More than 180 British Council contractors detained in Afghanistan have received immediate permission from the British government to apply online to come to Britain, but they have no idea how to safely leave the country.
The partial breakthrough came after a campaign led by MPs and former staff colleagues who were horrified to have been left behind and subjected to retaliation by the Taliban for teaching values such as diversity and openness.
It is estimated that there are still 180 British Council contractors in Afghanistan, 85 of whom are classified as “very high risk”, while a further approximately 90 are considered “high risk”.
Many of them are in hiding and fear for their lives as the Taliban impose increasingly repressive rule in the country.
Nevertheless, nearly 11 months after being left behind during the emergency evacuation, British Council employees still have no firm date on which they will be removed from the country, or a way to do so, according to Joe Seaton, a former employee of the British Council who worked with many of them in Afghanistan.
The UK initially decided to prioritize full-time British Council staff living in Kabul, referring to the 180 teachers who delivered courses in the field as contractors, although their physically isolated position arguably made them more vulnerable and conspicuous.
In a concession, Lord Ahmad and Lord Harrington, the two leading ministers, announced in mid-June that these contractors working in the field will be allowed to apply to come to the UK with their families. Initially, they were told to wait until mid-August for the cases to be heard.
The ministers have promised Conservative MP John Baron that their cases will be looked at on a rolling basis once they reach the Home Office.
Seaton said: “We are finally making some progress but there don’t seem to be any clear agreements on how to get them out yet. This is a key question. How long will it take for them to get out? Every day is another day in great danger, and so far all government efforts to process former British Council staff have been very slow and clumsy, the government needs to speed up the handling of the individual cases tremendously.”
He once again urged the British Council to provide the government with a paper list of their former employees so that those processing applications have a list to hand. “I’ve given lists of the contractors to the British Council several times because they didn’t have the information,” he said.
Traveling in Afghanistan is always risky, but Taliban checkpoints will present a challenge, said Seaton, who knows many of the detained personnel from his stint as manager of the British Council in Afghanistan.
He operates two WhatsApp groups with which he has almost daily contact with the employees. He described their mood as “optimistic, but worried that this could be another false dawn”.
Following campaigns by Seaton and others, the Home Office announced in June that it would allow British Council contractors, GardaWorld staff and ex-Chevening Scholars, to come to the UK with their families as long as the total number of refugees arriving applying to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in this category does not exceed 1,500. It was initially stated that unless they were at risk of death, their claims would not be considered until August 15, the closing date for applications for the scheme. All their claims required security checks.
Home Secretary Victoria Atkins also initially insisted that they apply online, although she admitted this was “challenging” in parts of Afghanistan.
The Foreign Secretary appeared to suggest in a later statement to the Lords that no further formal requests by British Council staff would be necessary.
It has separately announced that the government will take in just 2,000 more Afghans this year under the revised Afghan citizen resettlement scheme. There are said to be more than 9,000 Afghans waiting to be accommodated in British hotels, and another 15,000 on Afghanistan’s borders, mostly in Islamabad.
The British Council said: “We have a full and comprehensive list of our former colleagues and have shared that list with relevant government authorities.
We know that our former colleagues are living in increasingly desperate circumstances as the situation in the country continues to deteriorate.
The relocation schemes in Afghanistan are being implemented by the British government. We have been pushing for progress with senior contacts within the UK government to ensure that our former colleagues’ relocation requests are considered as quickly as possible.”