It has been six weeks since Taliban forces seized control of Kabul, Afghanistan, exactly twenty years after they were removed from power by US-led forces. During these six weeks, the world has witnessed the tragic consequences of a miscalculation of withdrawal of troops on the part of the US and UK governments. Many Afghan officials had warned that the decision to end international support would leave the country open to attack, with a Taliban takeover impacting the most vulnerable Afghans, particularly women. Following their seizure of power in August, the Taliban made promises to respect women’s rights, just as they had proposed two decades prior. In both instances, these promises have seemingly proved empty.
What remains constant is the threat against Afghan lives, and the huge influx of Afghan nationals seeking stability and safety outside of Afghanistan, as political turmoil, uncertainty, and violence rages on at home. Figures from the International Rescue Committee show that upwards of 230,000 Afghan nationals have been displaced in the past two months, an increase of 73% since conflict began in June. In the immediate wake of the capture of Kabul, thousands fled to Kabul international airport. Gut wrenching scenes unfurled of civilians attempting to flee the capital by any means, many willing to cling to the wheel arches of military planes as they took off rather than risk remaining in Afghanistan. With this frightening image framing the sheer severity of the situation, Afghan nationals and refugees are in desperate need of compassion. Some journalists and activists feel that little of this support is currently seen in the actions of British home secretary Priti Patel, at the helm of a campaign to lower immigration levels; she was recently accused of endangering lives with her bid to prevent refugees from arriving in the UK by intercepting boats on the channel, and turning them back. Britain currently offers resettlement to fewer than 27000 asylum seekers, with the UNHCR finding this to be the 17th highest number of any European country, whilst in the US, according to the state department, a mere 485 refugees have been given permanent resettlement in 2021. However, in recent weeks the UK government has increased their immigration target for the coming year to reflect the impact of the current situation in Afghanistan.
Afghans living in the UK with family and friends still in Afghanistan are experiencing these nightmarish events from afar; the devastating emotional and mental impact is immeasurable. Bahar Women’s Association in Leeds do everything within their power to support those affected by events in Afghanistan, from providing food, English lessons, and assistance with vital documentation, to bringing flowers to new arrivals and welcoming them warmly. The founder of the organisation, Bahar, expressed her empathy and support when I spoke with her, having fled Afghanistan herself. Speaking about how new arrivals should be received, Bahar stated that, “We would like [UK nationals] to welcome refugees here. Because we all have a story behind, we all have broken hearts and left family, friends, everything behind. Our education, our home countries, and we have nobody here. We don’t know even the language to communicate. So anyways they can be supportive, please welcome them.” Her own experiences have driven her to assist others facing the same situation.
Bahar spoke movingly about the constant questions she is asked by others in her community, and her inability to answer them: “How are they going to transfer people from Afghanistan to England? Will people who come by foot illegally to this country be punished? I talk to my MP, he doesn’t know.”
“I am not happy with the decision that the government made to invite 20,000 people as asylum seekers. It is not enough as we have 40 million people in Afghanistan [with] nearly half at risk because of their job title, working with the government, women and girls, those working with human rights organisations. Asylum seekers who fled Afghanistan all start with no food, no water, no money – they cannot go back, and they cannot enter other countries.”
Bahar also her raised her concerns about those left behind. Within Afghanistan there have been reports of many women going as far as destroying any physical evidence of education, such as degree certificates. Many feel they have little choice given the threats made against them, illustrating the control the Taliban has over women at present. The future of women’s rights proves to be, at best, uncertain, and at worst, life destroying. When asked about life for women and young people under the Taliban, Bahar expressed that, “when you go to school, your report will be your memory from school. When you go to college, that is your memory and whatever you achieve is in a certificate. When you go to university that degree you’re receiving and your graduation, that’s your whole memory [of] what you achieve in your life and [how you] tried really hard.
“I remember last year, there was terrorist attack in Afghanistan university in Kabul. Lots of young people died, especially those who are studying politics. They don’t want our youngsters to learn about our future, to be our future and to change the future. That’s why they doing it. If it carry on like this in another 40 years we will be same Afghanistan as before.”
It is evident that one of the main goals of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women and young people. The continuous repression of women’s rights in the country looks to advance a shocking regression of women’s freedom. In the face of this, Bahar advises fellow Afghan women that, “All we can do is stay strong.” She warned that the country cannot “go back to 25 years before. Because our girls, our women are not the same people anymore, we are stronger and stronger. So they need to keep shouting loud, keep fight for their freedom and share as much as they can. Because they still kill us, at least we die for freedom. We die for human beings, we die for our people. [We should] not give up because, our mother died because of this, we will die one day and our children’s future will be nothing.”
Non-government organisations and charities such as Bahar Women’s Association, Refugee Forum, and Care4Calais have all stepped up and paved the way for welcoming and initiating the type of support required for new arrival refugees locally. Their message is that we should welcome those fleeing conflict as one would want to be welcomed – anyone that wishes to get involved can volunteer by submitting a volunteer form through the Bahar Women’s Association’s website, emailing annie@Care4Calais.org, or looking out on social media for opportunities to donate or offer other assistance. Bahar highlighted the funding struggles that organisations like hers face, and stressed the necessity of public support. Although Afghanistan remains embroiled in political upheaval, hope remains strong in places where humanity and kindness prevails.
Bahar Women’s Association – http://www.baharwomen.org/volunteers.html
Refugee Forum – http://www.leedsrefugeeforum.org.uk/
Care4Calais – https://care4calais.org/
Header Image Credit: Mette Bastholm/Helmand PRT/Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Department for International Development