Today’s blog was co-written by a former Chevening Scholar in Afghanistan, who remains anonymous for their own security, and Dr Ceri Oeppen, Co-Director of the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex, UK (@Oeppen).
In August 2021 this year’s cohort of Afghan Chevening Scholars were evacuated from Kabul. But what about alumni left behind? 40-50 Chevening alumni remain in Afghanistan, their strong ties to the UK turned from an asset to a serious vulnerability.
Chevening Scholarships are funded by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) and enable people from selected countries to do a one-year Master’s degree in the UK. In their words, the scholarships are aimed at ‘future leaders, influencers and decision-makers’ and as well as academic aims also enable scholars to ‘network extensively, experience UK culture, and build lasting positive relationships with the UK’. They are awarded via a competitive process with the stated intention that scholars return to their own country afterwards. Most Afghan alumni did indeed return and went on to take significant roles in the Afghan public, private and non-profit sectors, such as government ministers and deputy ministers, diplomats, human/women’s rights activists, security and development practitioners. Their prominent roles and strong connections to the UK are now a serious risk factor for them and their families.
The presence of an active alumni network in Afghanistan was an asset to the British higher education sector. They actively encouraged others, particularly women, to apply to study in the UK, and were a diplomatic boon to the British Government. However, these ‘lasting positive relationships’ – the very success of the Chevening programme – are now Afghan alumni’s downfall.
This was recognised by the UK Government who named current and former Chevening Scholars as people ‘at serious risk’ in Afghanistan whilst evacuations were taking place.
Whilst current Chevening scholars and some of their families were evacuated, former Cheveners remain in Afghanistan with no information from the British Government about their status or whether they will be prioritised in the Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) as promised.
Although a tweet from the Chevening Secretariat reiterated commitments by saying the safety of scholars and alumni are a priority, the list of specific groups at risk was subsequently removed from the gov.uk website. Meanwhile, alumni asking the FCDO for help are receiving auto-response emails, or no reply at all.
How the resettlement scheme will operate and its formal eligibility criteria is yet to be announced, leaving former Chevening Scholars in limbo, unsure about whether they should wait for the resettlement scheme, or make their own way to safety, which given provisions in the UK’s new Nationality and Borders Bill, would leave them criminalised and denied asylum if they make their way to the UK via irregular routes.
A former Chevening Scholar’s experience – from an anonymous Chevening Scholar
When I received the wonderful news that I had been chosen for a Chevening Scholarship and would be able to study for my master’s degree in the UK I was overjoyed. I had worked hard to get to the point that I would be eligible, and I knew this would be a fantastic opportunity to travel, to learn about new places and cultures and get great experience for my future career.
I enjoyed my time studying in the UK and learnt a lot from my studies and through the experience of living in the UK. The Chevening secretariat enabled meetups with our fellow scholars from all over the world, through networking events and receptions, at our own universities and at the Foreign Office in London.
After returning to Afghanistan, I, and other Chevening alumni, remained connected with the UK via regular events at the British Embassy, and with the global Chevening community via Afghanistan’s Chevening Alumni Network. As such, an inseparable bond remained between us and the UK Government.
When I heard that the 2021 cohort of Afghan Chevening Scholars might not be able to get to the UK, I was so sad that they would miss out – I knew what an opportunity it was, and I had personally encouraged some of them to apply, something Chevening alumni regularly do in the spirit of paying it forward.
At the time, we did not know how quickly the Taliban would take over, and alumni started campaigning on social media in support of this year’s cohort. Midway through our social media campaign Kabul fell to the Taliban. Then we realised our social media posts exposed us and the current cohort as visible Chevening scholars and former scholars – with all the connections to ‘the west’ that implies – putting us all in danger.
I was so relieved for this year’s scholars when they were eventually evacuated to the UK, and patiently awaited my own ‘call forward’ to Kabul airport for evacuation, given the UK Government had highlighted former and current Chevening Scholars as a vulnerable group under the new regime.
Between August the 15th and September the 6th, I received two calls from the FCDO gathering information about me and my dependents and was told at least six times in emails that someone from the UK Government would ‘get in touch very soon’. I desperately waited for a call forward. But the call never came.
The UK had recognised us as at risk but then abandoned us to the wolves. Like me, many Afghan Cheveners have reason to fear the Taliban – our connection to the UK and high-profile positions in Afghanistan put a target on our backs. But all our emails and requests for help from our former FCDO and Chevening contacts either get no reply, an auto-response, or placatory concerns about our safety with no practical advice as to how to find safety.
I got the advisory that I should ‘move to a safe place’, but where is safe for me and my family now in Afghanistan? Nowhere!
Right now, my bank account is frozen, I do not dare leave the house and I am totally reliant on my extended family. I cannot sleep, I have lost my appetite, Ceri had to help me with this blog post because I have no concentration and focus. If I was still at my UK university they would probably refer me to the university counsellor if I told them about these symptoms. But here and now, what I need is not counselling but practical help to get myself and my family to safety.
What hurts most is the feeling of abandonment from my second country. I am a proud Afghan, but I have always been an Anglophile too. I thought that the UK system was based on fairness and merit, and that if I did the right things, filled in the right forms, spoke to the right people, got in the right queue, then my situation would be recognised… but it seems this is not the case. The UK Government were happy to celebrate my and others’ achievements as a Chevener – they regularly posted pictures of us and our events at the UK embassy on social media. But they seem to have forgotten us now.
Afghan Chevening alumni have written hundreds of letters and emails to the UK Government, including an open letter to the Prime Minister, but we have not had a response. Although we have the remarkable support of regular people including lawyers, activists, journalists, MPs and our former universities, the Government seems to have forgotten us.
In reaction to the silence from the UK Government to our emails, we have launched social media campaigns with the hashtag #SaveAfghanCheveningAlumni, but even this is risky as we do not want to draw negative attention to ourselves.
We have gone from being entertained at the Foreign Office and Embassy – and held up as an example of the positive impact of a British university education – to being abandoned. All we want is the UK Government to deliver on its promise to support us a group they publicly identified as ‘at risk’ due to our connections with the UK.
The importance of international students and alumni to UK universities – Dr. Ceri Oeppen
Our international student population is part of what makes us who we are at Sussex. Alongside other UK universities, the University of Sussex has benefitted from the presence of many talented Afghan Chevening Scholars as part of our student community over the years. Sussex certainly seems to be popular amongst Afghan students, as a quarter of this year’s Afghan Cheveners chose to study with us.
Our postgraduate students come from all over the world; a key benefit for all our students is in receiving a global range of perspectives from each other as much as through their studies. Faculty also benefit; as an academic researching Afghanistan, Afghan migration and displacement, being able to discuss ideas with our Afghan students is a wonderful opportunity.
It is not just our current students, but also our alumni who form part of the Sussex community. Our recent Sussex Fund Afghan Appeal is just one example of the way our alumni support us and our current students.
Community goes two ways – just as we call on our alumni for support, we also have a duty to support them. By ‘we’, we mean not just Sussex, but the whole UK higher education sector and the British Government. This is both for moral and humanitarian reasons but also in recognition of the huge contribution international students make to the higher education sector and economy of the UK.
The Government need to live up to the promises they made to ‘shift heaven and earth’ to get vulnerable people out of Afghanistan. During the August 2021 evacuations they identified and acknowledged the serious risks faced by former Chevening Scholars.
However, now, over two months since the Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme was first announced, former Chevening Scholars are stranded, in limbo with no further information and support from the Government of the country with which they were encouraged to form such strong ties.
What can academics do to help?
Many UK universities are already supporting Afghan students and former students in various ways, but here are some suggestions of what you can do to help.
· If not already achieved, work towards getting University of Sanctuary status.
· Encourage your students to get involved in Student Action for Refugees (STAR).
· Encourage your university to start or expand scholarship programmes for refugees and asylum seekers, such as Sanctuary Scholarships.
· Afghan alumni may need letters of support for visa applications or other opportunities, make time for them.
· If you have Afghan students, recognise that they are in an extremely vulnerable and uncertain position – and likely extremely worried about family still in Afghanistan. Signpost them to specialist support and advice, as appropriate.
· Write to your MP and ask them to ask the Government to expedite the Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) and include former Chevening Scholars in the scheme.