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Two Years in Hiding: The British Council teachers left behind in Afghanistan

In our January 2023 issue, Joseph Seaton spoke to the Gazette about At Risk Teachers and the struggle to remove educators from Afghanistan. Eight months on, Joseph provides an update…

It’s now over two years since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. Yet, sadly, almost all the British Council teachers who were left behind in August 2021 continue to live wretched lives. Many are still in hiding in Afghanistan, while others are stuck in limbo in cramped hotels in Pakistan. They are all still waiting for the UK government to make good on its promise to ‘move heaven and earth’ to get them to safety, and they are all still hoping for some meaningful support and assistance from the Council.

At the time the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, over 100 former BC teachers were living in the country, and all were very aware of the danger they were in. The Taliban have a history of targeting BC, with a complex attack on the Kabul office in 2011 – leading to 17 fatalities – followed by the shooting of a teacher in 2014 and an attack on a BC study centre in Kandahar in 2015. As they were known Taliban targets, all BC activity in Afghanistan was carried out under strict security guidelines.

In early 2021 the British Government launched the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Programme (ARAP) to ensure the safety of those who had assisted the UK-effort in Afghanistan. The Council knew they were closing their office in Kabul, and all the staff who worked in the office on the British Embassy were informed about the ARAP scheme in early 2021, receiving support to complete their applications. These employees were all relocated to the UK prior to, or during, Operation Pitting in August 2021.

“Since the Taliban took power, teachers and their families have been victims of physical violence and threats”

Teachers were not informed about the ARAP scheme by the Council until after the Taliban had taken control of the country; instead, they were informally told they did not qualify for the scheme. The teachers all applied anyway, but almost all were rejected, even though they met the scheme’s criteria. Disillusioned and in danger, they all went into hiding.

Their disillusion is not hard to understand; they did all the public facing work for the organisation, were visible, exposed and at more risk than any of the other employees. Further to that, they had been the ones tasked with teaching ‘UK values’ such as ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’. The sensitivity of the content they were teaching put them at real risk, as did the controversial nature of some of the programmes we were running at the time, such as ‘English for Religious Leaders’ and ‘English for Civil Servants’.

The irony of being employed to teach British values such as ‘inclusion’, and then being excluded from the UK government relocation scheme was not lost on any of the teachers. Word got out that there was a BC list given to the ARAP approvals team with office staff on it, but not teachers. I have been told the same story by several current BC employees, yet the Council continue to assert that there was no such list.

Since the Taliban took power, teachers and their families have been victims of physical violence and threats because of their work for us. Others have been subjected to blackmail and requests for forced marriage. Almost all have had to repeatedly change their location, and live invisible lives to avoid unwanted attention. In Afghanistan, the close-knit nature of communities means people tend to know each other’s business; everyone knew our former teachers were employed by the Council, and many assumed them to be ‘spies for the British’.

In July 2022, the UK government launched a second scheme for those left behind: the Afghan Citizens Relocation Scheme (ACRS). Teachers were told to apply, and from September 2022 they started to receive confirmation of eligibility.

Those who managed to flee are stuck in hotel limbo.

From January of this year, those confirmed as eligible have been told to travel to a third country, such as Pakistan, to await relocation to the UK. At present, only four BC teachers have been relocated to the UK under the ACRS scheme. Over 50 remain stuck in hotels in Islamabad, and over 30 remain stuck in Afghanistan.

“Teachers have been forced to engage visa agents who obtain black market visas at exorbitant prices”

Of those still in hiding in Afghanistan. Some are waiting for emails form the FCDO, confirming that they are eligible for the ACRS scheme. Others, who have confirmation but are still stuck in Afghanistan, are desperately trying to get the necessary documentation to leave. Passports and visas were always difficult to get in Afghanistan, but since the Taliban took power, obtaining travel documents has become much harder; teachers have been forced to engage visa agents who obtain black market visas at exorbitant prices. Having been in hiding for two years, the teachers have no money and many have sold the last of their belongings to get the money for visas. Others, ever hopeful, continue to ask the Council for support and assistance. I still hope BC will eventually realise their responsibility, and provide the assistance necessary to get them to safety.

For those stuck in Pakistan, the endless waiting and uncertainty goes on. Most of the 50+ teachers have been waiting in Islamabad for over six months, with no idea how long they will continue to be in limbo. As their visas have all expired, they cannot leave their hotels for fear of being arrested and deported for being illegally present in Pakistan, despite instruction to go there by the FCDO. As a result, many say they feel like they are ‘stuck in a prison’. Some are pregnant and others have new-born babies with no access to education or healthcare.

The teachers have repeatedly asked the Council to provide support in these areas. The availability of healthcare is essential, and the Council has plenty of financial reserves they could dip into, not least a £100M art collection. In terms of education, it is surprising that the Council, a leader in international education, has so far failed to offer education for those stuck in hotels in Pakistan. Their children have now missed two years of schooling, yet, so far, no provision is being made in this area, even though BC have a large office in Islamabad and are experts at digital education.

Teachers continue to hope the Council provide the support they need. BC seem to be very embarrassed about the situation of the abandoned teachers, but by burying their heads in the sand or trying to shift responsibility, they are helping no one. They urgently need to recognise their own part in this debacle, and provide support for their former teachers as soon as possible.

The teachers also continue to hope the UK government addresses this issue, and relocates them to the UK, as promised. It is surprising that the government has let such a serious and embarrassing situation drag on for so long, and many have understandably asked ‘who will partner with the UK in the future, if we can’t look after those who help us?

Image courtesy of Library
Joseph Seaton
Joseph Seaton
Joseph Seaton has been a teacher, teacher trainer and programme manager for many years. From 2016-2020 he was English Manager & Deputy Director at British Council Afghanistan. Since the Taliban took power he has been running the At Risk Teachers campaign.
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