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We must not abandon British Council Afghan educators to the Taliban

Smoke billows during a Taliban attack on the British Council Offices in Kabul, August 19, 2011 [Credit: Alamy]

4 min read

The British Council is the UK government’s culture and education outreach organisation and was first established in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in 1964.

Sponsored by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, it operates in over 100 countries and is the soft power arm of the British government  – promoting intercultural understanding and the English language.

Until recently, I was proud of having served the British Council (or the BC, as it is affectionately known). I can’t tell you how many wonderful and colourful characters I’ve met around the world who wholeheartedly adopted the BC's ethos  – from conservative Afghanistan to post-Soviet Russia. For many, it is a cultural oasis. 

In 2011, I narrowly avoided the Taliban attack on the BC’s compound in Kabul, where 12 people (none of them British) died. The Taliban selected the BC because, for most Afghans, it is indistinguishable from the British Embassy and British Government. 

Since then, the BC has been headquartered in the British Embassy compound, in recognition of the high risk BC staff operate in. One might think then that any plan covering the evacuation of diplomatic and military staff during the current crisis in Afghanistan would automatically include and cover all Afghan BC staff. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. 

Over the last 10 weeks, I and others have been trying to support 24 current BC employees – Afghan educators who work with communities around the country, encouraging intercultural learning and the education of girls – as they desperately try to escape their fate at the hands of the Taliban. Many have worked for the BC for over a decade in conservative areas, where support for the Taliban and distrust of the West is high  – far riskier than working in Kabul. A third of these educators are women. 

“Day and night, I am hiding underground in a deep, narrow hole, with little oxygen. My wife is in a state of shock, and my kids are living like lonely orphans with my dad. My mom hovers near the hole, constantly calling to check that I am still breathing.”

Many have faced discrimination and threats for years, with local mullahs denouncing them publicly  as traitors working with the infidels. These threats have ramped up as the US/UK withdrawal scaled up. As the threats have escalated, so have our attempts to highlight their case. Five days ago we launched a petition that has gathered over 50,000 signatures. During the same period, we have lost touch with 10 of them. We don’t know if they have destroyed their phones for fear of being identified as BC employees, or have been killed or captured by Taliban forces.

Despite reaching out to the BC and MPs over the past 10 weeks, I’ve struggled to understand who, if anyone, is responsible or willing to help these individuals. Their applications for relocation were rejected, seemingly on the grounds that they aren’t operating in high risk jobs – this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Their best hope now is that a political decision-maker overturns their rejections for relocation. For the few who have made it to Kabul, this could still mean being able to take evacuation flights. For the majority in the provinces, this means hope if/when they manage to reach Kabul or cities in neighbouring countries. 

Outside of Kabul the country seems to be rapidly reverting to a medieval-esque scenario – one of the BC employees is currently hiding in a ‘priest hole’ in his city. He wrote this to us recently:

“Day and night, I am hiding underground in a deep, narrow hole, with little oxygen. My wife is in a state of shock, and my kids are living like lonely orphans with my dad. My mom hovers near the hole, constantly calling to check that I am still breathing.”

In the next few days and weeks asylum should and will be granted to Afghans at risk. Thankfully, Chevening scholars were given a reprieve by Boris Johnson. But still nothing for actual employees of a British organisation. 

I was awarded a medal for my work in Afghanistan (no such honour was bestowed on my Afghan colleagues). As I reflect now, I am appalled by the lack of moral action –it seems that no one, either at the BC, the Ministry of Defence or Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office thinks these people’s lives matter. This medal now represents the bitter failure to protect my former colleagues' lives. 

I sincerely hope that parliament, including MPs on the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group, will raise the plight of BC’s employees on Wednesday.


Dr Julia Cave-Smith is an educator and former British Council employee

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