Fear grips families in UK with loved ones stuck in Taliban territory

Afghan centre in London gives help to those seeking ways to extricate vulnerable family from Afghanistan

Sabia Azimi softly lists the family members trying to leave Kabul to a volunteer at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association in Feltham, west London.

Her parents, siblings and their families are all vulnerable to the threat from the Taliban, she tells the woman typing her details on to a laptop across from her.

Two of Mrs Azimi’s brothers served in the Afghan Army’s US-trained special forces, a valid cause for concern after the Taliban’s takeover.

Among the stack of supporting papers she has with her is a photo of one of her brothers smiling in his military uniform. Her red-rimmed eyes fill up as she scans another picture of him bent over the body of his best friend after he was killed fighting the Taliban this year.

Mrs Azimi’s husband, Khalid, takes over the conversation. “In the past two weeks we haven't slept. She hasn’t stopped crying,” Mr Azimi tells The National.

“Their father was in the military and the boys also hoped to help to bring something good to the country but today there is nothing,” says Mr Azimi, who arrived as a refugee in England 22 years ago.

He found his wife in tears again after she saw reports that 10 members of the same family had been killed by a US-drone strike in a Kabul district close to where her family lived.

The couple are two of more than 100 worried faces attending the centre after cabin doors closed on the last evacuation flights from Kabul airport.

One of the few Afghan community centres in the UK capital, the ACAA’s two-storey building in an industrial corner of the city has become a hub for British-Afghans seeking immigration advice.

ACAA founder and former refugee Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi says thousands of people were calling and emailing daily in the desperate scramble leading up to the deadline. “Before the airlift ended people were queuing from 5am to see us. We got thousands of emails and phone-calls every day from people trying to get their friends and family to safety,” he says.

Mrs Azimi has come to register her family’s details into a spreadsheet the ACAA has created. She is then given an email address to send substantiating documents to and will be sent some advice on the next steps.

The only official avenues left (or vulnerable Afghans to come to the UK are through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) and the Afghanistan citizens’ resettlement scheme.

Arap is aimed specifically at Afghan citizen who worked for UK forces or other British sectors in the country. UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace says 13,000 Afghans were removed during August, with another 3,000 since April when the Arap scheme was launched. UK citizens can also apply to bring their dependants.

The chaotic and violent last days of the evacuation meant that many people eligible under the programme were left behind.

As a small charity, Dr Nasimi says it is not equipped to handle becoming the de facto central point for advice on Afghan immigration at a time of such crisis.

“Here at the centre, every day there is a big crowd. And it's very busy. We are a small charity. We can't cope with this number of people who are looking for support. We need a strong partnership with the UK government to make sure the rights of those vulnerable people who are using our services are not ignored,” he tells The National on the steps of the organisation he set up in 2001.

Ideally, Dr Nasimi would like to have an immigration lawyer on site who could advise families on a case-by-case basis but that requires resources the charity doesn’t have. At present, it's him, his children and a group of volunteers who are fielding enquiries and finding ways to help thousands of Afghans.

People have come from all over the UK, including Payam Hussein who travelled 75 miles away in Portsmouth. A former journalist, Mr Hussein sought asylum in the UK in 2014 after receiving death threats from the Taliban for some of his news reports. A member of the Hazara – an ethnic minority previously persecuted by the Taliban – his remaining family in Afghanistan now live under renewed threat. “They’re already going door-to-door searching for people,” he tells me in the centre’s car park while waiting for his turn inside.

Even if they are eligible, however, it is unclear if and how they will be able to get out of Afghanistan. Britain is negotiating safe passage with the Taliban for citizens and Afghans in its employ who were left behind when its evacuation mission ended.

Mr Hussein’s family are in hiding while they wait to see if there is a designated safe zone for them in Afghanistan. Otherwise, he says he will try to get them to England via Pakistan or Iran "if it's possible. If it's not then I don't know what's going to happen.”

After the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August, the Home Office announced a new scheme to resettle 20,000 Afghans over five years. Critics have argued this scheme is too small and too distant to cater adequately for the scale of pressing need.

The ACAA’s spreadsheet already has over 3,000 entries, each one for several family members. Most of the personal circumstances relayed suggest a case for eligibility. An Afghan actress who fled the Taliban years ago now fears for her family who are still living there. The son of a member of the security detail of Taliban-ousted former president Ashraf Ghani wants to get his father out of Kabul. The sister of an Afghan, whose wife and the mother of their three young children disappeared two weeks ago, wants to bring her brother and his family to safety.

Mr Azimi has been down this road before. He fled the Taliban in 1993 during their first run at power in Afghanistan. After living in neighbouring Pakistan, the carpet-fitter eventually arrived in the UK in 1999. When two years later, the 2001 US-led invasion led to new threats on Afghan soil he arranged for his mother and sister to resettle in Austria.

“I have seen all of this before,” Mr Azimi tells me as his wife finishes handing over her family's details.

“The country is never going to be peaceful so whatever life we can save from there we should save, it doesn't matter if they’re human beings, every animal, everyone is suffering in that country.”

Updated: September 2nd 2021, 4:00 AM
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