People who worked for or were affiliated with the British Council may lose babies as government delays relocation to UK
Pregnant Afghan women who are eligible for resettlement in the UK have been told their babies may not survive unless they are urgently evacuated.
The women, who worked for or are affiliated with the British Council, should be entitled to relocation through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS). Despite Foreign Office and Home Office instructions to move to Pakistan and await relocation, they are stuck in hotels with limited access to medical care nearly two years after the scheme launched.
Meanwhile, on 1 November, Pakistan began deporting undocumented people back to Afghanistan, with 1.7 million thought to be at risk of removal. The former British Council teachers are among them, with many having spent up to £5,000 on passports and visas to reach Islamabad. While waiting for a response from the British government, their three-month visas have expired, meaning they could be arrested and deported back to Afghanistan.
One of those at risk is Mina, whose husband, Batoor, spoke to the Observer last year after their two-year-old daughter Najwa died of cardiac arrest, liver failure and acute septicaemia due to a lack of access to medical care. Mina, due to give birth in the next six weeks, has now discovered her unborn child has potentially fatal medical complications.
“The same experience is happening to us again,” Mina said. “If the British government had brought us to safety, our daughter would still be alive. Now I have doubts that this baby will be born safely here in Pakistan. I know that our baby would be cured of this condition if we were in the UK, but we are stuck here, our lives on hold. This situation is extremely distressing.”
Consultant obstetrician Dr Brenda Kelly, who has seen Mina’s scans and medical records, said that the mother and baby require the highest level of care. “This unborn baby has very worrying signs on prenatal scan and the mother’s care should be under a tertiary level foetal medicine team,” Kelly said. “I am very concerned that their daughter died – one does not know whether the conditions in the two children are linked. When we see signs like this on scan, we advise close monitoring of the mother’s wellbeing as she will be at high risk of developing pre-eclampsia and other serious complications. The baby’s chance of survival would be vastly improved if she received highly specialised treatment and had access to level 3 neonatal facilities.”
Mina and her husband are living in a windowless hotel room in Islamabad, with frequent police raids in surrounding areas in which Afghans are rounded up, arrested and deported. They have been advised not to leave the hotel, making attendance at medical appointments particularly difficult.
“The Pakistani authorities are checking documents on the way to medical appointments. What if, on the way to see my doctor, I get arrested?” Mina said. “This adds so much pressure on us. I believe all those with emergency cases should be prioritised and put on the first plane to the UK.”
Sadaf, a former teacher and trainer for the British Council who has a history of miscarriages, has recently been told that she has high blood sugar levels and high blood pressure, which could be harmful for her and her baby. Her doctor in Pakistan has advised that she follows a specific diet, which is unaffordable and unavailable to her. Like all other Afghans in hotels in Islamabad, she has been told not to leave the confines of the hotel to take the recommended daily exercise.
“I am so afraid of losing this baby, too, after two miscarriages already,” she told the Observer. “If I have no access to a doctor, my baby may not survive. We were hopeful when we came to Pakistan, but now there is no hope, no certainty.”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Pakistan is responsible for managing the healthcare of those who are ACRS-eligible and awaiting relocation to the UK, but Afghans claim the communication has been poor, with urgent requests left unanswered for up to a month.
“IOM, they tell us to take care of issues ourselves, but how can we when we have money problems?” said Abdulaziz, a former British Council teacher whose wife is in her third trimester. “I have not worked for two years and have been living in hiding from the Taliban. I spent thousands of dollars on visas. We cannot go outside to get medicines, or even pay for them if we do.”
Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said: “The prime minister has tried every trick in the book to wriggle his way out of his government’s longstanding commitment to all those Afghans who served British efforts in Afghanistan. It is only because the Pakistani government has threatened to send these vulnerable people back over the border into the hands of the Taliban that he has now been forced into this humiliating U-turn.
“It is deeply troubling that the so-called ‘Operation Warm Welcome for Afghans’ has become ‘Operation Cold Shoulder’ under this prime minister, and as more personal stories come to light, we are able to understand the human cost of his inaction.”
Former ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Nicholas Kay said: “I can’t understand why the government is not showing more compassion to those who have been allies and to whom we made promises. It’s important to accelerate the departure to the UK of those we have already agreed to resettle. We should be a nation that stands by our friends and keeps our promises.”
A British Council spokesperson said that the ACRS scheme is run by the UK government and it is not involved in decision-making. “We are incredibly concerned by the length of time it is taking for our former contractors’ applications to be progressed. They have told us that they are living in increasingly desperate circumstances. We are deeply concerned for them and for their families’ welfare and wellbeing. We are pushing for urgent progress with senior contacts within the UK government.”
A government spokesperson said: “All those ARAP [Afghan relocations and assistance policy] and ACRS-eligible individuals being supported by HMG in third countries have access to medical care, paid for by HMG.
“The measures taken by HMG in Pakistan to try to ensure that ARAP- and ACRS-eligible individuals are protected against arrest and deportation also cover access to that medical care.”
Source: The Guardian