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  • Writer's picturejoeseaton2

Fugitive British Council teacher misled, abandoned & in danger. Will Gov UK or the BC help?

Former British Council teacher Shabir had no choice but to try to escape Afghanistan. Images of him at high profile British Council events had been shared widely on social media and Afghan government websites, prior to the fall of Kabul. As the British Council ‘Learning Centre Manager’ for his province, everyone in his community knew who he worked for, and the values the organisation represented.

He had previously been abused by the Taliban on a number of occasions. He had been physically attacked for his lack of beard and moustache and he’d had his laptop stolen at a Taliban checkpoint. When the Taliban took power in August 2021 he started to receive phone calls and emails threatening him and highlighting his connection with ‘the British’. A Taliban officer visited his parents’ house demanding his father reveal the whereabouts of “the person who managed the British study centre”. Frightening? Yes, especially when you consider the Taliban’s track record of multiple violent & fatal attacks against the British Council, their teachers and their premises (2011, 2014, 2015).

Shabir went into hiding, but he knew his presence in his home province was a risk not only to himself, but also his wider family. He had been excluded from the UK Government’s ARAP scheme, and so had no obvious safe route out of Afghanistan. He managed to leave his province and headed for the Iranian border. He had obtained a1-month visa to stay in Iran - not ideal, but with his past and his profile it was safer than being in Afghanistan. Unable to extend his Iranian visa, and fearing deportation back to Afghanistan, he managed to arrange a study visa and university place in Azerbaijan. He wondered how far and how long he would have to travel until he felt safe, but he had no other options.

In 2022 the UK Government announced a new relocation scheme; ACRS (Afghan Citizens Relocation Scheme), so he contacted the British Council to check that being in Azerbaijan would not jeopardize his ACRS application. This was critically important for him. He had not been accepted on the previous UK Government relocation scheme (ARAP), even though he had been eligible for it. He and almost all the other British Council teachers had been unfairly excluded from the scheme. Now that a new scheme was being launched, specifically designed for at risk British Council teachers and other civilians who had assisted the UK, he needed to be sure he got approved, and no technicalities impeded his application.

The British Council emailed him, stating that it was fine for him to apply for the ACRS scheme from Azerbaijan, so he proceeded with the university placement and the study visa, and when the ACRS scheme was officially launched, he applied. As much as he felt displaced and vulnerable in Azerbaijan, at least it was safer than Afghanistan.

Frustratingly, while many of Shabir’s former teaching colleagues have now received ACRS approval, he has been rejected. The FCDO have stated that although he is eligible for the scheme, because he applied from Azerbaijan, he has been refused. This is very disappointing for Shabir, who was specifically told by the British Council that being in Azerbaijan would not impede his application.

He had only fled to Azerbaijan because the work he had done for the British Council meant he was unsafe in his own country. To then be told he was ineligible for ACRS because he had followed advice from the British Council was devastating. He knew of other British Council teachers who had managed to escape, and who had applied for UK-resettlement from Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan and Turkey. They had all received approvals, but his application had been declined.

Shabir’s university course and study visa ended as expected and he fearfully returned to Afghanistan, where he is now back in hiding. He has tried to appeal the decision, but the FCDO have informed him the case is closed, and there is no formal ‘appeals process’ available for refused applicants. He has asked the British Council for help, but they have stated that it is an FCDO decision, and there is nothing they can do to help him.

As someone born in the UK, I’ve had the privilege to leave my country of origin and travel from one country to another, backpacking. I cannot imagine having to escape my country of origin fearing for my life, and moving from country to country to try to find safety, but that is what Shabir has had to do. After backpacking, I returned to the safety and familiarity of my own country. Shabir has gone back into a country in which he has to hide to survive.

Looking back, it still seems leaving Afghanistan when he did was his only option. A number of former British Council teachers have been victims of Taliban attacks since August 2021, and violently persecuted as a direct result of their association with the organisation. Had Shabir not fled, there is a chance he or members of his family could now be dead. However, by temporarily seeking safety elsewhere, it seems his long-term plight is now worse. The initial exclusion from the ARAP scheme was devastating enough, but the second refusal - from the ACRS scheme, after following British Council guidance, feels like a real kick in the teeth for Shabir.

As shocked as he has been by his unfair rejection from the UK relocation schemes, I’m sad to say I have not been surprised. It seems at every turn the UK Government relocation schemes for Afghans have been inconsistent, ambiguous, slow and delayed. While Operation Pitting was a great success, the numbers relocated to the UK since the Taliban officially took power are pitiful, with very few ARAP or ACRS applicants getting to safety in the UK. There is still no explanation as to why the teachers were rejected from the original ARAP scheme. Now some, like Shabir, are also being rejected from the ACRS scheme, again, with no credible explanation.

I’m sadly unsurprised by the British Council’s response as well. They have simply stated that there is nothing more they can do to help in Shabir’s case. Of course they could help. Of course they could intervene. The UK Government ACRS website specifically states: “We will also consider any relevant information provided by the British Council or GardaWorld…”. The British Council need to speak up for their former teacher. The CEO of the British Council, Scott MacDonald, is regularly pictured with prominent members of the FCDO. He attends meetings at number 10 and shares the images on Twitter. He has the contacts and the influence to really advocate on behalf of the abandoned teachers. I believe he can do much more.

Sadly for the teachers, it seems that at every stage the British Council have been in denial. At first they failed to inform the teachers about the ARAP scheme, or assist them with their applications. This was bad enough, but then they claimed the teachers weren’t eligible for relocation to the UK - which was untrue. They then informed the APPG that almost all of the teachers had been relocated to safety - which was untrue. Now they claim there is nothing more they can do to assist with individual cases – again, this is untrue. There’s much more they could do, if they really wanted to. Unfortunately, It appears the British Council have tried to distance themselves from this travesty ever since the Taliban took power, instead of admitting that they abandoned their teachers, and pledging to do everything in their power to help them get out.

Shabir’s sad tale is just one of many. Right now, over 30 Afghan British Council teachers are still living in hiding in Afghanistan. and more than 50 others are still stuck in limbo in cramped hotels in Pakistan. Of over 100 British Council teachers left behind after the fall of Kabul, so far only 4 have been relocated to safety in the UK under the ACRS scheme. The UK Government and the British Council should be doing much more to ensure the safety of their former teachers. They were the public facing employees who delivered our programmes on the ground, yet still, despite all the promises to get them to safety, they continue to lead desperate lives in Afghanistan.

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Thank you so much for advocacy and raising the voice of BC contractors. You are the real hero for all of us.

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