Afghan refugees: A bitter end, a new beginning?

Nick Ryan - 23 08 21

They are scenes hard to forget.

Bodies falling from the sky. Gunfire and chaos. Babies passed over barbed wire, targeted killings and promises of clemency even as house-to-house searches get underway for ‘collaborators’.

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has sent shockwaves around the world. A government and armed forces (indeed, a vision for a nation) built and supported by the United States and its NATO allies, including Britain, collapsed last week, with unedifying scenes as the government imploded and former ministers as well as the Afghan President fled overseas, allowing the Taliban to roll in unopposed to the capital, Kabul.

There are many reasons for the apparent lightning advance of the country’s 1996-2001 rulers across so much territory. They are complex and go back many years, taking in the Soviet empire and imperial British ambitions, even before the 2001 American invasion following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York by (the Taliban-hosted) Al-Qaeda.

Afghanistan was known as the graveyard of empires 

Many commentators have ruefully reflected on Afghanistan being “the graveyard of empires” – a trite phrase, perhaps, when you consider the tens of thousands of lives lost over the past 20 years of struggle, and the many millions of lives now affected as events escalate. This is a country which has known at least four decades of constant war.

But what sort of future will those fleeing Afghanistan – the former interpreters, guards, chefs, drivers, educators, journalists and those working with the foreign governments, armed forces or NGOs – face when (or if) they finally make it to countries such as the UK?

Those coming here

The question may seem moot right now, given the chaotic scenes around Kabul’s airport as thousands of desperate Afghans and expats attempt to leave.

Those who have already been evacuated are now arriving in capitals around the world. Many are not only leaving behind their country, but in some cases their families as well – beginning what will probably be a long journey to start a new life in a foreign country.

As media outlet Tortoise pointed out on Friday: 

“Fleeing alone carries more risk for women, who have reportedly been whipped and beaten by Taliban as they try to run the gauntlet at Kabul airport. Refugee history shows that men will often leave first, especially on longer journeys, so as to seek asylum and find work before bringing over family members. For many women, even those with male relatives on the move, it is a waiting game: wait and see what the Taliban does after the charm offensive ends.

The Ministry of Defence has shared video footage of a civilian charter flight from Kabul arriving in the UK.

The plane, carrying Afghans and British nationals who were based in Afghanistan, landed in the Midlands last week.

The UK has committed to take in up to 20,000 Afghan refugees over the next five years under a new resettlement scheme – including 5,000 this year – with women, children and religious minorities receiving priority. 

The scheme is similar to a previous Syrian resettlement scheme, with most of the refugees expected to have already been displaced to neighbouring countries 

The Home Secretary Priti Patel has faced criticism that the number is too little, and too late, while she has claimed it is “important” that the scheme “delivers” and that the UK “cannot accommodate 20,000 people in one go”.

Priti Patel has faced criticism that the number is too little, too late 

About 2,000 Afghan former staff and their families have already come to the UK under the separate Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), according to the Home Office.

Sadly tragedy has already struck, after a five-year-old Afghan boy fell from a ninth-floor window of a Sheffield hotel this week, where he was being temporarily housed with his family after recently arriving in the UK.

Fear & Despair

The rapidly developing situation has left Afghans here in the UK in despair.

Safir Khan, a 31-year-old asylum seeker, wept as he told AFP: “There’s no life in our country. The Taliban never help people – they only know how to kill people.”

Nooralhaq Nasimi, who reached Britain in a refrigerated lorry after fleeing Afghanistan in 1999, said: “We never thought the Taliban would return. The dream we had for the future of Afghanistan has collapsed.”

“It’s a desperate situation – there’s no bright future. Afghanistan is left behind once again by the international community,” added Karim Shirin, director of the Afghan Association of London.

It’s a desperate situation“ 

Fahima Zaheen, head of London-based Afghan refugee association Paiwand, said those fleeing to the UK need urgent support from groups like hers, which would in turn need help from the authorities.

“The government had the past 20 years to prevent this situation,” she said, accusing officials of ignoring the plight of Afghans.

The UK has a strong connection with Afghanistan, with a history linking both countries which go well beyond the recent two decades and back to Britain’s imperial conquests during the days of empire, fighting three conflicts in the nation over the course of the 19th and then early 20th century.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that there were 79,000 people born in Afghanistan living in the UK as of 2019 (with about half of them being British nationals). They are drawn from among Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups, the majority being Pashtun and located primarily in London, then the West Midlands, followed by other regions.

79,000 people born in Afghanistan were living in the UK in 2019 

The first large wave of Afghan immigrants were political refugees fleeing the communist regime of the 1980s. Numerous others came in the early 1990s escaping the Mujahideen warlords who had fought off the Soviet invasion. The number skyrocketed later that decade due to the rise of the Taliban, who rose from among the ranks of Afghan refugees schooled in camps in Pakistan.

Many Afghans living here have been shocked at the recent turn of events, with strong memories of the abuses carried out by the Taliban during its last time in power between 1996 and 2001.

Coming to the UK

For Refugee Week 2019, Hamid, 26, wrote a letter reflecting on his experiences of coming to the UK from Afghanistan

“I know that things are a bit difficult now. You feel in limbo and a bit lost. Everything is different – the city is much bigger than your home town and you don’t know the culture or community. Here is some advice from me to you to help you in your first few months in this country.

“The most important thing is to learn the language because you cannot do anything without it. Right now you can’t explain yourself and can’t get anywhere to do activities or make friends or even communicate with people when you go to the shop.

“Through school, your foster family, watching TV, reading the newspaper and speaking with classmates you will pick up the language fast. When you first arrive all you can say is “hello”, “thank you” and “how are you”. In six months you will be able to speak fluently.

Once you have learnt the language it will open lots of doors for you – you will learn about the culture and find a way to find a new community in the UK.

“It will take a year to get refugee status. Even though you don’t know what will happen to you right now, don’t give up hope. You still have the opportunity to build your life while you’re here.”


Others are desperately worried about those still waiting to come. 

Zara (not her real name) is an Afghan living in the UK. She married her husband four months ago, who is still in the country. She had been preparing documents for his British visa before the rapid fall of the country to the Taliban.

Desperately worried about him, she says the Home Office has told her it can’t help because she is not a British citizen (she has indefinite leave to remain).

“We didn’t know the Taliban were going to take over so quickly,” she told the BBC.

“We didn’t know the Taliban were going to take over so quickly” 

“He [husband] was so loud on social media, he was sharing criticism of the Taliban. He makes fun of the Taliban because he is against what they believe in.”

“How long can he hide there?”

Meanwhile Tell MAMA and Muslims Against Antisemitism founder, Fiyaz Mughal, is furious at years of foot dragging by the government in admitting those who worked with British forces.

Mughal has been supporting “Nabi”, now living destitute in Greece five years after he fled Afghanistan, following his targeting by the Taliban.

He is awaiting a visa from the Home Office so that he can enter the UK, while his family remain in hiding in Afghanistan and can’t get out.

Mughal talks of the “insincerity” of the British government in this matter, saying Nabi’s situation (which took years of lobbying to even get to this stage) “highlights the bureaucracy, barriers and red tape that created serious obstacles to safety for Afghans.”

“So, when you hear ministers talk about helping Afghan personnel and staff, ask them why nearly eight years later when the bulk of UK forces left, local Afghan staff who worked with us are losing their lives because of our bureaucratic hand-wringing?”

As of October 2020, only 445 Afghan former staff and their families had been resettled into the UK from a tally of some 7,500 Afghan personnel that worked for the UK.


Even when people eventually arrive, life is unlikely to be plain sailing.

“Our expectations of London were impossible,” writes Zarlasht Halaimzai, the co-founder of charity Refugee Trauma, which helps refugees in Greece, but who originally came to London from Afghanistan in 1992.

“We imagined a life that was easier – that somehow as soon as we arrived here we would put all that had happened behind us and move on – that the uncertainty we felt would evaporate as soon as we landed. So much depended on this fantasy. To survive the journey, we needed stories of hope. For us, that story was safety in London, but the reality was very different.”

“Once the excitement of arriving in a new place had worn off, the exhaustion set in… Everything required a form. Every time, my mother had to fill in forms and provide proof of identification, which was difficult since we were essentially stateless.”

“It’s difficult to describe the feeling of dislocation. People who are born in places that protect them from the misery of displacement find it hard to understand.”

When the family moved from an affluent area of north-west London to West Ham, they encountered racism and aggression, her mother attacked in the street by a man who took off his belt and beat her in front of her daughter. The police failed to prosecute the attacker or his accomplices, saying they were “young and stupid”.

Things gradually did change – and improve. Although sometimes the revelations were bittersweet. 

“As my siblings and I learned to find our way, my mother’s role started to change in our lives. We went from copying down English words with her, to correcting her pronunciation. While we were forming a distinctly British identity, it remained hard for her to see herself as part of this society, even though she did her best to integrate.”

Now, she says, her mother listens to her describe the plight of refugees in Greece and says: “No matter what they face, people have to survive. We have no other choice.”

Where will they live?

More than 100 local councils have pledged their support in rehoming Afghans as the first RAF rescue mission for those fleeing Kabul landed.

Council leaders and mayors in Liverpool, London, Kent and Essex have all shared statements promising to provide support in their communities, after local authorities were asked to support efforts to relocate approximately 3,000 displaced Afghans in the coming weeks.  

Birmingham City Council has plans to rehome 80 Afghan refugees in private rented housing.

Migration Yorkshire said more than 200 people will be arriving in the county through the Afghan Relocation and Assistance policy. 

Meanwhile Cllr Gerry Anderson, leader of Ashford Borough Council in Kent, has already spoken with the Home Office to take in families under the proposed resettlement scheme.

But even as hotels in some areas prepare to open their doors to many of the new arrivals, others have said “no”, with the leader of Torbay Council, Steve Darling, refusing to take any, citing the housing crisis in the small seaside resort.

The Guardian has warned that Afghan asylum seekers arriving in Britain could experience problems securing suitable housing after ministers ignored the advice of their own officials about how to increase the pool of available accommodation.

The Guardian’s analysis has revealed that almost a quarter of the UK’s 44,825 asylum seekers supported by the Home Office are housed in just 10 local authorities, nine of which are among the most deprived in the country.

almost a quarter of the UK’s 44,825 asylum seekers supported by the Home Office are housed in just 10 local authorities 

They include Middlesbrough, Cardiff, Rochdale and Glasgow, which has the UK’s highest number of refugees as a proportion of its population. Only one of the top 10 destinations – Barking and Dagenham in London – is in the south of England.

HOPE not hate Charitable Trust’s latest research has found that the most deprived areas are taking a disproportionate amount of asylum seekers

Poor investment and a move away from community to institutional housing of asylum seekers is not good for integration or wellbeing.

Mental health pressures

Those working to support Afghans and other refugees warn of a system not fit for purpose. It’s a system that also appears to leave children at risk, even as analysts predict an influx of unaccompanied Afghan children into the UK as families send their children to safety. 

One unaccompanied Afghan minor who arrived in the UK a month ago told The Observer they had been given no legal advice or interpreter, their asylum claim had yet to be processed and they had no idea where they were or even where to find the nearest mosque.

The Home Office’s approach to child protection has been described as a “complete breakdown” 

Last week Priti Patel, announcing plans to relocate thousands of Afghan refugees to the UK, promised “everything possible to provide support” to ensure they could “integrate and thrive”. Yet the current approach by the Home Office has been described as a “complete breakdown” of child protection measures that has breached its statutory responsibilities.

Despite repeated offers from a number of specialist charities, including Barnardo’s, to enter the hotels and assess the children, the Home Office has so far turned them down.

A Muslim community group that offered to supply child refugees in a hotel near Brighton with halal food was turned away despite complaints from some youngsters they were only being offered “boiled vegetables”.

Elaine Ortiz, founder of the Hummingbird Project in Brighton, told The Observer about one Afghan teenager who spoke of his life in Home Office-run hotels. “He had no shoes since arriving in the UK, only had one pair of trousers, no coat when it rained, no money, no access to an interpreter or legal advice and the food was not culturally appropriate,” she said.

He had no shoes since arriving in the UK“ 

One source I spoke to said that Afghans used to a relatively comfortable life back home might now find themselves on a tiny stipend and housed in some of the poorest areas of the UK. Some who’ve previously arrived here on scholarships have had to ask families back home for money in order to survive.

Many are left with uncertainty, which can contribute to mental health problems.

One anonymous asylum seeker wrote on Twitter:

“A small room with a bed … Windows that do not fully open. Poor quality food being dispersed on a time table over which we had no choice …The day becomes the month becomes the year becomes the decade … Our mental faculties started to break down.”

Groups such as Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) have now set up crowdfunding pages to help support those such as vulnerable boys and young men who enter the UK, claiming:

“The young people we work with at KRAN have all experienced a level of trauma, whether that happened in their home country, or on the journey here – usually both. It’s always been difficult to get them the mental health support that they need but the situation became even more acute during lockdown. And with the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan there is a real and urgent need to support the young people we work with from that country who are all desperately worried about the fate of friends and family.”

Bridget Chapman from KRAN has said that other young refugees from Afghanistan fear being sent back home.

“Most of the Afghan clients seen by Freedom from Torture are children or young people,” added charity Freedom From Torture.

“Our records reveal a terrifying reality as they show an equal number of Afghanis have been tortured by militant groups like the Taliban for either refusing orders or refusing to join them.”

“In the coming years, we will see Afghans seeking asylum on our shores, having made dangerous journeys,” the charity said.

“This government will demonise them and tell us that they do not deserve asylum.

“Under Priti Patel’s new anti-refugee bill, countless fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters seeking asylum will be denied protection, simply for their route to safety.

“It’s up to us to stand up for humanity & show this government that Afghan refugees are welcome in the UK.”

Settled in the UK

Nooralhaq, or Dr Nasimi, fled Afghanistan’s Taliban regime for London two decades ago.

As a recent law graduate he settled in Lewisham with his wife, Mahboba, in November 1999 when neither of them spoke a word of English.

There was more help available for refugees in London than there is today, he believes.

“Our situation was much better than now. Today refugees face more challenges to get housing, to access legal aid and to get enough support from the local authorities – this is mainly down to council cuts and the new government policy towards immigration,” he told MyLondon.

They got help to find housing from the British Council and had a Red Cross mentor who visited them weekly and accompanied them on regular trips into the city.

After just 14 months in the UK, Nooralhaq secured a grant and founded a charity to help Afghan and Central Asian refugees.

Nooralhaq set up the charity, the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), in Hounslow because it has the largest Afghan population in the UK.

He said: “I wanted to help people who were in the same situation as we had been. Some of the challenges we faced were the same as those faced by refugees today: lack of understanding the language, not understanding the system and not having access to central services.”

Nooralhaq says he’s hardly experienced any racism since living in London, but says the times he did were when he still hardly spoke English.

While he misses the weather in Afghanistan, he’s never been unhappy in London.

“I’ve never felt sad about being here. London has a multicultural society, living here is like living back home because there are so many nationalities.”

A two-tier system

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has pointed out that Afghanistan has long been one of the largest countries of origin for asylum seekers in the UK. 

“Until just days ago, the UK Government has long classified Kabul as a safe destination for asylum-seekers to return, including those from the LGBTQI+ community, who have been urged to protect themselves by remaining “discreet” about their identity.”

The JCWI – along with many other organisations in the sector – has pointed out that the Government’s proposed new two-tier approach to refugees as part of its new Nationalities and Borders Bill would discriminate between people seeking protection based on their mode of arrival in the UK.

Afghan refugees could, in essence, be persecuted for their means of arrival in the UK – with those arriving direct by plane and others coming via third countries or even across the Channel refused entry.

“As the scenes at Kabul Airport in recent days have shown, regulated means of travel are simply not open to people who need to escape immediately from a crisis.”

Charities are already asking the Government to widen safe access routes for Afghan refugees to reach the UK. 

Political reaction

While initial sympathies seem to lie with the Afghans attempting to flee Taliban brutality, political leaders across Europe have already sounded warning signs about new arrivals, ever-mindful of domestic politics and the 2015 refugee crisis.

French president Emmanuel Macron, for example, warned that France needs a strong plan to “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants” from Afghanistan.

Austria’s interior minister Karl Nehammer said it will consider removing failed Afghan asylum seekers to “deportation centres” in nearby countries .

In Germany, Armin Laschet, the Christian Democratic Union’s candidate for chancellor, warned: “2015 should not repeat itself.”

In Hungary, Levente Magyar, parliamentary undersecretary of the foreign ministry, said: “Hungary will not accept Afghan migrants without any restrictions.”

And the far right …?

Meanwhile, could the far right also try and take advantage of the arrival of Afghans here in the UK?

Ironically, there are many far-right extremists on Telegram channels and elsewhere online already ‘celebrating’ the Taliban’s success.

While these same far-right extremists have typically railed against the (in their minds) ‘Islamification of the West’, they have been quick to piggyback on the Taliban’s rise to power in order to promote their own anti-LGBTQ+, anti-women and anti-liberal agenda.

On Twitter, supporters of the Capitol Hill riots in Washington have posted pictures of American rioters next to images of Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace in Kabul. On Telegram, white supremacists openly debated if the Taliban should be considered good guys because of their homophobic views. On 4Chan, a message board frequented by the far right, the Taliban’s military success was promoted as evidence that Western governments would similarly soon be toppled.

Previously in the UK, self-appointed ‘citizen journalists’ from the far right have already tried to take advantage of the small numbers of migrants crossing the Channel to harass new arrivals on beaches and in hotels, attempting to stoke up faux outrage and fundraise for their PayPal patriotism.

Populist far-right figures such as Nigel Farage have headed out into the Channel to film those crossing, in a segment branded as “revolting” and showing a “lack of humanity”.

Meanwhile the Alex Jones protégé, Paul Joseph Watson has, true to form, already rushed out a video claiming that most Afghan’s fleeing their country are “economic migrants” and saying that the UK and Germany will be putting the new arrivals in “four star hotels with free money”.

Joe Mulhall, our head of research, says:

“For some on the far right the tragic events in Afghanistan are being seen an opportunity to push anti-Muslim politics in the west.

“Despite misogyny being fundamental to the worldview of the far right, there are now extremists out there who are pretending to care about women’s rights. Everyone must condemn the Taliban without reservation and also ignore those on the far right seeking to exploit this terrible situation to push racist tropes in Europe.”

Joe also wrote that for us that:

“The far right has long been animated by the supposed invasion of migrants. It is worth remembering that in 2016 the Port of Dover played host to an anti-immigration demonstration that saw some of the worst far-right violence in recent decades.”

Since 2016’s violent demonstration, there have been sporadic visits by far-right activists to the south coast, notably the anti-Muslim fundamentalists from Paul Golding’s Britain First (who launched a laughable “Operation White Cliffs” last autumn to ‘patrol’ the coastline). The group made an ill-fated trip to Calais to tell migrants they were not welcome in Britain, which unsurprisingly ended in the extremists fleeing a hail of stones.

Britain First launched a laughable ‘Operation White Cliffs’ 

Others have followed in Britain First’s wake, including those storming into hotel lobbies and bedrooms to film and harass vulnerable migrant groups. 

Although fears about immigration and migration appeared to subside immediately post-Brexit, both the far right and populist politicians, egged on by right-leaning mainstream media outlets, have been keen to stoke the fires of discontent.

With the 2015 refugee crisis in mind, Britain will need to remain vigilant against those seeking to fire up division merely for circulation or ‘citizen journalism’ profiteering, and allow those Afghans arriving here a chance to settle after the trauma of the fall of their nation.

Nationalities and Borders Bill

Under the proposed Nationalities and Borders Bill, which had its second reading in July, any refugee reaching the country who has not benefited from a place on a resettlement programme may have their claim deemed inadmissible and be expelled to another country, or eventually granted a temporary status with restricted rights to family reunification and financial support. 

“It introduces more severe penalties which will further criminalise asylum seekers for exercising their legal right to seek asylum. The Bill will increase delays within the Home Office, add to the backlog of asylum claims and leave many in limbo, while doing nothing to address the culture of disbelief that results in poor-quality decision-making,” said the JCWI in a briefing.

In the year to March 2021, over 3,000 Afghan nationals had asylum claims pending in the UK, over two thirds of whom have been waiting longer than six months.


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