Afghan women kept apart from British husbands by UK government’s ‘callous’ English rules

Exclusive: MPs warned Afghan women face barrier getting to the UK due to ‘bureaucratic’ English language rules

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 20 August 2023 16:00 BST
The Afghan pilot hero fighting to stay in the UK

Afghan women stuck under Taliban rule are being barred from reuniting with their British husbands because they cannot meet the English language standards needed to come to the UK.

MPs have warned Afghan women face huge language barriers trying to get to Britain due to “bureaucratic” Home Office rules requiring them to prove a certain level of English.

Wives can apply for an exemption to the language requirements, but these are not easy to obtain. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has banned women’s education, meaning most cannot learn a language. They are also prohibited from travelling outside without a man.

Meanwhile, all English language test centres in Afghanistan have closed, meaning Afghan women would only be able to do the test if they are in a neighbouring country, like Pakistan. In one case, a woman was denied a visa to travel to Pakistan – leaving her in an impossible situation.

There is no English language requirement for Ukrainian refugees who have come to the UK in their thousands and no equivalent requirement for family members or wives of Afghans who have been accepted into the UK under the government’s two main resettlement schemes, ACRS and Arap.

One MP said the women had had “bureaucratic block after bureaucratic block put between them and reaching safety with their families”. Another said the “cruel and callous inflexibility” of language requirements was “putting vulnerable refugees in danger and tearing families apart”.

In one case, a British-Afghan man has been unable to secure a visa for his wife and one-year-old daughter, who are stuck in Afghanistan, to travel to Pakistan to complete biometric tests necessary for the spousal visa.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, the wife had been studying English and had taken the required test and failed. She has been unable to continue her education under the new regime. Attempts by the husband to teach his wife English over the phone have also failed as the internet connection is too bad, he told The Independent.

The man, who was visiting his family in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over the country in August 2021, accused the government of “playing a game” with his family, adding: “I can’t see my baby. I have paid around £7,000-8,000 in Home Office and solicitor’s fees. A decision needs to be taken, because if something happens to my wife, who is going to be responsible?”

In another case, a British-Afghan father has been unable to find lawyers to help him apply for an exemption and is concerned by government guidance that says his wife must meet certain English requirements.

Hewaad Farhad, who came to the UK as a child refugee in 2008, said he did not know how to get a spousal visa for his wife because she cannot speak English (Supplied)

Hewaad Farhad said he was despairing at his situation and did not know how to get a spousal visa for his wife because she cannot speak English.

Mr Farhad, who lives in former prime minister Boris Johnson’s former constituency in Uxbridge, said: “I grew up in the UK, my life – everything – is according to UK society. In Afghanistan, I don’t have anything. I can’t work and it is dangerous being a British person living in Afghanistan.”

Since the Taliban takeover, his wife can’t get access to any teaching and is not allowed outside without a male companion. Her brother tried to start teaching her some English, Mr Farhad said, but she has not been able to make progress as she cannot read and write.

“There are no English classes and no education for women,” he said. “She hasn’t been to school and when she grew up she was living in a village far away from school and her father did not want her to go.”

Speaking through a translator, his wife, who we are not naming for safety reasons, said: “It is very stressful here, it is very depressing living with just the kids. The kids and myself miss him so much.

“We are scared that we are going to get into trouble and I’m not safe here. Learning English is very difficult and challenging for me. Whatever it takes for me to get to the UK I want to do it.”

Caroline Lucas MP, who has constituents with wives and children stuck in Afghanistan, has written to immigration minister Robert Jenrick to ask for a review of decisions made on Afghanistan visas.

Caroline Lucas wrote to immigration minister Robert Jenrick (pictured) to ask for a review on decisions on Afghan visas (PA)

In one of her constituents’ cases, a British father’s wife and young children fled to a third country following the Taliban takeover. The wife does not speak English and is unable to learn in the country she is in as she is illiterate and needs to take care of her children.

The Home Office initially refused her spousal visa application, saying she had not met the English language requirement. But the decision was overturned after Ms Lucas’s intervention.

Ms Lucas said: “The Home Office’s cruel and callous inflexibility on English language requirements is putting vulnerable refugees in danger and tearing families apart. I have constituents with spouses and children stranded in Afghanistan, who are at risk from the Taliban, have had no formal education so face enormous language barriers, and have no support network.

“These exceptional circumstances cannot be met with an obstinate and uncaring bureaucracy.”

Tan Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough, has also been approached by constituents unable to reunite with their families.

He said the government’s record on supporting applicants in Afghanistan “has been abysmal”. He added: “Both the Arap scheme and the ACRS have been beset with persistent failures from the start, leaving many in fear for their lives in Afghanistan.

“Since the Taliban’s takeover, I have been approached by numerous Slough constituents in need, including those who simply want to reunite their families and ensure their safety. The government must address these serious concerns in this delicate and grave situation.”

The chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Afghan women and girls, Wendy Chamberlain MP, said: “Afghan women were promised support by the government when the Taliban seized power, but instead we have seen bureaucratic block after bureaucratic block put between them and reaching safety with their families.

“The government must apply common sense and compassion to its policies – whether it is biometrics or language requirements.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has made an ambitious and generous commitment to help at-risk people in Afghanistan and, so far, we have brought around 24,600 vulnerable people to safety.

“The English language requirement was introduced so that those coming to the UK are able to contribute and integrate into society. We expect applicants to take these tests whenever possible but we will consider details of any exceptional circumstances for those unable to do so.”

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