Afghan prosecutor and women’s rights activist challenges UK refugee scheme

Afghan prosecutor and women’s rights activist challenges UK refugee scheme
Afghan women stage a protest for their rights to mark International Women's Day, in Kabul
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Updated 08 March 2023

Afghan prosecutor and women’s rights activist challenges UK refugee scheme

Afghan prosecutor and women’s rights activist challenges UK refugee scheme
  • The woman, who has publicly denounced the Taliban and received death threats, has been in hiding since August 2021
  • Her lawyers contend that the narrow rules governing eligibility for the scheme exclude many at-risk people and are unlawful

LONDON: An Afghan prosecutor and women’s rights activist whose life is at risk has been “wholly excluded” from a UK Government resettlement scheme, the High Court in London heard on Tuesday.

The unnamed woman specializes in cases involving violence against women, forced marriage and honor crimes, according to media reports. She has publicly denounced the Taliban, received “direct threats” for years as result of her work, and has been in hiding since August 2021, the court was told.

Now she is challenging the legality of the UK government’s operation of its Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.

There are three pathways to eligibility for the scheme. One is open only to those who were notified by the government that they could relocate to the UK but were unable to board an evacuation flight, another is for people referred by the UN Refugee Agency.

The third pathway covers at-risk individuals who supported the work of the UK and the wider international community in Afghanistan, as well as those who are considered particularly vulnerable, including women, girls and members of minority groups. In the first phase of the scheme, however, only three groups of people are eligible: Those who worked with the British Council or security firm GardaWorld, and alumni of the Chevening Scholarship scheme funded by the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Lawyers for the “exceptionally vulnerable” woman argued that the scheme’s narrow operation is unlawful because at-risk people with a “legitimate expectation” of being considered instead find themselves excluded, according to media reports

Irena Sabic, a member of the legal team, said in written submissions: “Despite these clear and unambiguous statements, vulnerable people who ‘stood up for values such as democracy, women's rights and freedom of speech or rule of law’ and currently remain in hiding and at risk in Afghanistan, and who are entitled to prioritization, are currently excluded from accessing ACRS.”

She later said that although the woman does not expect to be granted the right to resettle, she should nevertheless have access to the scheme and be considered for eligibility.

“Those who are in Afghanistan, like the claimant, are in the most acute need of assistance,” Sabic said. “The claimant’s life is at risk. She is in hiding, she cannot go out, she is constantly subjected to threats.”

In her written submissions, Sabic argued: “It was clearly intended that pathway three of ACRS would offer a potential route to safety and protection.”

Edward Brown KC, a lawyer for the Home Office, Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, denied that the resettlement scheme was being run unlawfully.

“There is an active consideration to expanding pathway three; the issue is whether there is a legal obligation to do what the Government is doing by considering it,” he told the court.

Brown noted in his written submissions that the scheme “can provide for a structured approach which prioritizes certain cohorts, and it is taken as acting in the public interest in making such choices.”

After the third pathway has been in operation for a year, he added, the government “will work with international partners and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to welcome wider groups of Afghans at risk.”

Brown said the policy announcement of the scheme, in September 2021, clarified that it would “prioritize those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for specific values, and vulnerable people.”

He added: “However, that statement, without more, cannot reasonably be read as providing an access route to anyone capable of falling within that description.”

Judge Charles Bourne will issue a ruling on the case in writing at a later date.