More than 200 Afghan journalists who worked with the British media are to be granted access to the UK after an appeal by a coalition of British newspapers and broadcasters.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has agreed to issue visa waivers for the group after officials said the government recognised the risks they took in pursuit of media freedom and the defence of human rights through their work.
The group will now be given leave to enter the UK outside immigration rules, handing them the chance to settle in Britain. They can be accompanied by their immediate family, such as a partner and dependent children under 18. However, with chaos still surrounding Kabul airport, there are still serious concerns about when the group will be able to fly out of the country.
Media organisations, including the Observer and Guardian, appealed to the Foreign Office after it emerged that the journalists would not qualify to come to the UK under existing schemes. Officials said those who qualified are being contacted.
Raab said: “We must protect those brave Afghan journalists who have worked so courageously to shine a light on what is really going on in Afghanistan. That’s why we have granted these journalists and their media staff visa waivers to come to the UK.”
In an open letter last week, the UK’s major newspapers and broadcasters said their ability to keep the British public informed of events in Afghanistan over two decades had been “heavily reliant on the loyalty and commitment of the Afghan journalists, translators and support staff”.
However, many other cases are emerging of Afghans who have worked with British institutions but are struggling to secure a path to the UK. The Observer understands that more than 80 Afghans who worked with the British Council, the quango that promotes British interests through education and culture, say they have been left in diplomatic limbo. Some are in hiding following the Taliban’s swift return to power, after being unable to secure places on a refugee visa scheme for people who supported the UK mission in Afghanistan.
Many of the Afghans, who worked to teach English or encourage education, say they have yet to be contacted by British officials, and many fear they will be left behind. The government has said that British Council workers are eligible for the scheme, but some of those still in the country say they have been told they are not, and are struggling to reach British officials.
Their former UK colleagues fear that some who did not work directly for the British Council, but on programmes outside Kabul, may be treated differently. They are trying to use the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap), a fast-track resettlement scheme for people under threat from the Taliban for their UK links, run by the Ministry of Defence.
Campaigners are warning that the British Council, headquartered with the British embassy in Kabul, is viewed as part of the British government by the Taliban. One of the Afghan former staff said: “We have been told that we are not eligible. Those who worked inside [the British Council] were called eligible. Most … who worked in the provinces have been called not eligible and some of them haven’t received any email yet.
“When will we receive a positive response? My situation is getting worse and worse. I am extremely sad for my life and my family.”
More than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for the group to be given a place on the refugee scheme. Colleagues of those stranded are also calling for a public inquiry into how the evacuation decisions have been made, complaining of a lack of clarity over who will be covered by the UK’s fast-track scheme. Some Afghans who had been rejected have recently been asked to submit their details.
Hywel Coleman, a former British Council consultant, said 83 Afghan staff members and consultants claimed that they have not yet been contacted. At least a third are women. “We have lost touch with 10 in the past week and we fear the worst, but believe there is still a window of opportunity to save, hopefully, all of them,” he said. “A public inquiry is necessary into how this situation was allowed to occur, and lessons must be learned for when the British Council hires local staff and consultants, particularly in dangerous locations.”
About 25 Afghan former British Council staff and consultants based at its Kabul HQ were offered relocation to the UK, and most of them have already been evacuated. A government spokesperson said: “Our officials are working as quickly as possible to bring more people to safety in the UK. British Council staff are eligible for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy.”
The British Council said it was working with the MoD to “explore every avenue of support available to ensure … all former and current colleagues receive the fullest consideration possible”, adding: “The safety of all those involved in our work is our utmost concern.”