Female Afghan MPs in Turkey fear for the future without help from the west

Exclusive: Dozens of female politicians from Afghanistan face an uncertain future as their asylum applications to western countries have gone unanswered

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Wednesday 22 December 2021 08:08 GMT
An Afghan former female journalist silhouetted during an interview in Kabul, Afghanistan
An Afghan former female journalist silhouetted during an interview in Kabul, Afghanistan (AFP/Getty)

Female Afghan politicians who fled to Turkey after the Taliban seized control of Kabul are facing an uncertain future as their visas will soon run out, campaigners and former MPs have warned.

An Afghan former senior minister, who did not want to be named, told The Independent she is struggling to support her family because the Taliban froze her bank account.

The politician said she was speaking on behalf of 35 female Afghan politicians, including ministers and deputy ministers, as well as civil society activists and campaigners currently living in Turkey after escaping Afghanistan in mid-August

Speaking in an exclusive interview from Turkey, the 56-year-old said the Afghan women had only been granted temporary six-month visas and are not sure if they will be able to renew them.

“We don’t have any direction. We never thought the country would collapse in August suddenly. Right now we don’t have any opportunities,” said the politician, who has been in Turkey for four months.

“We don’t have any support from the Turkish government. There is no welfare support for immigrants. No medical support, no education, no financial support. I have three daughters. They can’t go to school as the cost of education is too high.”

The Turkish government could not be reached for comment.

The politician said one of her daughters is severely disabled, and that she, her husband, and their children are simply “sitting in the house”.

“It is really, really challenging,” she added. “I did not cry for three or four years, now I’m crying every day, as we don’t have any future.”

She said she has type 2 diabetes and is suffering from back pain yet cannot afford medicine. While she is currently relying on medicine for diabetes she brought with her from Afghanistan, she does not know how she will cope when that runs out.

“We are now eating cheap, basic food,” she added. “We had a big house in Afghanistan. All of the luxuries. We came to Turkey with nothing. The Taliban froze our bank accounts. We were on the frontline, standing up for human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan, and now the international community ignores us.”

The other female politicians and campaigners in Turkey are in a similar situation and are also frustrated, she said, as she called for the international community to help them.

It feels like the door is slamming in Afghan refugees’ faces

Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch (HRW)

The politician, who has visited Britain twice previously, said she had sent her documents to the UK three times to claim asylum, but had not heard anything back. She has also tried to apply for citizenship in Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Sweden, the US and other European countries, but has yet had a response.

The other Afghan women have also sent documents to various countries but have yet to have had any luck securing citizenship elsewhere, the politician said. About 80 per cent of them have also applied for UK citizenship, she added.

There is growing concern that the UK’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), announced with much fanfare in August, is still not up and running four months on. The scheme pledged to help 5,000 people in the first year and up to 20,000 in the coming years, but MPs who try to contact the Home Office about it have claimed they are being ignored.

The Refugee Council said on Monday that the Home Office’s failure to provide safe and legal migration routes for Afghans is forcing thousands to make dangerous journeys to seek safety in the UK.

Afghan women demand that the Taliban allow the reopening of girls schools in Kabul (EPA-EFE)

Heather Barr, associate director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, told The Independent the hardship faced by female politicians and campaigners who have escaped Afghanistan is “sadly really familiar”.

“The number of people who feel like they have no choice but to escape Afghanistan is so much larger than any country has been willing to resettle,” she said.

“Their situation is incredibly precarious ... they have no ability to resettle there permanently. No ability to renew their visas. No ability to work and earn an income and send their children to school.”

She warned that the UK, the US and other countries are showing “very little sympathy” for the Afghan people, adding: “It feels like the door is slamming in Afghan refugees’ faces”.

Last month, dozens of female Afghan MPs set up a women’s parliament in exile from Greece, after escaping there in August. However, they also have concerns about their visas running out and the prospect of being permanently resettled in the west.

The Taliban swept to power in August in Afghanistan, and the country is now in the grips of an acute hunger crisis. The last time the hardline Islamist group ruled the country, women were barred from working, girls were blocked from going to school, and women had to be chaperoned by a male relative to leave the house.

Marzia Babakarkhail, who used to work as a family court judge in Afghanistan but now lives in the UK, told The Independent: “At the moment the number of vulnerable women who remain in Afghanistan and are at risk of death reaches thousands.

“This number includes women, both in the capital Kabul and the provinces, who are currently active in civil society, the police force, national security, as well as women in the judiciary and legal system and other important realms.

“The people we have evacuated and helped is incomparable to the number of lives still in need of help. I urge the international community and UK government to resettle Afghan women in safe places.”

Kevin Foster, the home office minister for safe and legal migration, said Britain is “taking a leading role in the international response to supporting at-risk Afghan citizens.”

He said: “The biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history helped over 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan and we continue to help people in the region.

“We are coordinating closely with international partners, including through our presidency of the G7, and have doubled our aid for Afghanistan to £286 million, including vital humanitarian assistance to save lives this winter.

“The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) will open soon, giving up to 20,000 people at risk a new life in the UK, including judges, women’s right activists, academics and journalists.”

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