Hundreds of Afghan journalists remain stranded in increasingly “dire” circumstances as frustration mounts over the UK government’s refusal to share the latest entry criteria for its flagship resettlement programme.
This weekend, a coalition of press freedom and free expression organisations, including Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists, PEN International and English PEN, have written to home secretary Suella Braverman asking why details of the next phase of the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme (ACRS) have yet to be revealed.
Germany, France and Kosovo are among the countries that have offered safe refuge to a number of journalists, with critics accusing the UK of failing to meet its obligations to the journalists who supported the west’s mission in Afghanistan.
Martin Bright, editor-at-large of Index on Censorship, said the organisation had received a “deluge” of relocation demands from Afghan journalists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran who had been offered no reassurance, despite apparently being prime candidates for resettlement, because of the UK government’s unwillingness to offer clarity.
“Without clarification on progress for ACRS, there is little if any support that can be provided, and this leaves the journalists vulnerable to threats of disappearance, violence, arrest, imprisonment and assassination,” said Bright.
Estimates indicate that 200 Afghan journalists have fled to Iran and Pakistan, many of them women, where they report being targeted as their visas expire, with little sign of getting their paperwork renewed. Index is talking directly to 35 at-risk journalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan via an encrypted platform.
One case involves a female Afghan journalist who fled to Pakistan, itself a perilous place due to the presence of Taliban sympathisers – and was routinely harassed there due to her nationality and ethnicity, culminating in a street attack during which she was sexually assaulted.
Last month, reports emerged that a number of Afghan journalists had been arrested in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and their phones, laptops and cameras seized.
Eight Afghan journalists who worked for the BBC have recently had their UK visa applications reopened after legal action against the Home Office.
In August 2021, then prime minister Boris Johnson announced the creation of ACRS with priority for those who stood up for democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech – including a specific reference to journalists.
It officially launched in January 2022 for those already evacuated, with a second “pathway” later opened for refugees in neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran.
After giving priority to contractors who worked for institutions like the British Council, the third pathway is planned to fully open this year, with journalists expected to be among its priority groups, though no details are yet available.
A government source said more information “will be set out in due course”. Index, PEN and the NUJ are urging Braverman to explain how the scheme will help at-risk journalists.
Meanwhile, accounts are increasingly emerging of journalists, particularly women, who have escaped to Pakistan only to continue to face threats. One reporter and women’s rights activist, whose work led to her publicly denouncing the Taliban, is now living in poverty in Pakistan with a five-month-old baby boy.
Another, a prominent young Afghan broadcast journalist, also made it across the border, where she now survives in a slum and goes days without food.
“During this period, I have gone through hell. There is much discrimination, racism and prejudice in Pakistan society, and hostility towards Afghan women in particular,” she said.
Her Pakistani visa expired in August 2022, with the authorities yet to offer her an extension. Any Afghan in Pakistan without a valid visa could be jailed for three years or deported back home.
A spokesperson for the British government said that 24,500 people had so far been brought to safety from Afghanistan, including “campaigners for women’s rights, human rights defenders, scholars, journalists, judges and members of the LGBT+ community”.
They added that, since the evacuation of Kabul, the UK had helped “7,000 vulnerable people leave the country. Our work continues to help other eligible Afghans.”