Women's rights activist fights exclusion from UK Afghan resettlement programme

Prosecutor and activist described as 'exceptionally vulnerable' due to her work in Afghanistan

The Royal Court of Justice in London. AFP
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An Afghan woman whose life is at risk from the Taliban due to her work as a prosecutor and activist has been “wholly excluded” from a UK government resettlement programme, the High Court has been told.

While in Afghanistan, she specialised in prosecuting cases involving violence against women, forced marriage and honour crimes, and is now challenging the government over how it is operating the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.

Over several years, the woman has repeatedly received “direct threats” after openly criticising the Taliban and has been in hiding since August 2021, the court heard on Tuesday.

Lawyers for the “exceptionally vulnerable” woman, who cannot be named, have claimed that the programme's narrow operation is unlawful and that at-risk people who had a “legitimate expectation” of being considered under the ACRS are excluded instead.

The court was told that the programme was split into three pathways by which people would be considered eligible for resettlement, with the first two routes covering those notified by the government who are in the UK or were unable to board initial evacuation flights or people referred by the UN refugee agency.

In the first phase of the programme, the third pathway offers places to three specific groups: those who worked with the British Council, security company GardaWorld and Chevening alumni.

Irena Sabic, representing the Afghan woman, said the government previously identified other priority groups — including at-risk people who supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan — as well as those who are particularly vulnerable, such as women and girls.

Ms Sabic said in written submissions: “Despite these clear and unambiguous statements, vulnerable people who ‘stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech or rule of law’ and currently remain in hiding and at risk in Afghanistan, and who are entitled to prioritisation, are currently excluded from accessing ACRS.”

The barrister later said the woman does not have an expectation of being granted resettlement, but she should be able to gain access to and be considered for eligibility under the programme.

“Those who are in Afghanistan, like the claimant, are in the most acute need of assistance,” she told the court.

“The claimant’s life is at risk. She is in hiding, she cannot go out, she is constantly subjected to threats.”

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Edward Brown KC, for the Home Office, Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, denied the programme was being operated unlawfully.

“There is an active consideration to expanding pathway three, the issue is whether there is a legal obligation to do what the government is doing by considering it,” Mr Brown told the court.

He continued in written submissions that ACRS “can provide for a structured approach which prioritises certain cohorts and it is taken as acting in the public interest in making such choices”.

The barrister added that the woman has “no legitimate expectation” that she would be eligible under ACRS and the High Court was not considering the strength of her case for entering the UK.

The court was told that after the first year of the third pathway, the government “will work with international partners and NGOs to welcome wider groups of Afghans at risk”.

Mr Brown said it was clear from the policy announcement in September 2021 that the programme would “prioritise those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for specific values and vulnerable people”.

“However, that statement, without more, cannot reasonably be read as providing an access route to anyone capable of falling within that description,” he continued.

Mr Justice Bourne is due to give his decision on the case in writing at a later date.

Updated: March 07, 2023, 11:04 PM