When Taliban forces seized complete control of Afghanistan in mid-August, Leila instantly feared for her stepdaughters, aged six and 10, being looked after by relatives who are themselves acutely vulnerable.
But Leila — not her real name — reassured herself that, because she was a British citizen and had applied to bring the girls to the UK, they would soon be safe.
Several weeks later, Leila is one of thousands of people of Afghan origin relying on a makeshift mixture of efforts by constituency MPs, voluntary groups and lawyers to try to rescue loved ones still trapped in Afghanistan.
The frustrations they face highlight the plight of thousands of families in the UK with relatives in Afghanistan unable to flee the imminent threat of persecution and violence.
About 70 per cent of Afghan-born people in the UK live in London. In East Ham, the parliamentary constituency where Leila lives, she is one of 170 people to have contacted Stephen Timms, the local MP, for support.
He has received requests to help 948 people trying to escape Afghanistan, and said Labour MPs as a whole had received pleas from 5,000 people worried about their relatives.
Timms said that among those whose cases had been reported to him, he so far knew of only three people who had successfully escaped.
“We’ve not had to deal with anything quite like this before,” Timms said of the unprecedented volumes of calls his team had received.
Those affected have turned to the ad hoc groups after government departments found themselves overwhelmed by the volume of demands for assistance.
Chetal Patel, an immigration partner at Bates Wells who has set up a hub where about 150 lawyers provide pro bono advice to those in need, said she had thought it vital to maintain pressure on the government and to lobby for further efforts to help those at risk.
“We simply cannot abandon Afghans who couldn’t get on a flight,” Patel said. “Morally, that’s not right.”
The UK troops airlifted 15,000 people out of Afghanistan in a three-week operation. Another 13 UK citizens were able to leave on a US-operated flight on Thursday. However, countless more are stuck and unable to escape the country.
“They’ve been overwhelmed,” Timms said of the Home Office and Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. “I don’t think they’ve opened many of [the emails]. They certainly haven’t replied to them.”
The government has insisted it is seeking to help those still hiding in Afghanistan by making agreements to ensure many can be brought to safety. It acknowledged that many people had been left “in difficult circumstances”.
“Our utmost priority is to continue to work with allies and partners in the region to ensure safe passage for those who want to leave Afghanistan,” the government said.
The Home Office has said it will set up a new Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme to admit up to 20,000 people, but has not published any detailed eligibility rules or said when it will open to applications or start bringing people to the UK.
The scheme is in addition to the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy, for those who worked closely with British troops and officials stationed there since 2001.
However, those plans are currently little comfort to Mohammad Nabi, formerly a senior Afghan government official in charge of reconstruction for the US Agency for International Development, who fled to the UK a decade ago in the face of threats to his life.
His daughter’s request for a visa to bring her six-year-old son in Afghanistan to the UK was rejected shortly before the Taliban takeover.
On the family’s behalf, Timms secured agreement from the Ministry of Defence that the boy should have a place on a flight to the UK, but the family were unable to reach the airport.
Nabi said his daughter, the boy’s mother, like several other worried relatives, had said she wanted to go to Afghanistan, if only so that she could die alongside her son.
“I’m just telling them, ‘We can leave it to God’,” Nabi said of his family members in the UK. “I’m telling them I’m trying whatever I can, but it’s very, very difficult.”
Much of the burden of supporting such desperate people has fallen on small-scale, often informal aid efforts.
The son of a leader in one of the mujahideen groups that fought the Taliban before it took over Afghanistan in 1996 described turning to one such initiative.
The man — who asked to be identified only as Zakria — had sought help from the Home Office in rescuing his father, who is now in hiding in Afghanistan.
He has since instead sought help from Rozina Iqbal, from East Ham, who has offered informal advice to scores of Afghans on dealing with UK officialdom.
“I’m feeling very, very, very depressed, very sad,” Zakria said. “I’m never going to see my family again.” Iqbal said it was “heartbreaking” to hear men breaking down in tears speaking to her.
The strain on some such organisations was clear at the Afghan and Central Asian Association, one of the UK’s largest Afghan community associations.
Nooralhaq Nasimi, the group’s director, said he and other members of his family had been sleeping at the group’s offices in Feltham, west London, in recent weeks. The ACAA received 6,000 calls for help in the two weeks after the Taliban’s takeover.
Sitting with her husband in their Docklands flat, Leila described how they were struggling to sleep. They were so desperately concerned about their two young children, as well as their sisters-in-law who are looking after them.
She said the two women had cried uncontrollably over the phone and were terrified of being found by the Taliban.
“We cannot have a normal life because if something happens, how can we live?” she said, expressing the anguish typical of those the groups are trying to support. “They’re in a really dangerous situation.”
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