More than 180 British Council contractors left trapped in Afghanistan have been given immediate permission by the UK government to apply online to come to Britain, but no hint of how to get out of the country safely.
The partial breakthrough came after a campaign led by MPs and former colleagues of the staff that had been horrified that they had been left behind, and exposed to retribution by the Taliban for teaching values of diversity and openness.
It is estimated there are 180 British Council contractors still in Afghanistan, 85 of whom have been classified as being at “very high risk”, while a further 90 or so are deemed to be at “high risk”.
Many of them have gone into hiding fearing for their lives as the Taliban impose an increasingly repressive rule in the country.
Nevertheless, nearly 11 months after being left behind during the emergency evacuation, the British Council staff still have no firm date by which they will be extracted from the country, or a means of doing so, according to Joe Seaton, a former British Council employee who worked alongside many of them in Afghanistan.
The UK initially decided to prioritise British Council full-time staff living in Kabul, and referred to the 180 teachers delivering courses in the field as contractors, even though their physically isolated position made them arguably more vulnerable and conspicuous.
In a concession, Lord Ahmad and Lord Harrington, the two lead ministers, announced in the middle of June that these contractors working in the field will be allowed to apply to come to the UK with their families. They were told initially they would have to wait until the middle of August for the cases to begin to be processed.
Ministers have given an undertaking to the Conservative MP John Baron that their cases will be looked at on a rolling basis as soon as they reach the Home Office.
Seaton said: “We are finally making some progress, but there does not yet seem to be any clear arrangements on how to get them out. This is a key question. How long will it take to get them out? Every day is another day in grave danger, and so far, all government efforts at processing former British Council staff have been very slow and clunky. The government needs to massively speed up on processing the individual cases.”
He urged the British Council again to give the government a hard copy list of their former employees, so people processing applications have a list to hand. “I have given the British Council lists of the contractors on several occasions as they did not have the information,” he said.
Travelling in Afghanistan is always risky, but the Taliban checkpoints will represent a challenge, said Seaton – who knows many of the trapped staff from his period as a British Council manager in Afghanistan.
He operates two WhatsApp groups through which he remains in near-daily contact with the employees. He described their mood as “optimistic, but worried this might be another false dawn”.
Following campaigns by Seaton and others, the Home Office announced in June it would allow the British Council contractors, staff from GardaWorld and ex-Chevening Scholars, to come to the UK with their families so long as the total number of refugees applying in this category to the Foreign Office did not exceed 1,500. It was initially indicated unless they were at risk of death their claims would not start to be processed until 15 August – the closing date for applications for the scheme. All their claims required security checks.
The Home Office minister Victoria Atkins also initially insisted they would have to apply themselves online, even though she admitted this was “challenging” in parts of Afghanistan.
The Foreign Office minister in a later statement to the Lords appeared to suggest further formal applications by the British Council staff would not be necessary.
It has separately announced the government would take only a further 2,000 Afghans this year under the revised Afghan citizen resettlement scheme. There are said to be more than 9,000 Afghans in UK hotels waiting to housed, and a further 15,000 on the borders of Afghanistan, chiefly in Islamabad.
The British Council said: “We have a full and comprehensive list of our former colleagues and have shared that list with relevant government departments.
We know our former colleagues are living in increasingly desperate circumstances, as the situation in the country continues to deteriorate.
The Afghanistan relocation schemes are run by the UK Government. We have been pushing for progress with senior contacts within the UK government to ensure the earliest consideration of our former colleagues relocation applications.”