In August 2021, as the UK and US withdrew from Afghanistan, marking the end of the 20-year war, Zulikha Zazai and her family were among thousands of Afghans and foreigners at Hamid Karzai international airport desperate to leave as the Taliban returned to power.
“It was [such a] horrible time for me,” said Zazai, 20, recalling being separated from her parents as teargas was fired into the crowd. “At that time I didn’t feel that I was leaving them.”
For more than two years, Zazai has been living in the UK with her siblings after escaping with relatives who had been visiting from the UK at the time.
“Life without my parents is really hard,” said Zazai, who lives in Leeds with her siblings, 18 and 10, after moving between nearly half a dozen hotels. “The new generation is growing really bad, like my sister [and] other children, it’s really bad for them, they need their parents.”
Other young people whom the Guardian interviewed, similarly living in the UK under the Home Office’s Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), have also spoken of difficulties of living with evacuated relatives. Without a mechanism for minors to reunite with their parents, and unable to afford visa routes, they do not know if or when they will reconnect with family.
In 2023, activists and charities including Safe Passage called on the government to honour its commitment to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees under ACRS. The latest government figures show that in the first nine months of 2023 fewer than 300 people arrived under ACRS and the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) scheme. In the same period, 5,249 Afghans arrived in the UK irregularly, including 4,843 through dangerous Channel crossings, according to Safe Passage.
Caterina Franchi, a lawyer for Safe Passage, said: “I don’t have any idea as to why they would want to keep traumatised young children separated from their parents. They don’t see children as children or people as people, they just see them as numbers.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government continues to work with partners in the region to evacuate eligible people and is committed to bringing more Afghans to the UK in the long term. In October we committed to establishing a route to allow eligible individuals to refer one spouse or partner and dependent children to join them in the UK. We anticipate to see the first referrals in the first half of 2024.”
Philippa Kempe, a Leeds psychotherapist, has been supporting Zazai and other young people. The trauma and stress of separations has resulted in eating disorders, cases of self-harm and emotional and physical distress, says Kempe, who has raised their cases with the Home Office, local MPs solicitors and refugee groups.
“We cannot fail children, wherever they’ve come from. We pride ourselves in the UK as being good at safeguarding children’s needs and keeping them safe, and we’ve failed them,” Kempe said.
The process has been disheartening, she said. “I’m very affected – over a year and a half when you see children crumble, I mean really crumble, emotionally and physically.”
Bahir, 15, was evacuated from Afghanistan with his uncle, who had worked for the British army for more than a decade, as his parents were in another city for a wedding at the time of the withdrawal.
“There was no choice for me. I had to come with my uncle,” Bahir said through a translator. “I can’t get rid of my worries, all the time I am thinking about my parents, my siblings, because the situation of the country is getting worse day by day.”
Now living in Leeds, Bahir says he feels mentally and physically exhausted. Unable to concentrate, he fears he is falling behind in school. “My life is just like I am in hell life,” he said.
Farhad, 16, was visiting his father on a break from his studies in Pakistan when the west withdrew from Kabul. After helping his sister with her bags to the airport, where her husband worked, Farhad found himself unable to leave.
“The gate was blocked, there was no other way to go back,” Farhad said. “They promised in 2021 that they’re going to bring the families, but it’s still been almost three years.”
Hilary Benn, the Labour MP for Leeds Central, said it was heartbreaking to hear children in his constituency speak of family separation because of what happened in Afghanistan, including at Kabul airport. “I have raised this with ministers and the Home Office should now act to reunite these families,” he said.