We have been talking about asylum seekers and migration all year. First, we had the fights with France about Channel crossings; then the debate about the extortionate Rwanda plan. More recently, we’ve been exposed to the inhumane conditions in asylum centres like Manston and just yesterday, there were more conversations with the French over people traffickers.
European countries have been subjected to immense pressure to welcome people escaping war, poverty or prosecution – with the Ukrainian war exacerbating this squeeze. But for many, the problem is still stuck on the chaotic exit we had from Afghanistan and its consequences for women left under the regime.
Where the government fails to step in, other organisations invariably do. Laura Deitz, a full-time City worker and mum of four, founded Task Force Nyx exactly for this purpose. Her NGO helps female activists and journalists escape from the Taliban repressive rule. She has helped women relocate to a host of countries including Pakistan, Germany and even Brazil. But she hasn’t been able to get one single woman into the UK.
One of the women helped by Deitz, who we’ll call Atefa, was a dentist before the Taliban took control. When they did, she took to the streets. For that, she was arrested and tortured. With Task Force Nyx’s help, she managed to escape to Pakistan, with hopes to eventually relocate to the US. But her family has, for their own safety, struck a deal with the Taliban by promising she is still in Afghanistan. Atefa is terrified of moving in case it alerts the regime in Kabul to her location – putting her family in jeopardy. “Effectively I’m still a prisoner”, she says. She’s only 27-years-old.
Another woman, Nilofar, has managed to relocate to Poland. She collaborates with Task Force Nyx to support women and girls who are still in Afghanistan. Over the past months, Nilofar has also helped deliver medical aid and new homes to Ukrainians fleeing the war. She was a businesswoman back in Afghanistan, and she’s determined to get that back, piece by piece. For a start, she’s opening her first business in Poland: an Afghan restaurant.
Atefa escaped to Pakistan because it was close. In 2020, Pakistan was the country with the highest number of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers at 1,448,100, according to the Oxford Migration Observatory. By comparison, in the same year the UK had 12,579. Nilofar ended up in Poland because she was there right before Kabul fell. She doesn’t know anyone from her community who has relocated to the UK.
As Home Secretary, Priti Patel launched the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) in April 2021. It’s an avenue for “locally employed staff” who have worked with the British military in Afghanistan, like interpreters. The majority of these are men. It offers them relocation to the UK or other forms of support.
The government then introduced another policy, the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), to support activists, women and girls, and members of minority groups. Atefa and Nilofar should clearly be eligible for this scheme. But hidden barriers make it hard for women at risk to get on the lists. Many of the people who need to access the scheme, only became activists or protestors after the Taliban took power. Previously, women were allowed to go to work and school freely. Protests for basic rights weren’t necessary. Those at the forefront of the movements are also the hardest to identify, because doing so would put them in danger.
In fact, the best chance for female activists to make it to the UK is to be married to somebody who has another way in. The irony is rich.
“By definition, there are literally almost no female principal applicants for ARAP”, says Deitz.
Wives and daughters of applicants can come through that avenue – but no one else. After British forces evacuated in August last year, anyone not eligible for the scheme for local workers tried to use the alternative scheme, but often this didn’t mean the most at-risk people – and even some British nationals used the scheme to flee Afghanistan.
The Home Office claims ACRS will resettle more than 5,000 in its first year and up to 20,000 over the coming years. In August this year, more than 21,000 Afghan refugees had been resettled in the UK through a combination of schemes, according to the Home Office. Though there are no breakdowns of how many people have made it through ACRS, and those most at risk.
The Home Office should speed up the system of referrals, enabling organisations working closely with female activists on the ground to help identify those most at risk. These women are brave, competent and talented. Welcoming them amongst us should be a privilege – not a burden.