Alone, afraid and facing exile: one boy’s ordeal indicts Britain’s asylum system

·7-min read

On the final Saturday night in August, the last RAF plane left Afghanistan. On board were any remaining British diplomats and soldiers, escaping a country in murderous chaos. Outside the base, Taliban militia were roaming Kabul’s streets, while the previous evening a suicide bomber had got to the airport gates and set off an explosives belt, killing at least 183 people.

As the UK’s largest evacuation mission since the second world war ended, Boris Johnson praised his officials and troops: “They have expended all the patience and care and thought they possess to help people in fear for their lives.”

Nearly two months later and 4,000 miles away, a fragile young man in the Kent town of Folkestone remained in fear for his life.

Bashir Khan Ahmadzai fled Afghanistan after his father, a police officer, was seized from the family home by Taliban troops who promised they would be back to take his son. He arrived here as a child, crammed into the back of a lorry with other scared and sick boys and men, and applied for asylum. Now the same British government that just weeks before had worked round the clock to rescue people from the clutches of the Taliban was continuing its long-running campaign to deport him.

No “patience and care and thought” was wasted on the 25-year-old’s case. He had done nothing wrong, the Home Office accepted; he just did not qualify to be a refugee. It was a Friday in mid-October. He was due in court on Monday.

I wrote about Ahmadzai here three years ago, and have kept an eye out for him ever since. A lot of people do that, all of us worrying about what will happen to this skinny foal with big brown eyes. Even hard-headed, gavel-bashing judges describe him as “vulnerable”, while court documents list “complex speech, language and communication difficulties”.

What would have happened had he lost, I asked people in Folkestone last week. His mate Hadi recounted how in the months leading up to the hearing Ahmadzai had stopped coming out, had not been sleeping, and had lost more and more weight. Support worker Bridget Chapman remembered sitting in on a psychiatric assessment conducted this summer for the court case. At one point the doctor asked if Ahmadzai had ever had any thoughts of hurting or killing himself. He replied: “I think about it every day”.

“His depression is now severe,” concluded the medical report. “I would suspect that the risk of his trying to end his life would increase significantly if he were returned to Afghanistan.”

All this summer, as I wondered what would become of him, I had another question: what did his treatment say about the rest of us? These were the weeks when Westminster mourned the noble intentions with which it had 20 years earlier marched into Afghanistan; when newspaper pundits extolled the humanitarian work done after 9/11. Yet when Ahmadzai and I first met, in 2018, he had just been released from a detention centre where he’d been taken without warning and locked in a tiny cell. The small window was too high for him to see out of, but he could hear shouting and planes roaring overhead. He said the staff had taunted him: “We are going to deport you.”

Admittedly, Afghanistan then was not in the state it is now. Back then, the Home Office judged it only “the second-least peaceful country in the world”. The Taliban were already taking towns and villages. Hadi remembered how at his school one day the Qur’an lessons had been suddenly swapped for instruction in how to clean and shoot rifles. Then they were taken into the basement and shown suicide vests. You trigger them with your chins, the boys were told. That way their heads would be so badly destroyed that no one could identify them. That is the society Hadi and Ahmadzai escaped.

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Those immigration officers were ultimately working for us, as part of a Whitehall department acting on our behalf, funded by our taxes and implementing policies endorsed at the ballot box. Ahmadzai’s solicitor, Jamie Bell, calculates that the government has spent in the region of £20,000 on the case to deport him. Over the past six years, Bell has represented about 100 Afghans seeking asylum in the UK and 75% of cases, he believes, have involved some form of injustice from the Home Office. Injustices committed in our names.

It was not always so barbaric. Just off the paved market in Folkestone is the local museum, and inside hangs a giant oil painting. The Landing of the Belgian Refugees marks how in the autumn of 1914 Folkestone welcomed Belgians fleeing the German army. Painted by one of those refugees, it shows children and their families on small boats in the Channel. Those clambering on to the docks look thin, anxious and worn out, but there to greet them is the mayor of Folkestone, his deputy, a magistrate, vicars and doctors: all the great and good of the town, who understood that it could easily be them seeking safety and sustenance. Showing me this picture, Chapman told me how on one day alone 16,000 refugees crossed the water. She paused. “What’s changed?”

Any number of answers suggest themselves. Those people are white; these are brown. Belgium is only a couple of hundred miles from Folkestone; Afghanistan is a few thousand. But the question is an excellent one, because it highlights the most important element of all: political will.

Last Friday, I asked the Guardian’s librarians to count how many articles the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph and their Sunday equivalents had run on the asylum system in just the past month. The total was 114, or more than one per paper each and every morning: a daily drumbeat of headlines and opinion on stories from the poppy bomber to Priti Patel. Then I asked: how many of those pieces had featured any comment at all from an asylum seeker or a refugee? The answer was five.

Five out of 114. Imagine reading 20 different articles on the social care crisis and only on the 21st hearing from someone actually in the care system. Then imagine if all those articles ever said was what spongers those sick and elderly people were, how they were just playing the system. They don’t need care, government ministers and newspapers columnists would say. They just want room service.

It would never happen, of course. Those people are judged too important for such a monstering. But it is done every day to asylum seekers. They are erased from the record, stripped of their humanity and rendered as grotesque stereotypes for others to lie about.

Newspapers claim that “record numbers” are coming here, when asylum claims are actually down from last year. The MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, claims refugees are “breaking and entering” Britain, when it is a right enshrined in law to seek asylum (this is the same MP who thinks her husband, Charlie Elphicke, is serving an “excessive” sentence for sexual assault). And the home secretary, Priti Patel, says people only come here from war zones and failed states for the hotel rooms, even while she sticks them in abandoned army barracks that government inspectors judge as “impoverished, run-down and … filthy”.

The great, galling irony is that this is being done by a home secretary who claims her parents would have qualified for asylum when they left Uganda, and publicly supported by Nadim Zahawi, an Iraqi refugee who spent his childhood on benefits, and is now education secretary. Yet they visit on others treatment that would have broken them. And by their refusal to manage the flow of asylum applicants, they ultimately force people to risk their lives in the search of safety. Those people who sank in the Channel yesterday died because of our asylum regime.

As Ahmadzai was preparing for court that Friday afternoon, he got a phone call from his solicitor. The Home Office had dropped the case. With apologies for “late submissions”, it had considered “the recent events in Afghanistan” and the official guidance that had been changed just days before – and was granting him asylum.

In the weeks since, Ahmadzai has started to sleep again. He has also begun to dream. He wants to get a moped and ride for Deliveroo or Uber Eats. Oh, and he’s desperate to go to the gym and bulk up. As I left, he mustered up a few words of English and clutched one of his biceps. “Chicken legs,” he said. Despite all he’d been through, he was still just a young man. Your son, your brother, your neighbour.

  • Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist

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