“Last night, the Taliban were going door to door and checking houses. Fortunately, they haven’t come to our place so far. They might come tonight. We are really scared.”
These are the words of an Afghan citizen whose life is now at risk for their work helping the British Council with its educational outreach programme in the country over the past 20 years.
Yet despite the risks now being faced by the many men and women that carried out this work, help for these individuals has been very limited.
Given the situation they are facing, a petition urging more to be done for those who worked with the British Council has already amassed over 104,000 thousand signatures since getting under way a week ago.
The language of the petition makes clear why it is so important for protection to be offered – in recognition of individuals’ support of Britain’s work in the country and the dangers they now face.
“Since 2002, the British Council has employed dozens of Afghans, including educators, who have promoted British values, such as democracy, justice and education for all children, including girls,” writes petition founder Victor Ponsford.
“The British Council is viewed as part of the British government and is headquartered with the British Embassy in Kabul. To the Taliban, they are one and the same as the British Embassy or armed service personnel.”
Indeed, as one educator, Abdul Ghulam (not their real name), explains, working with the British Council has long made him an enemy in the eyes of the Taliban.
“Because I work for the British Council, I am perceived as promoting Christianity in schools. Many people also see me as a British spy,” they say.
“The mullah [Muslim leader] in our local mosque preaches that anyone supporting the British Council and teaching its language is an infidel and he refers to me personally as evidence.”
However, despite this, many individuals who worked as contractors with the British Council have had applications for help under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) rejected as they are not deemed to have worked directly with the British government.
“The educators’ applications for settlement in the UK were rejected on the grounds that they did not have ‘exposed meaningful roles’,” notes Ponsford in the petition.
“This is very far from reality, given that many of them had long been on insurgents’ death lists due to being highly exposed in their British Council roles.”
In light of all this, it is no surprise, perhaps, that those Afghans who worked with the British now feel betrayed.
“We worked under the flag of the UK and now we have been abandoned. Those who were not exposed to the public, and were safe and sound inside the British Council compound, have been relocated,” says one, whose identity has not been revealed for security reasons.
“But those who worked in provinces in difficult situations were thrown out of the ARAP scheme like trash.”
However, the situation is at least starting to gain awareness in the right places.
For example, in the Commons on Wednesday, the fate of workers who assisted the British Council was raised by John Baron MP, who chairs the British Council All Party Parliamentary Group, when he urged the prime minister to address the situation urgently.
“Will the prime minister assure me that all necessary resources will be given to those Afghans and others who helped the British Council in its work, including the promotion of women’s rights?”
The prime minister simply said the government is “doing everything we can to support those who have helped the UK mission in Afghanistan”.
John Baron asks @BorisJohnson about @BritishCouncil employees in the first two minutes of debate on #Afghanistan below— Victor Ponsford (@victorjponsford) August 18, 2021
STILL no firm commitment to helping @BritishCouncil Afghan employees @DominicRaab was asked yday on @BBCRadio4
Statement out laterhttps://t.co/riPNUtS6LC pic.twitter.com/YSDPKD41qY
Hardly inspiring, but the fact that the plight of these workers is now being discussed at the top level is a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, the British Council has promised that it is doing what it can to help those at risk and said some of those people have recently been considered again under the ARAP scheme.
“A number of current and former colleagues have been successful under the ARAP scheme, and have been relocated from Afghanistan to the UK,” it said.
“While the British Council is not involved in the ARAP decision-making process, we are working closely with the Ministry of Defence to explore every possible avenue of support available to ensure that ARAP applications of all former and current colleagues receive the fullest consideration possible.
“We continue to encourage anyone involved with our work to contact ATREU (the new Afghan Threat and Risk Evaluation Unit in the British Embassy Kabul), as set out within the guidance for the ARAP scheme.”
This may help some, with news already filtering out that several workers have been asked for passport information to support the processing of their requests.
However, as Ponsford notes, being in contact with the embassy is one thing but getting to Kabul and then into the airport is another. What’s more, many of those known to be at risk are in remote provinces hundreds of miles from the capital, with little chance of travelling safely to the airport.
As such, the hope is that the government and British Council can move quickly to provide whatever support is required to offer safe passage out of the country for those at risk – before it is too late.
In the words of one Afghan: “Our lives are at great risk. Please do something to save us.”