Those who risked their lives helping British government face a ‘toxic combination of incompetence and indifference’
May Bulman and Nicola KellySat 3 Dec 2022 19.00 GMT
Troops mount an evacuation operation at Hamid Karzai international airport in Kabul in August 2021. Photograph: Balkis Press/ABACA/PA Images
Afghan nationals who were promised resettlement to the UK nearly a year ago are facing torture and death while they wait for a response from the British government, the Observer can reveal.
Not one person has been accepted and evacuated from Afghanistan under the Home Office’s Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme (ACRS), launched in January, prompting claims that ministers are showing a “toxic combination of incompetence and indifference”. The scheme was intended to help Afghans who worked for, or were affiliated with, the British government – including its embassy staff and British Council teachers – and all of whom face severe harm at the hands of the Taliban.
Meanwhile, figures show that there are only between five and eight members of staff working on the scheme in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – the department administering the ACRS – compared with 540 who were working on the Ukraine schemes earlier this year. Sources said there was “no sense that Afghanistan is any kind of priority”.
Britain’s efforts to evacuate at-risk Afghans in the days after the fall of Kabul in August 2021 were heavily criticised when it emerged that many of those who worked for or alongside the UK were left behind. Under Taliban rule, poverty levels in Afghanistan have since surged, the rights of women have been rolled back and the UN has recorded at least 160 extrajudicial killings.
Through open-source intelligence, insights from forensic physicians and interviews with more than a dozen Afghans waiting to be relocated, a joint investigation by the Observer and Lighthouse Reports, a Netherlands-based, non-profit newsroom, has verified that people whom the UK pledged to help under the ACRS have been severely beaten and tortured by the Taliban.
In other cases, family members have been kidnapped, or have died because of Taliban fighters blocking access to medical care.
Batoor, 32, a former university professor, started working for the British Council in 2019. During the Taliban takeover last year, he began to receive death threats and went into hiding, separated from his wife and two children. When Batoor’s two-year-old daughter, Najwa, became ill, his wife was forced to treat her at home as she was banned under Taliban law from travelling without a man accompanying her.
Najwa’s condition worsened considerably. By the time Batoor managed to get his daughter to a paediatric hospital, it was too late. Najwa’s medical records state that she was suffering from acute hepatitis, septicaemia and liver failure. It was later confirmed that the cause of death was a cardiac arrest. “They were dark days,” said Batoor. “I couldn’t even go to the funeral. I couldn’t do anything. My wife still blames me that it happened because of who I worked for. I wasn’t there in those hard days with her. If I had not been in hiding, I would have been able to help … I was to blame.”
Six months after Najwa’s death, Batoor was told by the British Council that his application for another resettlement scheme, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap), would be “formally rejected” by the UK government and that he must instead apply to the ACRS. He has yet to hear the outcome of his case. Batoor said he feels “betrayed” by the UK government.
“We helped them. We were honoured in doing that work,” he said, speaking from a safe house. “But now, even though there were promises, they’ve been broken. We didn’t expect that from the UK. They have let us down. We don’t understand what to do, where to go. There’s no hope for staying alive in this situation. There’s just hopelessness for us.”
Another former contractor, Aziz, 32, worked as an interpreter in the British embassy for GardaWorld, the security contractor that guarded the embassy, in 2021. His younger brother, Nazir, was apprehended outside his home in May 2022 and held for two weeks, during which time he was subjected to whippings and electric shocks on intimate parts of his body.
CCTV footage from outside their family home, obtained by Lighthouse Reports, shows the Taliban drive up to the house and knock on the door, Nazir open it and a verbal exchange take place between them. Within the space of a minute, the Taliban fighters start to beat him and force him into their car before they drive away. Aziz said they mistook Nazir for him.
A photograph shows Nazir’s upper thigh with deep lash marks across it. Forensic physician Dr Juliet Cohen said the image showed “patches of bruising and crisscrossing red-pink lines [weals] attributed to whipping”, adding that it was “difficult to see what else would cause this”.
Aziz applied to the ACRS in June, and in October received a response stating that he was not eligible because it had been decided that he did “not meet the definition of a GardaWorld contractor”.
He is on a list of 175 GardaWorld embassy staff – seen by this investigation – that was handed to the UK government. Only five of those on the list have been relocated from Afghanistan to the UK via the Arap scheme.
“They look at British embassy staff like spies. If they capture me, I will never come out alive,” he said. “I’m going crazy. I’m like a prisoner in my own home. I can’t go outside. I’m afraid all the time. Why won’t the British government help me?”
Four days after the fall of Kabul, the Home Office announced the ACRS, which it pledged would resettle 5,000 Afghans in its first year.
The Foreign Office is the lead department for the scheme, working alongside the Home Office, which is responsible for processing visas, conducting security checks and arranging accommodation in the UK.
Sources working within the Foreign Office’s Afghanistan directorate have said consultations on who will be evacuated under the ACRS began in August and are still continuing, despite the department confirming it would begin relocating eligible Afghans to the UK in the autumn.
One member of staff who worked on the crisis response last year said: “There is no sense that Afghanistan is any kind of priority.”
Another source said: “There has been a lot of criticism of the ACRS, and my issue with it is the unfairness of the difference in the approach to the Ukraine schemes, which are a lot more generous. There’s been a lot of ping-pong between [the Foreign Office and the Home Office] about whose remit this falls under, and discussions about the budget – who’s paying for this? – but that has mainly been resolved now.”
The Home Office sparked criticism when, in February, it emerged that about a third of the places available under ACRS had been granted to Afghans who had already been relocated to Britain during Operation Pitting – the UK’s evacuation effort in August 2021.
Zaid, 47, worked for GardaWorld as a driver at the British embassy for 11 years until last spring. In October 2021, there was a knock on the door of the home he shared with his wife and six children. He answered and three Taliban fighters immediately started questioning him.
“They said: ‘You’re still working for the British embassy, for the infidels, you’re still getting paid by them,’” said Zaid. “I was tortured there on the street. They started beating me up so badly that I lost consciousness. I fell to the ground. When I woke up, they had gone, but my body was battered.”
Photographs of Zaid after the attack show dark bruising across his shoulder and arms, and his hand and head tightly bound with plaster.
Cohen said the bruising indicated “blunt force trauma” that “could be from kicking” or other means such as “a hard object”, concluding that the injuries were “typical of an assault”.
Zaid applied to the ACRS in June 2022, but has yet to receive a response. “I was told to get passports ready and everything. No one is in touch with us. We’re hopeless,” he said.
The shadow immigration minister, Stephen Kinnock, called on the UK government to act “with a matter of urgency” to bring vulnerable Afghans to safety, adding that a number of those waiting for responses had contacted his office with “tragic stories”.
Responding to this investigation, Kinnock said: “These important new findings show how Operation Warm Welcome has become Operation Cold Shoulder due to the Conservative government’s toxic combination of incompetence and indifference. Britain owes a debt of gratitude to these courageous Afghans and it is a debt that must be honoured.”
Sarah Magill, director of the Afghan evacuation and resettlement organisation Azadi Charity, described the UK’s effort to evacuate people at risk as a “fiasco”. She added: “Britain claims to be a world power but we have embarrassed ourselves internationally by demonstrating we cannot locate and extract three fixed lists of known individuals.
“The price these people pay is that they are living in poverty, deprived of their rights, with many having been detained and beaten by the Taliban. That is how we demonstrate our gratitude for serving the UK and keeping our diplomats safe.”
The Home Office insisted that 6,300 Afghans had been brought to safety under the ACRS, but the Observer and Lighthouse Reports understand that none of these individuals have been accepted and relocated since January 2022, when the scheme was launched.
A UK government spokesperson said: “Nearly 23,000 people have been brought to safety, including campaigners for women’s rights, human rights defenders, scholars, journalists, judges and members of the LGBT+ community. We are still working hard and have supported about 6,000 eligible individuals to leave Afghanistan since the end of Operation Pitting.”