Credit: Linda Norgrove Foundation

Home Office delays scheme to bring female Afghan students to UofG

By Kimberley Mannion

The University of Glasgow has agreed to an initiative organised by the Linda Norgrove Foundation to accept female Afghan medicine students who have been forced by the Taliban to abandon their studies.

The University of Glasgow is coordinating efforts to accommodate 20 female Afghan students between Scotland’s five medical schools. All five of Scotland’s universities which offer medicine courses have agreed to accept the students, who have been forced by the Taliban to abandon their training in Afghanistan. Yet the students’ resettlement in Scotland has been held up by the Home Office, which has declined to confirm when they will be allowed into the UK.

Professor Matthew Walters, Head of the University’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing, is representing the University of Glasgow in the initiative, which was organised by the Linda Norgrove Foundation, a charity which offers scholarships to young Afghan women training in medicine, nursing and midwifery. The Foundation was set up in memory of Linda Norgrove, an environmental expert who was overseeing a USAID project in Jalalabad when she was kidnapped in September 2010 and killed 12 days later during an attempted rescue mission by US forces, at the age of 36. Walters has taken over the role from the former medical school head Professor John-Paul Leach who was first to accept the initiative, and who left the University after allegations of bullying and gender discrimination. 

However, this is conditional on the women being able to find a way into the country, which has to be done through the UK government’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), one of two schemes the UK government established to resettle Afghan refugees in Britain. The first scheme, the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy Scheme (ARAP), was targeted for those who worked for or with the UK Government during the war in Afghanistan. John and Lorna Norgrove, who run the Foundation, have been struggling with the Home Office to find spaces for the 20 students to enter the country through ARCS. 

The first year of ACRS opened in January 2022, and encompassed three pathways through which Afghans could seek resettlement in the UK. Pathway one is for those who would have qualified for evacuation during Britain’s withdrawal when the Taliban regained control of Kabul in August 2021. Pathway two is through referral by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), thus meaning refugees who have already fled Afghanistan and are in another country. Finally, pathway 3 was supposed to allocate 1500 places in the first year for Chevening alumni (a scholarship for international students to study at UK universities), British Council workers, and GardaWorld contractors (a Canadian security company which was employed to guard embassies in Afghanistan. 

According to the Home Office, the second year of the ACRS will look beyond these three pathways to identify wider Afghans who are vulnerable by working with international partners and NGOs. The Linda Norgrove Foundation was eager to step up to this come January 2023, but was told the first year is counted as having begun in August 2022 rather than the January, since this is when applications closed. 

The Glasgow Guardian understands that the Home Office will open the second year of ACRS this August, and that the 20 Afghan women waiting to come to Scotland to resume their medicine studies will be considered for asylum then. However, the Home Office declined to confirm this when contacted. 

So far, the UK government has resettled more than 7,600 Afghans in the UK through ACRS. However these placements were made only through pathways one and two – with pathway one including those who qualified for the initial evacuation and pathway two including those who have already made it out of Afghanistan, numbers were limited for the sort of Afghans the Linda Norgrove Foundation is trying to help; vulnerable young women who want an education. 

The government has promised to provide up to 20,000 Afghans with safety in the UK through the lifetime of ACRS, although it is unclear how long its lifetime will be. Given the fact the first 6,292 of these were places the Home Office had already accounted for during the August 2021 evacuation, John Norgrove concluded: “They’re off to a pretty slow start”. He does acknowledge however, the difficulties of the operation: poor access to records in order to run appropriate background checks on refugees, and the logistical issues with getting out of a country whose government is not recognised by the UK. There are no international flights leaving Afghanistan, nor a British Embassy in Afghanistan; so asylum seekers must reach Islamabad, Pakistan or another third country to go through the visa process for entering the UK, which includes biometrics, passport checks and interviews. Then, there is the war in Ukraine which became another priority for the Home Office. Since Russia’s invasion of the country last February, over 154,500 Ukrainians have arrived in the UK on visa schemes. 

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the 90 female students the Linda Norgrove Foundation had been sponsoring to study medicine in Afghanistan have had to abandon their courses after the Taliban banned women from attending universities, and have been confined to their homes, only to leave when accompanied by a male family member. 

John and Lorna told The Glasgow Guardian how they receive “desperate emails” from their students pleading to get them out the country every week, terrified of the Taliban hunting them and of increasing instances of women who leave the house being abducted and raped. “Some of these students are in their last year and suddenly they go to university and they’re turned away from the doors, told they can’t study, and they’re just feeling like it’s almost been a waste in some way, that they’re never going to be able to complete their studies. They’re losing hope of being able to carry on with their studies in Afghanistan,” said Lorna. 

The Glasgow Guardian has spoken to some of the sponsored students, and seen videos of Taliban beating the female medics outside a university as they tried to enter to take their final exams. The video shows the women being escorted out of the building, past their male classmates who are sitting at desks watching as they wait to sit the exam. Both male and female students began protesting outside the university before the Taliban opened fire. Video shows the students running to the sound of gunshots.  One student described this last day at university to The Glasgow Guardian: “I still remember their long black hair and scary red eyes while they put their gun on my head and told me I shall shoot you now. I was just crying loudly with disappoint tears and breathe. I still feel pain on my body.”

Of the 90 students currently sponsored, the Foundation only has the resources to bring over 20. It will pay for all transport and visa costs to the UK, including accommodation in Islamabad or other countries while visas are processed. It will then assist students in applying for scholarships to finance their studies, since it does not have the capacity to see them through medical school once they have taken up their places in Scotland. 

John described the process of selecting the 20 women who will be offered places: “There are 70 people hoping against hope that they’re going to be one of the 20. And it’s going to be a huge disappointment to quite a lot of these women that they’re not going to get on the list. We’ve had experience of this. These women have been brought up in a country which is incredibly corrupt and which has got basically four major ethnicities and about 30 minor ethnicities. As soon as we pick the 20, these women are going to come straight back to us and say that we’ve picked them because of their ethnicity or because they’re mates of the women we know. So we’re going to have different factors.” These factors include academic record, English language proficiency, already having a passport and agreement to donate 10% of their annual income to charities in their homeland once they qualify as doctors.

Glasgow and Scotland’s four other medical schools were keen from the start to welcome the Afghan women onto their programmes. “All credit to them, they made us feel really proud. We mentioned the idea of bringing these 20 students over. They have regular meetings of all the deans, and they just came up straight, all five medical schools, and agreed they’ll all take some students,” John told The Glasgow Guardian.  

Jamie Stone MP of the Liberal Democrats has been an ardent supporter of the Linda Norgrove Foundation. He told The Glasgow Guardian: “The Home Office has been asleep at the wheel ever since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. We are watching women have their rights stripped away from them in real-time and the Government is not doing enough to help. The Government claimed that they would start considering applications from wider groups under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme after the first year of its existence. There are many UK-based charities that are ready to support these women who are stuck in Afghanistan and yet it is our own Government that is getting in the way. I have now written to the Home Office pressing them for clarification.”


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