Alleged inconsistencies in the way the UK Home Office and Foreign Office process asylum applications from vulnerable judges in hiding in Afghanistan are being challenged at the high court in London on Tuesday.
Three judicial reviews are being brought on behalf of a male judge and a female judge who have had their applications for asylum rejected, and a prominent female women’s rights activist. If successful, the Home Office will be required to undertake a wholesale rethink of how it handles cases. The reviews have been anonymised to protect the claimants from persecution by the Taliban.
A 45-strong network of mainly commercial UK lawyers have been representing 28 Afghan judges applying for asylum. The Afghans are just a small proportion of 800 or so judges who worked in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover last year, more than a quarter of whom are female. They say inconsistencies on the part of the UK’s approach are unreasonable, incoherent and arbitrary.
“It is quite extraordinary given that we filed these applications in October, and started submitting evidence immediately afterwards, and it is now May and these cases have not been decided,” said Sheena Buddhdev, a partner at Eversheds Sutherland providing pro bono advice. “Some of them [the judges] are in a very precarious position. These cases are urgent.”
Buddhdev said many judges were facing a direct threat because of their connections to the UK. “All of them face a real risk to their life due to the work they did to promote democracy and the rule of law, something that was a formal UK government objective.”
She added it had been very hard to gather evidence and present claims, given that some are in hiding and face language difficulties.
In one of the complaints being aired in court, the claimants say guidance for immigration staff did not make provision for the fact that applicants could not make the perilous journey to a UK visa application centre to provide biometric information because no such centres exist in Afghanistan.
The claimants say they were advised by UK government officials to work around this by not telling the truth on their application forms. Subsequently the Home Office has advised claimants to amend their application to make it clear they cannot provide the biometric information required, resulting in further delays.
The claimants says the people whose applications have been rejected have a similar profile in terms of fear of reprisals and their relationship to UK security objectives as those called forward in Operation Pitting, the emergency Ministry of Defence operation before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban that led to 15,000 people being airlifted.
Of the 28 Afghan judges whose cases are being handled by the network of lawyers, only one of has made it to the UK. Nineteen are still in Afghanistan, and the rest are in third countries, such as Sweden and Pakistan.
Buddhdev said: “In a period of seven months we have two decisions. Little or no reason is given for a rejection. It is a frustratingly slow lack of progress. Many of them are in hiding, only able to move at night, moving from place to place, and the Taliban seem to be more confident about what repression they can impose.”
Some of the commercial lawyers, unused to handling refugee cases, say they have been shocked by the opaque nature of the application system and the length of the Home Office delays. They claim Britain’s reputation as a country that honours its debts is at stake.
The government operates two different settlement schemes: the Afghanistan Relocation and Assistance Policy for those who worked alongside the UK government, including in the Ministry of Defence, and the much-delayed Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, which is due to resettle 20,000 people over the next few years.
Of the 20,000 applications under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Programme, just 7,000 have been processed in the past six months.
The scheme opened in April 2021 as a means of helping Afghan citizens who assisted the British military to leave with their families after the Taliban takeover, including former translators and local staff.
A UK government spokesperson said: “We undertook the UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping over 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan who we are continuing to support.
“The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme is one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history and will give up to 20,000 further people at risk a new life in the UK.”