Birmingham Fellow and IRiS researcher Dr Jenny Allsopp shares the perspectives of British Afghan refugees on the Taliban’s recent return to power. Originally published in Social Policy Matters.
The WhatsApp messages and emails started pinging on my phone the evening of August 15th, soon after the Taliban arrived in Kabul.
“Do you know anyone who can help me get my family out of Afghanistan?”
“What happened around the world? They told us they will help us.”
In just ten days, the Taliban had swept through Afghanistan in a Blitzkrieg operation, taking control of 345 of the country’s 398 districts. The US, British and other international forces withdrew from the country in June of this year after almost 20 years of military involvement; many of the same young people who were now contacting me had forewarned of such an occurrence.
“They are donkeys,” 25-year-old Gul* from Blackburn had said, using a common slur for the Taliban, “but they are donkeys with weapons. Do you see?”
Gul is one of over 50 young Afghans who participated in Becoming Adult, a longitudinal research project co-led with colleagues at UCL by the Institute for Research into Superdiversity at the University of Birmingham, which followed over 100 unaccompanied young asylum seekers and refugees throughout their transitions to adulthood in the UK and Italy in order to explore their wellbeing outcomes. Though the project formally ended in 2018, as a research team we have remained in contact with many participants. Some received refugee status and have gone on to become British citizens. Several have achieved the classic markers of adulthood — they’ve studied, got married, bought cars and houses, had children and embarked on successful careers. But a significant population are still trying to navigate their way through multiple appeals, having lived with insecure immigration status for as long as 15 years. Another sub-group were refused asylum and are among the more than 15,000 Afghan migrants who have been deported by the UK government back to Afghanistan since 2008 on the contested grounds that it was safe.
The UK has made the highest number of forced repatriations to Afghanistan over the past 13 years of any European country.
Against this backdrop, the UK government’s recent commitment to resettle 5,000 people from Afghanistan in the first year and up to 20,000 over the coming years could be seen as a reparation. The irony is not lost on the young people who are still recovering from the hostile reception they received in Britain. 24-year-old Wali messaged me from Paris. He remigrated to Europe shortly after the UK Home Office detained and deported him in 2016, just after he turned 18 and lost the protections afforded to him as a child. “We told them it was impossible to make a life there [in Afghanistan] but they didn’t listen,” he reflected. “Now you’ve got British airplanes in the capital with people on the wings.”
Of the estimated 79,000 Afghans living in the UK in 2019, a significant percentage arrived alone as children and came of age here. Most were young boys sent by their parents to avoid forced conscription into the Taliban. They crossed multiple borders, embarking on treacherous journeys, led by smugglers across barren lands and packed in ramshackle boats to cross the sea. For them, events of recent months have marked a violent return to a past they sought to flee. Abdul, 28, runs a successful business in London. He explained that for him, seeing the news, he feels like he’s ‘back there, in the middle of the sea’.
“It’s like I became a refugee all over again,” Abdul said.
Like most young people I’ve spoken to, Abdul’s main concern is for his family. His escape came at the cost of losing contact with his mother and sisters (his father was murdered by the Taliban). Ten years ago, without internet and phones, it was impossible to stay in touch and his family — like many others — was also displaced within Afghanistan multiple times because of the ongoing violence in his region. Thanks to advancements in mobile phone coverage, coupled with the growing diaspora of Afghans in Britain who can share information, eventually Abdul was able to track down his family. Now he fears for their lives and feels duty-bound to protect them from a regime which treats women as second-class citizens whose interests must be represented in public by men. “For me, the problem is I don’t have a man at home,” he explained through gritted teeth. “My brother-in-law is only 17 and my sister is too scared of those donkeys. If anything happens to my family, I want to be with them. They’re my blood.” Having sent them money to relocate to Kabul, he is now appealing to his MP for their resettlement. But he has little faith in the system: “I spoke with my MP, my lawyer, and it seems nobody can help me…I’m British but if my British passport can’t save my family, what shall I do with my British passport?”
Amir arrived at the age of 14 and now, ten years on, he works with a charity in Nottingham. He is from the Hazara ethnic group who have faced targeted persecution by the Taliban for years. For him, “The impact is massive because we don’t feel like we belong to Afghanistan any more, really.” But his feelings are mixed: “We part feel like, let’s forget about it and make a different life in a different country, but also we feel embarrassed that we are in a safe country and our people, our families, are struggling down there.”
The survivor’s guilt faced by Abdul and Amir is common for those who have been through an asylum system that sees them as individuals devoid of transnational family ties.
The UK was among the first European countries to suspend family reunification rights for child refugees. This puts individuals like Abdul in an impossible position. He is among several young Afghans in Britain who have reported to me the return of panic attacks and insomnia since the Taliban took control. Like many former unaccompanied minors, Abdul has been able to help his family survive back home by sending them money in the past, but “Now money is not enough.”
Ehsan, a 26-year-old member of the majority Pashtun ethnic group of which most of the Taliban’s new Parliament are formed, sees himself as fortunate to have his family with him in Europe away from the war. But life has not always been easy. After being refused asylum by the UK Home Office as a child, Ehsan went on to spend ten years living in London in limbo as an undocumented migrant, during which time he attempted suicide. Then one day, the Red Cross contacted him to tell him they’d found his mum and brothers living in France, where they had been granted refugee status (he had uploaded his details to the family reunification system several years before). Ehsan was able to join his family in France from where he is now organizing to help new arrivals. “Look, the UK government treated me like crap,” he explained. “I never got an education. They say they are going to help people now but my question for the government is, when people come, can they give them permission to stay in the country instead of keeping them half in, half out? Not like my situation where I come and they just keep me by the tail until I get 18, then they said, ok you can go now. If this happened again for these new people then they just won’t know what to do.”
“The new Afghans arriving to Europe are fortunate to have this recourse of older mentors from the community. It’s something they never had when they arrived in the early 2000s”, said Amir. I asked him what advice he would give to allies seeking to help. “I have been receiving a lot of messages from friends and colleagues from the UK where they are concerned about Afghanistan and how’s my family — colleagues at work and stuff like that,” he explained. “I have to retell the story about Afghanistan, which is not very comfortable to do.” For Amir, it’s important that in trying to help new arrivals, those who have settled in the UK are not revictimized, but rather seen as sources of knowledge and expertise. He stressed that he is action focused: “The first thing when we found out the Taliban took over Afghanistan was, as a community, we held a meeting to help out people who tried to run out of the country and emigrated to neighboring countries. A lot of people went to Pakistan where they are sleeping in mosques in communities, and we were trying to work out how best to help them.”
The UK government needs to listen to voices like Gul, Wali, Abdul, Ehsan and Amir as part of developing successful integration strategies for new arrivals.
More than this, they need to respond to the specific needs of Britain’s established Afghan population too—the generation of children who came of age and have persevered against enormous odds, torn between the hostile environment of Afghanistan and that of Tory Britain. Undocumented Afghans should be given immediate resource to legal status, and mechanisms must be found for individuals to help their families in the region. Through these efforts, the Home Office might go some way in healing the deep wounds created by the hostile reception system which so many were forced to suffer during their formative years.
Youth Migration and the Politics of Wellbeing: Stories of Life in Transition (2020) is published by Bristol University Press. It is co-authored by Dr Elaine Chase and Dr Jennifer Allsopp.
The Becoming Adult project was a collaboration between University of Birmingham researchers, Professor Nando Sigona and Dr Jennifer Allsopp and colleagues at UCL Institute of Education and the University of Oxford.
*All names have been changed and details adapted to protect the anonymity of interviewees.