The words could not have been starker. “My money is finished. I don’t have food to eat at home. I am exiled to a country worse than Afghanistan. I have no other choice than to sell my kidney.” But these words, which came from an Afghan journalist living in Pakistan, were not unusual. For a growing number of Afghans selling a kidney has, perversely, become an essential way to survive.
Afghanistan has been gutted. At the start of 2022 the UN reported that the country was on the brink of “a humanitarian crisis and economic collapse” and the situation has only worsened. It’s hard to keep track of the increasingly grim reality there, from stories of schoolgirls being poisoned, news of a spiralling mental health crisis, images of people starving and, for that matter, images of people’s post kidney-removal scars.
Among the worst affected are Afghan journalists. The fall of Kabul meant the fall of independent media. An industry that took years to nurture and grow vanished overnight, leaving most without a job and a stable source of income. At the same time the Taliban’s relentless attack on dissent has made these people a primary target. Those who are left behind find themselves faced with both starvation and assassination.
One journalist wrote to me last month. He said he scours the backstreets of Kabul looking for scraps to sell. He sent me pictures of himself before August 2021. He looks relaxed and is wearing a sharp suit and jeans. Some of the images are of him behind a camera. Others show him speaking at a conference for women’s education, something he tells me was one of his proudest moments – championing the rights of girls and women which today are null and void. We communicate on an encrypted messaging app, and even then we delete everything in case his phone falls into the wrong hands. The journalist is trapped, his options limited. He ends the message asking for help.
Those who have escaped are not necessarily faring better, as the man considering selling his kidney attests. The Taliban’s reach spreads to neighbouring countries. Afghan journalists must constantly look over their shoulder, and contend with the added stress of visas, which are not always guaranteed despite the threats they face at home. Threats to be sent back to Afghanistan or imprisoned are commonplace and bribery is rife.
A couple of months ago I was messaging with an Afghan journalist in Pakistan. “It’s more than one year that I’m without job and any income with 6 months baby boy. My economical situation is too bad, I really need to your help and kindness,” she told me. Attached to the message were scans of her press credentials and passport photo, information to help verify that she is in fact who she says she is because in the middle of all this people are being impersonated. Goodwill runs low. The woman made the trip over the border while pregnant. Her baby is unwell. It’s not serious if treated quickly, only she doesn’t have the cash for the surgery. She can’t work on her visa. Besides, she’s looking after a poorly baby. Can I help?
I could list endless conversations like these. Since August 2021 the Index inbox has been flooded with people asking for assistance. Back in September 2021 we set up a messaging group for Afghan journalists. What started off as small today has over 40 people in it. Sometimes positive news is shared – an award won, for example, to a chorus of congratulations. Other times it’s the worst kind of information – news of an Afghan journalist who died in a boat off the coast of Italy and who many in the group knew. Most of the time though it’s information on how people can get funding and get out.
The worst thing is that none of the journalists in the group see the UK as a viable option right now. It’s a ridiculous situation given that in August 2021 then prime minister Boris Johnson announced the creation of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), with the aim to help resettle 20,000 Afghans in the UK. ACRS was meant to give priority to those who stood up for democracy and specifically mentioned journalists.
Almost two years on and the number of Afghan journalists we’ve helped is negligible. This despite the fact that immigration to our country has increased. Granted we might not feel the threat of proximity or sense of commonality that has driven our policy with Ukrainian refugees. And granted we might not feel the weight of history, as we did when we successfully opened up the BN(O) scheme for those from Hong Kong. But Afghanistan is still part of our story. British troops were involved in Afghanistan from the US-led invasion in 2001 right through to the Taliban takeover. We encouraged the transformation of the country along democratic lines.
The UK government has been called out on its poor record. Last December eight Afghan journalists who worked for the BBC and other British media organisations challenged the government’s refusal to relocate them in a High Court hearing. They said they had “worked alongside and in support of the British government’s mission” in Afghanistan and as a result put their lives at risk. Their lawyer, Adam Straw, said the British government had “betrayed the debt of gratitude” owed to his clients by refusing to relocate them. Since this hearing their visa applications have been reopened – a positive step – only it shouldn’t take a court case to get here.
Index wrote to home secretary Suella Braverman in March to ask about progress on ACRS. Months on and again no response or progress. Meanwhile France has just issued visas to two people in our network. They arrived in Paris this month. It’s a relief to know they are now safe, only these cases should be the norm, not the exception, and the UK should be welcoming such individuals too.
Ultimately we’ve turned our back on Afghan journalists in their darkest hour. There is still time to change course, but we must act – now.
Click here for more information on Index’s upcoming event Those Left Behind: A Night for Afghan Journalists