What It's Like to Live in the UK When You're Wanted by the Taliban
Asylum seekers who arrive in the UK as children are protected by law, but things change once you turn 18.
Salim's* teenage life hasn't panned out like most kids in his suburban London neighbourhood. For starters, he's an asylum seeker. But there's a bit more to it. "The Taliban killed my father," he tells VICE. "I didn't have any choice because they tried to kill me as well. They tried to force me to join them. I refused, so they tried to kill me."
Salim's 19 years old now, and fled Afghanistan for Britain in January 2010. Last year he got news that the Taliban had murdered his mother and sister and that his brother had been abducted – charities trying to track his brother down still don't know whether he's alive. "The village elder who gave the news was very clear that the Taliban was still asking for Salim's whereabouts," says his social worker Olivia*, who was in the room when Salim was sat down for the brutal update.
And so Salim lives, wanted by the Taliban, on borrowed time. There's some complicated law around asylum cases, which is worth clarifying. The vast majority of children who flee Afghanistan aren't given full asylum when they arrive in the UK. Instead, they're granted what's called a "temporary right to remain", which expires when they turn 18. After that, they've got to apply for permanent asylum or choose to leave. If their asylum claim's rejected, they can file two appeals. Salim's currently waiting on the outcome of his final appeal. If it's turned down, that's it. He'll be heading back to Afghanistan.
"Every day I think that the Home Office is going to pick me up and send me back", he says. "I'm always worried. I think a lot about my family. I think about how they died – the pain they suffered when the Taliban killed them." He pauses. Salim is a polite, reserved guy – the kind of well-mannered young man mums always seem to like. But his mind constantly flickers back to the brutality of his tormentors. "Unless you come face-to-face with them, you can't really understand what they're like. You don't know how it feels to be scared of them. You don't know what it's like when they try to kill you."
There's been a back-and-forth on cases like his in this country. In May 2015, the UK passed a ban on deportations to Afghanistan because the country was considered too dangerous. This amnesty didn't last. The Home Office won an appeal in March 2016, reopening the deportation flight path. When I ask the Home Office why Afghanistan's been deemed safe enough, with its strong Taliban presence, a spokesperson writes: "All cases are carefully considered on their individual merits, in line with the UK immigration rules and based on evidence provided by the applicant." They add that, "careful consideration is given to whether asylum seekers can internally relocate in the country they are returned to."
Stewart MacLachan, Legal and Policy Officer at Coram Children's Legal Centre, describes what this means in practice. The Home Office grants temporary protection to unaccompanied children on the basis that it wouldn't be safe to return them. But according to MacLachan, the government currently believes that "adults can return and relocate safely to Kabul, even if they have never lived there before".
An individual may, however, be granted asylum in the UK if they can prove they'd be persecuted for their political opinion, religion or family background. Normally the main source of evidence is the person's own testimony. That's often where the problems multiply. "In practice, people have their asylum claims rejected because of relatively minor credibility issues," MacLachan says. "For example, not remembering exact dates or timeframes relating to incidents in Afghanistan, or minor inconsistencies in details."
Sent to the UK by their relatives, Afghan children aren't often told all the complicated reasons behind why they're leaving. As a result, when questioned in court, it can often seem as though they're trying to hide information. Take Malem*, a 23-year-old with an incomplete understanding of his escape. He remembers that his mum arranged for him to flee when he was 13, after his dad was abducted by the Taliban. "We couldn't really go outside," Malem says. "You couldn't speak to anyone or spend time with anyone because you were scared of the Taliban. It was like spending your whole life in jail." But Malem was never sure why his dad was targeted and, having been loaded into a vehicle in the dead of night, he doesn't know who smuggled him into the UK.
The first thing Malem remembers about Britain is being dumped on the street and told to make his own way around London's sprawling suburbs. Once the UK Border Agency found him a foster home, things straightened out a bit: he went to school, learnt English and took up swimming. His claim for permanent asylum has now dragged on for over five years.
Like Salim, he's waiting on his final appeal. Ever since his protected status expired, Malem says he's been suffering from depression. In April he was reminded why he's desperate to stay in the UK after a Kabul suicide bomber killed at least 64 people, and he stumbled across a friend on Facebook mourning the death of his recently-deported brother in the blast.
The threat of returning to the Taliban's backyard has impacted Malem's physical and mental health. "After they tried to deport me two or three times, I was getting more and more stressed every day. So in the end I started self-harming. I've been self-harming for years now," he says. In the nadir of his depression, Malem became suicidal, according to his foster mum: "At one point I think he tried to jump out of a window. He just couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Bizarrely, one of the few ways to survive, for young people forced to return to Aghanistan, is often to join an insurgent group for protection. Without alternatives available, Malem is worried he'd be forced to join the Taliban – who created his misery in the first place. "If they send me back to Afghanistan," he says, "it will be easy for the Taliban to target me. If they offer me anything I will have to accept it, because if I refuse they will definitely kill me. Just to save my life, I will have to do what they say."
*Names have been changed for safety reasons
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