UK must ‘step up to help Afghans in danger’, says former ambassador

The women’s rights activist hailed her countrywomen for resisting the Taliban

Shukria Barakzai, a former Afghan ambassador to Norway, has urged Britain to do more to help vulnerable Afghans living under the Taliban regime. AP
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A former Afghan ambassador to Norway has urged the UK government to step up its efforts to reunite women and children who are trapped in Afghanistan with their relatives in Britain.

Shukria Barakzai said Britain’s resettlement programme would “definitely” not be enough to meet demand among desperate people living under the Taliban.

The women’s rights activist said she feared many families would be forced to resort to dangerous, illegal routes out of Afghanistan, putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers to cross the border to Pakistan and eventually onwards to Europe.

“I would like to see more efforts for those whose lives are in danger to be evacuated,” she told The National.

“When it comes to the evacuation, I really wish that they should fulfil their promises.”

She said reuniting relatives should be a priority.

“You cannot leave the families to be separated and to be apart,” she said.

After the Taliban captured Kabul in August last year, the UK flew more than 15,000 Afghans from their country. About 1,500 more have since begun a new life in Britain.

The UK government has said it will resettle up to 20,000 Afghans over the coming years, including 5,000 over the next 12 months, under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.

Ethnic and religious minorities and people who assisted British forces in Afghanistan will be given priority.

Britain’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy offers sanctuary to Afghans who worked with the UK government or military and to others who are deemed to be at high risk of Taliban attacks.

The majority of Afghans flown from Kabul in August by UK soldiers under Operation Pitting are in Britain under this initiative.

The Home Office is offering local government councils £20,520 ($27,652) for each Afghan refugee they accommodate, over three years, for resettlement and integration costs.

An additional £4,500 will be provided, per child, to cover education, as will £850 to cover English language courses for adults and £2,600 for health care.

The Afghan Housing Costs Fund will be increased from £5 million to £17 million and run for two additional years to help the councils provide housing, the government has said.

Charities including Amnesty International have criticised the government’s resettlement efforts, saying they are “moving at a snail’s pace”. More than half a year on from being rescued from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, many refugees remain in hotels as they wait for permanent housing.

A spokesman for the UK’s Home Office said the country was “taking a leading role in the international response to supporting at-risk Afghan citizens and has made one of the largest commitments to resettlement of any country”.

He said the ACRS aimed to provide a safe and legal route to the UK for up to 20,000 Afghan women, children and others deemed to be particularly vulnerable in the Taliban-ruled nation. A target has been set to resettle 5,000 people in the first year.

“We undertook the biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping over 15,000 people at risk to safety in the UK, including thousands of women and girls,” the spokesman said.

“We have been clear from the outset that some of these will be resettled under the ACRS, a scheme designed to protect those who are vulnerable and at risk.”

Ms Barakzai fled Kabul last summer and has since settled in Britain.

She said she is in regular contact with people in her homeland and does not believe Britain’s resettlement efforts will meet the demand for refuge from Afghanistan, which has a population of 38.9 million.

Charities have warned the government that many vulnerable Afghans could end up crossing the English Channel in unsafe dinghies if it does not speed up the repatriation process.

Ms Barakzai said this would not be a new scenario. “I was listening to those stories while I was ambassador to Norway. Those things happened quite often,” she said.

She said immigration held benefits and Afghan refugees had the potential to boost Britain’s economy.

“It’s a good force [to be able to] work rather than being banded economically to the government,” she said.

Since taking back control of Afghanistan 10 years after they were removed by US-led forces, the Taliban have sought to present themselves as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

The militants, who follow a strict interpretation of Islam, have introduced restrictions on public life including a hijab mandate for women and girls.

Although the Taliban has not officially banned female education, the group’s fighters have shut girls’ secondary schools and barred women from public universities in some parts of the country.

Ms Barakzai said she was aware of underground girls’ schools springing up and praised her countrywomen for “leading the resistance” against their oppressors.

Since last summer, Afghan women have been protesting against the Taliban in Kabul and other cities, calling for their freedoms to be returned.

Given the huge role women now play in Afghan society, and the attention-grabbing nature of their protests, Ms Barakzai said she strongly believed her country would elect its first female leader if a fair election was held.

“When a large number of military and militia left the country they didn’t confront the Taliban in the way they should [have],” she said. “With all their equipment, including the president [Ashraf Ghani], the only force facing and confronting the Taliban every day was women.

“So, that means the future leader of Afghanistan will definitely be a woman. It will definitely [happen] if an election happens. Not late, soon.”

The former Afghan politician dismissed the notion that the new Taliban were a reformed version of the group that ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.

Her comments come as the Norwegian government welcomed a Taliban delegation for talks in Oslo.

The Scandinavian country said it would put “tangible demands” on the group during their controversial first visit to Europe since returning to power in Afghanistan. The delegation was led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, who urged Norway to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.

Afghans are in the midst of a biting cold winter. Many face starvation because overseas aid was withdrawn last year after the Taliban seized power. Droughts have worsened the crisis.

The Taliban delegation met members of Afghan civil society on Sunday, followed by western diplomats on Monday. They were to conclude their visit on Tuesday with meetings with a Norwegian political official and non-governmental organisations.

“This is not the beginning of an … open-ended process,” State Secretary Henrik Thune said before a meeting with the delegation on Tuesday. “We are going to place tangible demands that we can follow up on and see if they have been met,” he told Norwegian news agency NTB.

The demands include the possibility of providing humanitarian aid directly to the Afghan people, according to NTB, and a call for human rights to be respected, in particular those of women and minorities, such as access to education and health services, the right to work, and freedom of movement.

Updated: January 25, 2022, 3:47 PM