The UK government is failing journalists who were left behind in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of forces from the country in 2021.
As Britain mulled over the idea of a withdrawal of troops after 20 years in the country, it launched the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme to offer relocation of eligible Afghans to the UK.
When Kabul fell in a matter of days in August 2021 after British and US troops left, the Government launched Operation Pitting, the largest humanitarian aid operation since the Berlin airlift. This saw more than 10,000 eligible Afghan nationals as well as British residents evacuated following the rapid military offensive by the resurgent Taliban.
On 18 August 2021, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, which would resettle up to 20,000 people at risk, with 5,000 in the first year. This is in addition to those brought to the UK under ARAP.
At the time, the government said that the scheme would prioritise “those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech, rule of law (for example, judges, women’s rights activists, academics [and] journalists)” and “vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk”.
The evacuation of Afghan journalists to the safety of Britain has not happened.
Index on Censorship has been contacted by a large number of Afghan journalists who would appear to be prime candidates for the scheme but help has not been forthcoming. Other governments, including those of Germany, France and even Kosovo, have offered safe refuge to a number of journalists but the UK is failing in its obligations.
There remains a large number of journalists, particularly women, who remain in the country or have made it across the border to the seeming safety of Pakistan only to continue to face threats.
The Afghanistan Journalists’ Support Organization reported on 3 February that a number of Afghan journalists had been arrested in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. According to the report, phones, laptops, cameras, and other electronic and personal devices of journalists have been seized and inspected. Those arrested have passports and visas and are legally residing in Pakistan. They were later released but one Afghan journlaist said that the behavour of the Pakistani police towards those fleeing the Taliban was “insulting and wrong”.
As well as arrest, journalists fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan face other problems. One female journalist, who was forced to leave Afghanistan for fear of retribution by the Taliban, has shared her shocking story with Index below.
“I am a young Afghan broadcast journalist with almost five years of experience in the field. I have worked as a news anchor, presenter and reporter during the course of my career, and I have been associated with a nunebr of renowned media organisations in Afghanistan.
“Due to my work as a journalist, I have confronted many things from house raids, serious threats, online bullying, digital and cyber-attacks and harassment. I had received several threats from the Taliban before their rise to power, my Facebook account was hacked twice, I had to change my mobile number multiple times due to threats and harassment.
“After the takeover of Kabul, the Taliban launched a crackdown on the media and raids on the houses of the journalists started. Understanding the severity of the situation I tried to flee the country multiple times straight after their takeover, but due to closure of borders I didn’t succeed. I had to go into hiding and luckily I narrowly escaped a day before the raid of my house by the Taliban. I travelled in burqa with my elder brother to a location in the north east of the country where I stayed here for a month and a half with some of my distant relatives before fleeing clandestinely to Pakistan after borders were opened in October 2021.
“Since then, I have been living alone in Pakistan away from my family and loved ones with no job and livelihood. I have faced and I am still facing a plethora of issues here in Pakistan.
“I have been forced to live in unhygienic slums due to financial issues. I have spent many days without food and when I do eat, it is often just once a day. I have been ill many times, but I haven’t been to hospital or received any medication, and have been suffering from mental health issues like anxiety, depression, insomnia, and stress. I haven’t been able to purchase clothes for myself since I fled Afghanistan.
“I have also been a victim of discrimination and racism due to my ethnicity, nationality and religion. I was kicked out of two dormitories due to my nationality and ethnicity and also faced harassment and discrimination. In two places I have stayed my money was taken as a deposit before allowing me to live in the apartment as a tenant, but in both of these places my money was not returned when leaving.
“I have struggled to meet even my most basic needs, but support from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Frontline Defenders (FLD) has given me some respite and these funds have enabled me to survive.
“During this period, I have gone through hell – Pakistan is little different to Afghanistan. Here too there are Taliban sympathisers. There is no safety, no job opportunities, inflation is high. There is much discrimination, racism and prejudice in the society and there is hostility towards Afghan people in general and women in particular.
“A particularly unpleasant incident happened some months ago. One evening in July last year I was assaulted by an unknown biker while returning from the supermarket. The biker grabbed me and groped my body and was trying to pull me down to sexually assault me. But luckily this happened in the street near my flat, where I shouted loudly and, after a lot of pushing and shoving, I was able to escape. After this incident, I am scared to go out even during the day. Harassment in the streets for women is very normal here. I have to endure shameful touching, gazes and catcalls in public when I go out for anything and unfortunately, being Afghan, we can’t do anything about it.
“Now my situation is getting worse due to the long wait to relocate to a safe country. Moreover, the Pakistani authorities have put more restrictions on visas for Afghani people now, as the majority of visas are either denied or there are long delays. There is a clear reluctance from the government to issue visas to Afghans. I was on a one year visa to Pakistan which expired in the month of August 2022. I applied for a visa extension in the previous June 2022 but I have not received a decision yet. If the visa request is rejected I will be liable to pay heavy fines ($500) and face other legal liabilities. In December 2022, the Pakistani authorities announced that any Afghan without any valid visa will be arrested and put into prison for three years or deported back to Afghanistan.”
“I know of one Afghani family who were put in jail by the Pakistani authorities due to illegal overstay, where the male guardian of the family died in the jail – the rest of the family is still in jail. We all are really scared and fearful about this matter because we can’t afford any legal and financial liability or penalty at this stage. We also can’t go back to our country due to the severity of the threats to our life and safety and a really uncertain and dark future for women.”
“I am asking for assistance in relocating to any safe country where I could continue my journalism safely, complete my education and work to support myself and my family. In addition to serious threats for my life there is no future back home for women right now. There is a ban on education for women, a ban on women working in the media and NGOs and a ban on free movement of women outside without the veil and a male guardian. As a human being I also deserve the right to life, safety, education, and work. I deserve the freedom of movement and the freedom of expression, which are being denied and suppressed under the tyrannical and oppressive regime of Taliban. I am desperately and anxiously looking for any help in this regard and assistance with the financial support to meet my immediate and basic needs.
“I hope my plea will be heard and heeded in the right corners and a hand of support will be extended.”
This is really sad to know that Female Afghan Journalists are going through this situation. Everyone must do more to improve their situation and to bring them to safety. I am really sorry to hear about the situation of the afghan journalist who has been featured in this article. I would urge journalists, human rights and women rights organisations to help the fellow Journalists and allies and human rights defenders.