Thousands expected to demonstrate on Sunday to urge UK government to help those fleeing Taliban
Sunday’s march for freedom for Afghan women and girls in London, organised by the campaign group Action for Afghanistan, comes weeks after MPs appealed to the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, for a renewed focus on women and girls at risk after Britain’s 20-year campaign in the country.
“The Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme simply isn’t working, and there isn’t a dedicated route for women and girls,” said the Liberal Democrat MP Wendy Chamberlain. “That programme has been lost in the narrative around Ukraine, but also lost in the narrative around small boats.
“We have gotten to the stage where the Afghanistan situation is in the too-difficult basket and those who worked with and supported the UK and other troops over the last two decades have been left behind.”
Chamberlain, who coordinated the appeal to Cleverly with an incoming all-party parliamentary group for Afghan women and girls, asked for maintained aid to Afghanistan, a consultation mechanism to include Afghan stakeholders and a special asylum route.
More than 40 civil society organisations are expected to attend the London march alongside Afghan politicians and activists, with coordinated marches taking place in Washington DC and four cities in Canada, according to organisers. Other countries are expected to follow.
The appeal comes as the Taliban government has clamped down on women’s rights and freedoms, including banning girls from secondary school and, more recently, banning women from parks. A UN report detailing Taliban abuses said: “In no other country have women and girls so rapidly disappeared from all spheres of public life.”
In 2021, the government introduced two resettlement schemes for Afghan refugees, including the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, which has brought about 7,000 eligible Afghans to the UK, and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will allow up to 20,000 to resettle.
The resettlement schemes came under intense scrutiny for failing to prioritise the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan, described by a House of Commons committee report as a “betrayal of our allies”. After Nato’s withdrawal, many vulnerable Afghans were left behind, forcing them to turn to dangerous and unofficial routes to seek safety in Britain, while leaving thousands in the UK stranded in hotels.
The number of people applying for asylum has reached its highest in nearly 20 years, according to recent government statistics. The number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan crossing the Channel in small boats has risen fivefold this year.
In March, the UK government pledged an additional £286m in aid for Afghanistan. However, the government’s aid watchdog recently found that £3.5bn of aid provided to Afghanistan from 2000-20 was implicated in corruption and human rights abuses, adding that efforts to reduce gender inequality are likely to be wiped out by the Taliban.
Fawzia Koofi, a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament and its first female deputy speaker, is among those calling for the UK government to prioritise women and human rights in their engagement with the Taliban.
“I think it’s time for the UK to lead a feminist foreign policy, a human rights-centric foreign policy,” said Koofi, who was a member of the team negotiating a deal with the Taliban.
“If they think women suffering in Afghanistan is not going to impact their security or the global security, I think it’s a mistake. We all have to work for a better Afghanistan.”
As women in Kabul protested on the eve of UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Friday, Koofi said that in the days leading up to the protest, six women communicating with those planning the march in London had been arrested in Kabul.
Amnesty International called for their immediate release, calling the arrests “another attempt to quell all forms of peaceful protests and any dissent against the Taliban’s oppressive policies”.
Zehra Zaidi, a lawyer and co-founder of Action for Afghanistan, said a new settlement route would give hope. “They need to know people still care. They need to know that allies like the UK government have not completely abandoned them,” she said.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We remain committed to using all our diplomatic and development levers to support the Afghan people and protect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.”