‘We escaped the Taliban, but it’s impossible to begin a new life in the UK’

·12 min read
An Afghan man hands his child to a British Paratrooper assigned to 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment while a member of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division conducts security at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan - US Army/AP
An Afghan man hands his child to a British Paratrooper assigned to 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment while a member of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division conducts security at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan - US Army/AP

As the Taliban encroached on Kabul, Raakin – a British interpreter of five years – waited in filth by the airport gates with his wife and six-week old daughter.

“I was nervous. The British Forces would come to the door and call names – they were focusing on people with British passports and my name wasn’t called,” Raakin said. He was one of 18,000 eligible for relocation to the UK last year, after coalition forces withdrew from its 20-year intervention in Afghanistan and the government collapsed. “My daughter was very young, a month and a half. It was dirty, full of dust and flies.”

On his fourth and final attempt, the Taliban swarmed the airport armed with assault rifles. “It was too late for us,” he said. Minutes after leaving, a suicide bomb killed more than 180 people. Raakin and his family went into hiding.

“I was sad and thinking I was betrayed. I took a bullet for these people and they left me behind,” he told the Telegraph. He had been shot for being the “ears and tongues” of British soldiers – who he said wouldn’t leave their base without an interpreter – while on patrol near Camp Bastion. “I would see… dogs and cats being evacuated through a special operation. That would make me sad.”

After weeks living underground, Raakin, his wife and daughter crossed into Pakistan. They slept at the border, before being flown to the UK.

Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16, 2021 - Shekib Rahmani/AP
Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16, 2021 - Shekib Rahmani/AP
U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command, provide assistance at an evacuation control checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan - Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/US Marine Corps via AP
U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command, provide assistance at an evacuation control checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan - Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/US Marine Corps via AP

Raakin feels safe in Britain, and is grateful for his rescue, but his life here remains on standby.

His family shares one room in a hotel in Yorkshire. Without an address, he cannot apply for a driving licence, and his visitors must be approved by the hotel manager. There’s no clear route for his parents and siblings to join him in the UK – a right under the 1951 Refugee Convention – despite his work putting them in danger from the Taliban.

After Raakin fled, his younger brother in Afghanistan was tortured for six weeks, as the Taliban sought information on Raakin’s location. “He would be asked about me: ‘Where’s your slave brother, where’s your infidel brother?’” Raakin said. Last week his brother-in-law was killed in what the family believes was a revenge attack.

Twelve months on since the evacuation, Raakin is just one of thousands of Afghan refugees struggling to live a normal life in the UK.

To date, 9,500 remain living in temporary and often poor-quality accommodation, employment is embroiled in bureaucracy and university students are struggling to re-enroll on courses.

Last September, Boris Johnson said it was a “national obligation” to help the Afghans who had supported the British mission in Afghanistan and boasted: “We are upholding Britain’s finest tradition of welcoming those in need”.

But now charities say Afghan refugees have been “forgotten” and the Government is putting up “hurdles and barriers” to a normal life.

‘As difficult as possible for refugees’

Enver Soloman, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the Government’s hostile environment “runs deep” with the Afghan refugees.

The hostile environment policy was introduced in 2012 by then-Home Secretary Theresa May with the intention of making life in the UK difficult for those who cannot show the right paperwork. Such policies prevent people from accessing housing, healthcare, education, work, bank accounts, and benefits.

“Boris Johnson made a big play saying a warm welcome would extend to every Afghan. They’re incredibly grateful to have made it to the UK, but they also feel let down, forgotten – the initial warm welcome hasn’t extended through to enabling them to get a home, find a job and settle in communities,” Mr Soloman said.

He said that barriers have been put up which prevent Afghan refugees from contributing to British society.

Najiba Shukur, a woman in her twenties, sat in a pharmacology class when the Taliban arrived in her city. Najiba had studied for several years and was training to be a gynaecologist. “We ran. We left our books at our desks,” she said.

Najiba was training to be a gynaecologist when she was forced to flee - David Rose /The Telegraph
Najiba was training to be a gynaecologist when she was forced to flee - David Rose /The Telegraph
Najiba was separated from her brother amid the chaos at the airport, and he never made it out of the country - David Rose /The Telegraph
Najiba was separated from her brother amid the chaos at the airport, and he never made it out of the country - David Rose /The Telegraph

Her family managed to flee Afghanistan the following day, with no more than the clothes they were wearing.

“I want to study here too but I cannot,” she said. “They say I need my documents, but I couldn’t bring them with me. We came suddenly. I thought I would become a good doctor, I only had a few years [of training] left.”

In lieu of higher education, Najiba sought work, but was told to improve her English when she visited the job centre. She is now taking lessons with the Red Cross.

“The fact that Afghans are facing hurdles and barriers is a reflection that the Government believes you have to make it as a difficult as possible for refugees, rather than extending a hand of compassion and welcoming refugees who are clearly fleeing persecution, death threats, potential torture, oppression,” Mr Soloman said.

“Many of the adults are still unable to fully engage. Many are still in temporary housing and have not received their biometric permanent residency yet, which creates a barrier for them in accepting job offers,” added Genevieve Caston, the head of International Rescue Committee's UK Programme. “They are very motivated to work but when they get an offer, the employer then cannot verify their right to work in the UK.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is utterly ridiculous to suggest we are creating ‘barriers to normal life’ for Afghans in the UK, when we have a comprehensive package in place to welcome up to 20,000 people in need through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.”

A life in limbo

Mr Soloman said those living in “cramped hotels” are in limbo and experiencing “huge issues around depression, anxiety and high levels of stress”.

Raakin said that, while he is grateful to have his room, there are “many things” the refugees can’t do in the hotel. “If you have someone who wants to meet you, you have to give their information to the hotel staff [to approve]. You can’t cook. You can’t apply for a driving licence, because you don’t have a permanent residence,” he said.

Meanwhile Najiba, who has also been living in budget hotels for a year, said the uncertainty of life has impacted heavily on her parents’ health, who are suffering from depression and poor memory. They are so unwell that they do not leave the inside of their room, she said.

“In Afghanistan we had a happy life, we had everything. We cooked different Afghan food, every day we had guests, we cooked for them,” she said.

Khan, who also worked as a British interpreter, is grateful to the British Army for evacuating him, but said: “[The future] is really hard to think about. We’re still living in a hotel like a guest.”

British interpreter Khan, who was evacuated by the British Army, says his future remains uncertain - David Rose /The Telegraph
British interpreter Khan, who was evacuated by the British Army, says his future remains uncertain - David Rose /The Telegraph

He has been in temporary accommodation for more than a year with his wife, and cannot speak about his home in Afghanistan without breaking down.

“Recently the Taliban was searching all the houses of people working for the British Army. I had left stuff. My family called and said they can’t hide it. They had to destroy it, our wedding photos and documents,” Khan said.

Amid the UK’s chronic housing shortage – in which more than one million households are waiting for social homes – all three refugees said they do not know how long it will take for them to have a permanent address. They also wish to be housed near a town or city rather than in the countryside, in order to be able to work and integrate with the community, and also because they do not have cars, but such requests are difficult for the government to meet.

“We are proud this country has provided homes for more than 7,000 Afghan evacuees,” a Home Office spokesperson said. “But there is a shortage of local housing accommodation for all.”

“While hotels do not provide a long-term solution, they do offer safe, secure and clean accommodation. We will continue to bring down the number of people in bridging hotels,” the spokesperson added.

‘No way’ for family to join them

Another major issue facing the refugees is uncertainty around their families’ safety back in Afghanistan, and not being able to reunite with them in the UK, Mr Soloman said.

“The Government made a commitment that family members would be able to come over. But they have failed to put in place a simple mechanism that would allow them to do that. It’s a year on, this should have happened within months,” he said.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Britain is a signatory of, the right to family unity implies a right to family reunification, because refugees cannot safely return to their countries and enjoy family life there.

The three refugees are pained to talk about their families in Afghanistan, who are living amidst increasing restrictions on women’s rights, crippling poverty, extrajudicial killings and persecutions of ethnic minorities.

“[My family] don’t want to talk about the Taliban, they change the topic, they are afraid, they are scared, they think maybe someone will hear us. They don’t want to complain about the situation. They don’t want to talk about politicians on the phone. Some people have been arrested because they were talking bad things about the Taliban,” said Khan, who speaks with his close relatives weekly.

A Taliban fighter stands guard as people move past him at a market with shops dealing with currency exchange in Kabul - AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images
A Taliban fighter stands guard as people move past him at a market with shops dealing with currency exchange in Kabul - AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images
Kabul general view - Simon Townsley /The Telegraph
Kabul general view - Simon Townsley /The Telegraph

“There are no jobs. There is no school for the children. They want to come [here] but it is not that easy. There’s no way to come here,” he added.

Amidst the chaos at the airport, Najiba was separated from her brother. He never made it out of the country. “He is so sad. His life is in danger. He was with us at the airport, but there were many people and we lost him,” she said. Her voice is quiet and timid, as she wrings her hands in her lap.

Raakin said his mother calls him regularly and cries about their separation. He worries his work for the British Army has put them in danger, but sees no option to move them to safety.

“I was struggling to come over, to convince [the British government], so how can I convince them for my family?” he said.

“It is particularly telling how steps were quickly made to quickly allow Ukrainians to reunite with family members – that hasn’t been done for Afghans. I think they feel that acutely. It is a huge source of real anxiety, pain and stress,” Mr Soloman added.

‘The only thing they see is colour’

The refugees have experienced hostility at a local level too.

Some of the hotels housing Afghan refugees have been targeted by far-right groups, while refugees have reported being attacked by those in their communities.

“I face some discrimination here, without them knowing about us, why we are here, and what we went through,” Raakin said.

He recalled a recent incident where some of the Afghan teenagers returned to the hotel covered in ketchup, after local children mocked them for their clothing and threw bottles at them. “The only thing they see is the colour. I think they should be educated [about us],” he said.

Khan holds his wife's hand - David Rose/The Telegraph
Khan holds his wife's hand - David Rose/The Telegraph

Each refugee was fervent in their gratitude for their evacuation, support from their case workers, and having somewhere to sleep. Yet it’s hard to know what their future holds in the UK.

Khan is hoping to apply for a British Passport in a couple of years and has started studying for the citizenship test. His wife is learning English.

“I miss the weather, I miss the fruit season. We had everything, our whole life, our relatives, but sometimes you have to leave to survive,” he said.

Najiba said she has made a few friends at the hotel and hopes she will be able to re-start her studies one day. She said: “I miss Afghanistan, we had a happy life. We are poor here.”

Raakin has secured two days of work a week at a hotel reception and recently celebrated his daughter’s first birthday in the hotel lobby. It was a small affair compared to his wedding with 550 guests, but his wife bought a cake and some balloons.

“The ladies had fun, they had music, soft drinks, and the kids had balloons. It was a good thing after a very long time,” he said.

*Names have been changed to protect refugees’ families in Afghanistan. 

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