‘Abandoned’ Afghans Are Still Risking Their Lives to Escape the Taliban

VICE World News spoke with a former interpreter with British forces who was shot at as he tried to flee the country after putting his life in the hands of human traffickers.
September 15, 2021, 1:54pm
Taliban members stand guard at a checkpoint around Hamid Karzai International Airport​.
Taliban members stand guard at a checkpoint around Hamid Karzai International Airport. Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Abdullah calls in a panic. He had almost made it out of Afghanistan when border guards opened fire at him, his family, and the other refugees being shepherded by people smugglers out of the country.  

“I’m trying to cross the border,” he says. “There is no other way—I have to save my kids.”

To protect his safety VICE World News cannot disclose the border in question, and “Abdullah” is a pseudonym. The 31-year-old worked as an interpreter for the British army in Helmand Province from 2009 to 2014, when he lost his job after a commander claimed to have found hash in his room, something Abdullah denies. 


For years, he’s been trying to gain asylum in the UK, but his dismissal left him ineligible under the UK’s Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP). 

The Taliban began advancing across rural Afghanistan in May, ahead of a planned withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country by September. In August, they started taking entire provinces, during which time Abdullah’s house in northern Kunduz Province was destroyed.

Abdullah left for Kabul with his wife and four children and continued to email representatives of the British embassy for asylum. 

On the 14th of August, with the Taliban at the gates of Kabul, Abdullah was finally granted eligibility for UK asylum. He waited, anxiously, for an invitation to board one of the evacuation flights that were regularly departing Kabul airport. 

He never received one before the final British evacuation flight departed Afghanistan two weeks later.

“I paid some traffickers to get me and my family across the border,” Abdullah says. “We couldn’t stay in Kabul; it was so dangerous. The Taliban had been messaging my relatives on Facebook, they were asking ‘where is he?’ I had to do something or my family will be killed.”

His fear of reprisal is well-founded. He says he attempted to reach British soldiers at Kabul airport, despite not having a flight confirmed, but says the Taliban beat him and his wife, and stole his passport.


UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised the “colossal exertions” of the country’s armed forces, with nearly 15,000 Afghans, many of whom had worked for the UK over the past 20 years, and their families, safely evacuated. But at least 1,000 Afghans didn’t make it out.

Prior to the final evacuation flight, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace urged eligible Afghans to make for borders, and a team of crisis response specialists have reportedly been deployed to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, to support people like Abdullah. But without clear, open routes out of the country, asylum seekers will increasingly have to negotiate hazardous routes with people traffickers. 

“We were crossing the border…when border police saw us,” he says. “They called out to us but we couldn’t understand so we kept coming—then they opened fire.”

One of the traffickers was shot in the arm. Abdullah and his family escaped uninjured back to Afghanistan. “Many families got lucky, they got across, but when they found out that many Afghans were coming they just blocked all the border,” he adds, and then broke down in tears.

“We cannot trust them because they will kill us, they will kill many interpreters,” he says. “I have to save my family. They will kill my family.”


Abdullah adds that the delay in his asylum application being accepted is the reason he and his family are risking their lives to cross a land border. 

“I wouldn’t be here if I had a flight,” he says. “I sent emails and I called and they never responded to me.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told VICE World News that they could not comment on individual cases, but confirmed that they had recently expanded the ARAP scheme “to all those who resigned [and] those who were dismissed for all but serious or criminal offences.”

The UK Foreign Office announced funding in early September for neighbouring countries to help support refugees. “Although there is no longer a British presence in Afghanistan, the UK remains committed to helping those who qualify for the ARAP scheme make their way to the UK,” the Ministry of Defence says. “We plan to support those already approved from third countries as soon as possible. We will continue to do all we can to support those who have supported us, and our commitment to those who are eligible for relocation will endure.”

Still, Abdullah’s position looks precarious. There is no way forward, and no way back. Multiple checkpoints lie between his position and Kabul, and, if he’s correct, militants in the capital are aware of his movements, and know who he is.

For now, getting to a third country is the only way out of Afghanistan for people like Abdullah and his family. He’s thinking of trying to escape via another border – one that will require him to travel over one hundred miles, each one posing a different threat.

But he says there is no other option.

“My kids,” he says. “I don’t know what will happen to them if something happens to me. I have to save my kids.”