. All those on the list are eligible for relocation to the UK under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap), intended to bring former UK government employees and their family members to safety. in Great Britain.

Aarash* was employed by GardaWorld, a MoD security contractor, and worked at the British Embassy for over 10 years. He and his children have fled their home and are living in hiding in a basement in a village outside the city, surviving on one meal of boiled rice a day.

“The Taliban, they have access to the contact details of all the guards and their ID cards,” Aarash said, speaking over a secure connection. “Twice they came to search our house, so we had to flee. They say we are criminals, that we are not real Muslims, that we have worked for foreigners. If they find us, they’ll kill us, that’s for sure.

In August 2021, as the Taliban took Kabul, Aarash was on a bus with his family, which had to be evacuated. A suicide bombing inside the airport forced the bus to turn back. He’s been hiding ever since.

“Every time we get a message from the MoD they say wait. We’ve been waiting for over 10 months. We were hoping the UK government would help us but they didn’t do anything – they left us here alone to die.

British and American soldiers help evacuate British nationals and former British personnel eligible for relocation, Kabul airport, August 21, 2021. Photography: MoD/AFP/Getty Images

Another man, speaking through an interpreter, said: “The Taliban came to our house, they broke everything and we had to leave very quickly. Now we are in very bad conditions. Our children can’t go to school, we can’t walk the streets or go to the market [for food]. Every day we are in danger. They will come for us and they will kill us all, including the children. We are in a humanitarian crisis.

He added: “The British government, they know everything about us. They know we’re eligible [to come to the UK] because we have worked for them for many years. We did a good job for them. We respectfully request the UK government to assist us and begin our transfer as soon as possible.

Sarah Magill, director of the charity Azadi, said eligible Afghans numbered in the tens of thousands. “They are scattered in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, hidden and terrified. We would like to see more diplomatic energy and investments devoted to opening up avenues for them, especially via Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Relying solely on Pakistan, a country in political turmoil, has created a bottleneck.

Sara de Jong, co-founder of the Sulha Alliance, which supports Afghans who have worked for the British government to resettle in the UK, said: “The slow and unresponsiveness of the Arap team leaves candidates in limbo, while fearing for their lives. Processing of applications must be expedited and applicants must be given clear deadlines, which will also help reduce duplicate applications from Afghans who are simply desperate to get an answer.

It is the latest criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, with a damning report from the Foreign Affairs Committee in May saying that there has been “a complete absence of evacuation plans for Afghans which have supported the British mission without being directly employed, which was life-threatening”.

In response to a written question last week, Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said an Arap case dating back to when the program opened remained unresolved. He added that it “concerns an individual whom we have contacted on three occasions, requesting additional information regarding his eligibility”.

However, earlier this month, in response to a parliamentary question, Heappey said only two of the 3,226 Arap requests received since April 2022 had been processed. Heappey told MPs that 9,500 Afghans had been transferred to the UK under Arap, but added: ‘We think we have about the same in terms of the number of eligible people.

Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton station in southern England, August 24, 2021.
Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton in southern England, August 24, 2021. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office this month launched an online system, where eligible people can send in an ‘expression of interest’ to be transferred to the UK under its resettlement scheme of Afghan Citizens (ACRS), which is separate from Arap. ACRS is designed to support those who have supported UK efforts in Afghanistan and members of minority groups based, for example, on ethnicity, religion or sexuality. Former GardaWorld and British Council employees will be considered, but it is not possible to apply to the scheme.

A Ministry of Defense spokesperson said: “Between April and early June, 683 eligible Afghan civilians and their families and dependents were transferred to the UK under Arap.

“In total, the Ministry of Defense has relocated more than 9,500 Arap directors and their families since the start of the system. We know there is still a long way to go to bring everyone who is eligible to safety in the UK; the government continues to work with third countries to facilitate the relocation of people eligible under the Arap.

“We continue to process applications in the order in which they are received, which means that some of the new applications are still being processed. We recognize that there are too many people waiting for an answer, and that is not acceptable. That’s why we’re devoting more resources to a team dedicated to processing Arap applications.

*Names have been changed to protect identities