When Kabul fell a year ago, Britain pledged to take in those who would face reprisals for working with UK forces. Instead, thousands are still waiting to find out if they will be able to escape the Taliban’s clutches. They tell May Bulman they feel like they’re simply waiting for death to come
Curled up in the corner of a tiny basement room in Kabul, Mohamed* is consumed with fear. During hours spent alone beneath the ground, he can do nothing to prevent his mind from straying to the terrifying possibility that, despite his best efforts to stay hidden, he could soon be captured, tortured – even killed.
The 38-year-old served alongside the British forces in Helmand Province between 2010 and 2015 as a lieutenant for the Afghan Territorial Force 444 – known as “the 444s” – which was created, trained and funded by the British army, and has been praised by former British officers for being at the “spear of the fight” against the Taliban. Mohamed is certain the jihadist group is looking for him. Since the Taliban took over the country a year ago, friends of his who served in the same unit have been captured and tortured – some disappeared – he says. He fears he is next.
The Afghan national shares graphic photographs on his phone to prove it. The images show men with raw, blistered burns covering legs and backs, angry bruising covering arms and wounds tightly bandaged. Two of his former colleagues have been held captive for two months now, he says – and nobody knows where they are.
“It feels like I’m sitting and waiting for my death to come,” says Mohamed, his voice trembling. “The situation is getting worse every day, the Taliban has no mercy on the special forces. I’m a clear target. If they arrest me, they will kill me after torture.”
He is living in his sister’s basement, which he leaves only to wash. When relatives and friends visit the house, he remains downstairs. “You can’t trust anyone now,” he says. “Anyone could be a Taliban spy.”
Mohamed has a wife and three-year-old son, but they live in a different province and he is rarely able to see them. Since the Taliban rose to power he says it hasn’t been safe to stay at their family home. They visit his sister’s home every few weeks, when finances allow it, to share precious moments with him, but it isn’t enough to stop him from desperately missing them.
When Kabul fell a year ago today, Mohamed and his family tried to board an evacuation flight in Kabul. However, amid the chaos, they were told by soldiers that there was no space and that they must apply to the Afghan Relocation Assistance Police (ARAP), the UK’s scheme for relocating former local staff from the country.
He did so, but 10 months later – in July 2022 – Mohamed received a refusal. His application was rejected on the basis that he was “not employed in Afghanistan by a UK government department” and/or his employment “has not resulted in a high and imminent risk of a threat to [his] life”.
His refusal has been met with disbelief not only by him but also by former British army officers who served with the 444s or are familiar with the role they played in fighting the Taliban.
Charlie Herbert, a former British army major general, who oversaw the development of the 444s in 2017-18, said it would be an “utter travesty” for the UK not to accept the Afghans who served in the unit, who he describes as having been “at the spear of the fight”.
“They fought shoulder to shoulder alongside their British advisers and were an integral part of our military campaign in Helmand. They were really well-trained, really capable. The level of attrition and damage they did to the Taliban was very significant,” he added. “The Taliban is hunting these people down. They will not forgive them. They should all be relocated. It’s disheartening that a year on there’s evidence that people are being denied. They should be a priority.”
Shaken by the refusal, Mohamed is now at a loss over what to do. “I did not expect the British to respond to us like this. I worked faithfully for years under the British flag, night and day. Now they’re treating me like an animal,” he says. “It feels like no one cares about us, despite us being so loyal.”
Mohamed is among tens of thousands of Afghans who have applied under the ARAP but remain in the country, often living in terror, a year on from the fall of Kabul. The vast majority are still awaiting a decision. Of around 100,000 applications made since the scheme opened in April 2021, just over 10,000 have been accepted and relocated. It is not known how many have been refused and how many have been accepted; charities and lawyers say most have had no response at all.
‘Why have they forgotten about us?’
When the Taliban seized Afghanistan, the UK acknowledged that those with links with the British would be in danger and needed to be urgently evacuated. During Operation Pitting, Britain’s mass evacuation, some 14,000 Afghans were flown out of the country but it later emerged that only around 5,000 of them were eligible for ARAP. The Afghan staff of an animal charity, Nowzad, run by a former British Royal Marine, got visas and assistance to get out of the country, despite not being in any of the “at risk” criteria, while many Afghans who qualified under ARAP were left behind.
Former Foreign Office official Raphael Marshall blew the whistle on the chaos of the evacuation in December. He testified that tens of thousands of pleas for help from Afghans under threat went unanswered in a system incapable of handling the situation. A damning analysis of Operation Pitting by the Commons foreign affairs committee in May 2022 found that there was a “total absence of a plan for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission […] despite knowing 18 months before the collapse of Afghanistan that an evacuation might be necessary”. The “hasty” effort to select those eligible for evacuation was “poorly devised, managed, and staffed”, causing Afghan partners who were “desperate for rescue” to be “utterly let down” by “deep failures of leadership” in government, the report found.
Things only got worse from there. Processing under the ARAP scheme slowed considerably, with only 678 people relocated from the evacuation by December. At this point, the eligibility criteria was narrowed again, becoming limited to those who worked for or with the UK and could prove that they were “at a certain level of risk in Afghanistan” or that they “furthered the UK’s military and national security objectives”. Around 2,000 people have been relocated under the scheme so far in 2022 – but campaigners say this is woefully low given the number of people who are awaiting decisions. There is also concern that people at high risk, like Mohamed, are being wrongly refused.
A lack of staffing of ARAP may play into this. The Independent understands that up until March of this year, the MoD had been staffing the scheme by drafting in employees from other parts of the ministry, and had not recruited any new employees to process applications. Since March, 35 new members of staff have started, with another seven beginning this month, according to the MoD. There are currently 85 members of staff working in the ARAP team overall, according to figures released by the government last month. An MoD source told The Independent those who had been drafted in from other parts of the MoD were being replaced every few months, leaving little time to gain experience.
Comparisons have inevitably been drawn with the response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, which was triggered by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country less than six months after Kabul fell. While the UK’s response to the surge in Ukrainians seeking refuge has not been perfect, the two schemes devised in response to the crisis – the Ukraine Family Scheme and the Homes for Ukraine scheme – have brought 10 times the number of people to the UK at 99,700. The difference in resources is also stark. Government figures show that last month, there were 540 Home Office staff members working on the Ukrainian applications.
“It’s in huge contrast to what’s being done for the Ukrainians,” says Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani, who says she has been inundated with messages from Afghans begging for help. “It’s embarrassing. We’re turning our backs on people who have defended us.”
On top of this, the MoD said last month that it believes that only 2,000 of the applicants who have pending decisions “actually worked” with the British and that the department is focusing on bringing these people out, rather than processing the other applications.
This approach has been criticised by campaigners, who say this cohort of 2,000 consists only of people who are in touch with officials in the UK government or senior members of the army – leaving behind many who are at risk due to their work for Britain but don’t have contacts in high places.
The government says those who are not accepted under ARAP should apply to the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, a Home Office programme which opened in January to allow up to 20,000 refugees to settle in the UK, with 5,000 in the first year. However, it emerged in February that around 6,500 of the places had been given to Afghans evacuated during Operation Pitting – meaning it has already surpassed its target for the first 12 months.
‘My wife and children begged them to stop’
Ikram still has dark marks on his arms and shoulders from where he was brutally beaten by members of the Taliban two months ago. Like Mohamed, the 33-year-old also served in the Afghan Territorial Force 444. He had been at home alone when Taliban members clattered through his door and captured him for the work he did with Western forces. He spent two weeks imprisoned, during which he endured torturous treatment, causing “real damage” to his body.
“There were several people – one of them had put his foot on my neck, the other was sitting on my legs,” he remembers. “One of them repeatedly asked me which forces were you working with, and the other was hitting me with a chain. It was a very dark place. I could not see how they were torturing me, but it was very cruel. It was very threatening. They behaved like wild animals.”
The Afghan national was eventually released when the Taliban came under pressure from the “elders” in the community to let him go, but he is terrified of being caught again. He fears that next time the outcome could be worse. He is now in hiding at his uncle’s home and hasn’t been able to see his wife and five children – aged between two and 12 – since his capture.
Ikram applied to the ARAP scheme more than nine months ago and is still waiting for a response. After hearing about Mohamed’s refusal, his hope is fading. “It is really painful for me. It has been two months or more since I saw my family,” he says. “How can we continue to live? I am ruined. I am a fugitive from home. Why did the British government and our international friends leave us here alone? We served shoulder to shoulder with them for years. Why have they forgotten about us?”
Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former British army major who served in Afghanistan alongside the 444s, called on the UK to “pay the debt we owe” to those who worked with the British.
“The prime minister promised, ‘we would do whatever we can to ensure that those who have not yet come out get the safe passage they need.’ But nearly one year on from the fall of Kabul, hundreds of members of the Afghan unit I helped establish are still waiting for their applications to be processed so they can come to the UK,” he said. “Many are on the run from the Taliban, living in constant fear of being kidnapped, tortured and murdered. No wonder they feel betrayed.
“These men stepped forward to serve because we asked them. Instead of providing the sanctuary they deserve, the government has turned its back. Ministers need to urgently address the failures in the system, clear the backlog and pay the debt we owe.”
Sarah Fenby Dixon, a consultant on Afghanistan at Global Witness, which is supporting ARAP applicants and advocating for the process to be sped up, says they are not the only ones. “Hundreds of those who worked alongside British forces in Afghanistan, and were given implicit promises of protection by the British government, are in hiding, often separated from their families, knowing they are being hunted by the Taliban,” she explains.
“They are hiding in basements, in the mountains, they can’t go to work to feed their children. Many have been arrested, tortured and disappeared because of their link to UK forces. The men I’m in contact with feel a deep connection with the British government and they feel betrayed and left behind. A year after the Taliban takeover, it is a matter of urgency that the UK government speed up the ARAP process and bring these people to safety.”
An MoD spokesperson said the ARAP continued to relocate eligible Afghans and work to “bring out as many people as we can on a regular basis”. They said applications were considered on a case-by-case basis, adding: “Processing timelines can vary due to the complexity and personal circumstances of each applicant.”
‘Whatever the Taliban want to do, they can do’
Zafar, 31, who worked as an interpreter with the British army for five years until 2014, is growing increasingly terrified that he could face the same fate as Ikram – or worse. The father of four says he is living in a suburban province, apart from his wife and young children, in order “to stay alive”. He works in a small pharmacy to earn a small amount of money to send to his family, but each time he goes outside he feels at risk.
He had applied to the ARAP scheme before the fall of Kabul and, on the assumption that they would be prioritised, he and his family had tried to reach Kabul airport to board an evacuation flight. However, they were apprehended by the Taliban, and he says they beat him on the street.
“They stopped me at the airport and found my documents. They started beating me in front of my family, my kids. My wife and children begged them to stop. They were crying,” Zafar recalls. He subsequently started receiving phone calls and Facebook messages from Taliban members making threats. He changed his phone number, which he now doesn’t even give to close friends, and moved location, but he is ever fearful that he will be tracked down.
“[The Taliban] could kill me straight away. They kill people – especially interpreters – like animals,” says Zafar, speaking in hushed tones. “There are no human rights. We’re even scared of some of our relatives and friends. They could know the Taliban, we need to be very cautious. Everything has changed. Whatever the Taliban want to do, they can do.”
Zafar is even more terrified after hearing of the death of a friend of his, also a former interpreter with the British. He says he was killed by the Taliban six months ago, along with his wife and baby daughter. “The Taliban went to his house and killed him,” he says. “There is no media to cover this. The international community can’t see what’s happening to people here. We need help.”
He is now so fearful that he tells his wife and children – aged eight, five, four and two – to avoid going outside, describing them as “detainees” in their own home. He sees them at the most once a month when they take the risk of travelling to a relative’s home in the province he lives in. Appealing to the British government, he says: “Please pay attention to the interpreters who supported the UK forces. We risked our lives. We did our jobs, and this is the time for the UK people to do this for us.”
*Not his real name