Sarah El Hadj, a UK Must Act volunteer and refugee support worker, shares vignettes of the hunger and hope felt in countries where resettlement schemes are in place, but the Afghan Citizen’s Resettlement Scheme has been left to the sidelines.
Stoic and serene, they sat in lawn chairs on Parliament Square Garden. Handmade placards and Afghan flags surrounded them on the grass, readily placed for onlookers to take notice. “Three Afghan Women on Hunger Strike” was the name of their campaign, with the hopes of pressuring the UK government to help the people of Afghanistan, after the Taliban seized control on August 15th, 2021. I was across the road on September 12th, 2021, with UK Must Act activists campaigning for humane migration reform, hanging our own placards on the gates of Parliament to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the fire in Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece. As a crowd started to gather across the road, we crossed and met the three women. Inspired by our shared motivation to urge our government to do more to support people fleeing crisis, we joined one another’s protests.
The Three Afghan Women’s strike is unfortunately emulative of the hunger in Afghanistan to this day. “We cannot find enough food and healthy water in rural areas, and we have high rates of malnutrition in children in rural areas and poor families that live in the cities. It is very painful that a child dies because of no food” explains Fereshteh, a woman who is currently trapped in Herat, Afghanistan. I have known Fereshteh since 2020, when we met through her attendance of some of the workshops I facilitated for the women’s charity, Scheherazade Initiatives. I recall instances when Fereshteh would be speaking to the group, and in the blink of an eye, her rectangle on the screen would either go jet black or disappear completely. When she was able to log back online, she would explain that the Taliban was cutting power lines, causing the unreliable internet. Two years later and the power lines are the least of the women of Afghanistan’s obstacles. “It is supposed to be a country, not a women’s prison,” Fereshteh asserts.
“I worked with an organisation before the arrival of the Taliban and when the Taliban arrived our organisation promised to help us leave the country, but they were lying and did not help us. I’ve searched every embassy and applied for visas in most countries, but no one answers me,” Fereshteh explained. I registered Fereshteh for the Afghan Citizen’s Resettlement Scheme last September with the help of a lawyer from Safe Passage charity. Fereshteh is eligible for the scheme, having worked for an NGO before the Taliban seized control. Despite the lack of updates on the scheme, Fereshteh’s calm demeanour has never wavered. Accustomed to uncertainty, her desensitisation to a warzone is palpable even through text.
The effects of Russia’s latest invasion are not limited to Ukraine. Fereshteh noted that “everything has become more expensive in Afghanistan due to Russia invading Ukraine and everyone here has a lot of problems because of this.” It has been widely reported that Russia is stealing wheat from Ukraine (which produces 7% of all wheat around the globe). Wheat imports are essential to Afghanistan and losing a major wheat exporter such as Ukraine has spiked prices. The decrease in wheat imports and media exposure, and subsequent increase in prices are almost as dangerous a combination for the people of Afghanistan as the Taliban themselves. Fereshteh has remarked, “after Russia invaded Ukraine, most countries noticed Ukraine and forgot Afghanistan. We already had the attention of the whole world but these days we are alone.”
The Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme had its areas for improvement but was largely successful and an excellent blueprint for resettlement schemes to come. I met Josef Fahma, who is a Syrian refugee in London, at a community English language and integration workshop in Ealing called Ahlan Wa Sahlan (“Welcome” in Arabic). Josef was resettled with his wife, and daughter who has epilepsy, under the Syrian scheme in March 2016. They were eligible for resettlement due to his daughter’s vulnerable status. They spoke no English when they arrived. Now, through ESOL courses and community initiatives, Josef and his family are almost fluent in English. Notably, Josef now prefers to be called Josef instead of his given name, Yousef, to distance himself from his traumatic past in Syria. I have witnessed their integration into British society through language classes, social events, volunteering in charity shops and through Josef’s skills in furniture making for friends and neighbours (he was a furniture designer and distributor in Syria). The Fahma family’s progress has been nothing short of remarkable, and confirmation of the power of human resilience. “The positives about living in London is that we live under the care of a government that looks after the best interests of its people and protects their rights and provides them with all life’s necessities in every sense of the word,” says Josef of his new home. It is incredibly humbling to hear that a place where you’ve felt dejected and unheard (personally, as a woman dealing with healthcare) in turn offers peace and sanctuary to another.
Russia’s military tactics in Syria are now being recycled and used in Ukraine to a devastating effect. It is noteworthy that the Syrian scheme was announced the same month that Russia entered Syria when the airstrikes nearly eradicated and obliterated bakeries and food banks. “Regarding our suffering, we endured a great deal of hardship and pain from the summer heat and freezing winter days and nights. There was no electricity or gasoline to burn in winter. There wasn’t even water to drink because the water was cut off by the anti-Assad forces. We used to drink water from wells to stay alive.” Regarding food, “it was very scarce. We used to have only a small piece of pita bread a day, and some of the seasonal provisions we had saved. The people of Aleppo,” Josef explained, “are accustomed to store cheese, olives, olive oil, fruit jams, burgol (cracked wheat), lentils, during the summer months for consumption in winter. That’s how we survived for more than three months of being under brutal siege until we escaped from Aleppo.”
In a series of interviews that were conducted for a “Solidarity with Ukraine” fundraiser UK Must Act hosted on March 15th (which coincidentally coincided with the 11th anniversary of the Syrian war), the humanitarian aid coordinator for Lviv City Council explained that Ukraine is at the edge of an unprecedented food shortage. A group of volunteers with Lviv City Council are one of the grassroots initiatives confronting the crisis by arranging food supplies for civilians and Ukrainian soldiers. “The war is likely to have a Syrian scenario, which leaves our ability to win with our ability to feed the nation,” he said. Political motivations aside, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine emulates their invasion of Syria and the subsequent collapse of the value of money, and scarcity of food and water.
False narratives in the media leading to false perceptions exploited by the government, lack of public protest, and lack of publicity for the success of the Syrian scheme, have become the perfect storm for the stagnation of the Afghan scheme.
It has been almost one year since the Afghan scheme was announced. The scheme officially opened on January 6th, 2022, which the government website states directly followed by: “Last Updated 6 January 2022.” It is clear to see what has happened to the scheme’s progress during this time: nothing. Or at the very least, nothing visible or shared with the sector. Despite the Three Afghan Women’s voices being acknowledged by the UK Parliament (they were on hunger strike for a full week from September 9th until September 15th when MP Virendra Sharma spoke on their behalf in the House of Commons, and MP Sir David Evennett confirmed with a letter addressed to them that their statement of demands was received in Parliament), it is bittersweet with the lack of implementation since then.
The tragic Russian invasion of Ukraine has eclipsed Afghanistan’s tragedy from the global limelight. The UK’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been commendable, and “Homes for Ukraine” is the UK government’s latest resettlement scheme and the first of its kind, where British nationals are invited to register to house refugees from Ukraine and receive a “thank you” from the government in the form of £350 per month. The infrastructure of the scheme is not without its own faults, but the automatic solidarity behind the scheme itself, and the time frame in which it’s being implemented has become the envy of the Afghan scheme. A phone call to your local council is immediately met with a switchboard option declaring “If you are calling because you would like to find out more about becoming a host for Ukrainian refugees, please visit (the website).”
Abbas Farshori, a human rights lawyer who works in legal fields including state criminalisation and migration, confirmed this, and has noted “There is a direct link between government programmes and allocation of funding with media attention. Clearly there was more media attention for Ukraine and this is demonstrable in the relatively easier casework and scope of opportunities compared with Afghanistan.” Though the Afghan scheme has not yet been implemented, Abbas has spent time on the Afghan scheme’s quotas and application procedure as well as “Homes for Ukraine.” He said “the actual number of allocated individuals that are successful in ACRS have very limited numbers and strict quotas. This was not the case in the first few weeks of evacuation in Afghanistan but the momentum for this slowed. For Ukraine, that momentum continued for a longer period and there is general political support for Ukraine by the UK.”
The UK is at a turning point with Boris Johnson finally stepping down as Prime Minister, though fellow conservative candidates also favour the Nationality and Borders Bill, Rwanda plans, and as stated above, lack of urgency to implement the ACRS. To the UK government’s credit, when enough public protest is present and unrelenting, they tend to listen. But the British public did not protest nearly half as heavily for the UK to help the people of Afghanistan as they did for Syria and Ukraine. The Afghan scheme is based on the Syrian scheme, which opened in 2015 during the height of the “refugee crisis.” It was largely put into practice due to people power and public protest over the viral photo of two-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, dead and washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach.
Though public protest was the main instigator for the Syrian scheme, its success is not widely publicised. It should be used as a positive reflection of what happens when resettlement schemes are implemented positively. But the Afghan people have been tarred with the brush the media paints of Afghanistan, the Taliban, and terrorism. “The international community invaded Afghanistan to defeat terrorism, but Osama Bin Laden was based and found in Pakistan. Instead of punishing the networks that support Bin Laden, his protectors are allowed to form a government and oppress the free people of Afghanistan,” the Three Afghan Women succinctly wrote on September 11th, 2021, on their public Instagram page. I believe this is due to Afghanistan’s association with terrorism in the eyes of the British public. The war on terror has been in the British public’s vernacular or decades. Instead of public protest, from my observation from within the sector, I believe the inception of the Afghan scheme was a humanitarian answer to the ARAP (“Operation Warm Welcome”) scheme, but lack of public instigation has left it stagnated when collective people power would help incentivise the government to finally implement it.
“This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan… This is a relatively civilised, relatively European city,” foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata said live on CBS News on February 25th. There’s a distinct “us and them” palpable when the “western” media portrays European refugees, and African or Middle Eastern “migrants.” They’ve perpetuated a narrative weaponizing the word “migrant,” and the UK is no exception to exploiting the negative connotation the word has acquired. “Migrants” have become governments’ scapegoats, when in fact, “migrants”, asylum seekers and refugees are one and the same. These labels are politicised to fatal effects.
There is no doubt that a renaissance is needed in asylum policy. The UK must first implement the Afghan scheme, and then prioritise safe routes to the UK instead of the hostile environment it fosters. Whether empathetically or economically motivated, as of April 2022, more than 200,000 Brits have registered for “Homes for Ukraine.” The same spirit of generosity should apply to the people of Afghanistan and asylum seekers from all over the globe; a #WelcomeForAll.
 To credit (full or last) names is not only dangerous because of the risk of being identified by opposing forces, but also dangerous for family members if they’re split up, because families are traceable through surnames. If you’re seeking refuge in a new country, your full name could also be used to detain you if you arrived “illegally.” Though in Josef’s case, he explained he feels comfortable using his full name because he has refugee status in the UK, and his immediate family in Syria are not in dire risk as they once were. Fereshteh and Lviv’s aid coordinator’s interviews were conducted over WhatsApp. It’s a preferred way of communication due to its encryption, which means its data is secure and less traceable by unauthorised sources. However, WhatsApp is owned by Meta (FKA Facebook) which is sanctioned in Iran, for example, which is a neighbouring country many Syrians and Afghans have fled to.
 The Afghan Citizen’s Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) is for “those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and rule of law. And vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk, and members of minority groups at risk (including ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT+)” the government website reads. The ACRS should not be confused with the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), otherwise known as “Operation Warm Welcome” which has evacuated 15,000 people to the UK. These people are British Nationals and their families who were living in Afghanistan, and Afghan Nationals working with the British Armed Forces.
 The Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme (SVPR) was announced on September 7th, 2015, and by the end of 2015, 1085 Syrians had arrived in the UK under this scheme. The goal was that 20,000 would be granted humanitarian protection under this scheme by 2020, and this goal was met by 2021 (due to the Covid19 pandemic).
 The Nationality and Borders Bill was passed on April 28th, 2022 to widespread condemnation from the House of Lords, the UN, and is illegal under the UN Refugee Convention and maritime law.
 One of the more extreme aspects of the Borders Bill is to “offshore” asylum seekers that arrive “illegally” 4,000 miles away in Rwanda, which is not only inhumane but illegal under the United Nations Refugee Convention.
 Article 31 of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which the UK has been a signatory of since its inception, states “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”