MAWLANA Abdullah’s work is in ruins – burnt, banned, brutalised.

From exile, the former deputy head of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) is “living like any other refugee” and trying to figure out a path to safety for himself and his family.

The job he was elected to is gone and the commission itself has been dismantled. Its offices have been ransacked, as has his former home. Documents were set alight, computers broken, files stolen, he says. The Taliban dissolved the watchdog in December, saying there was now “no need for these commissions to exist and operate”.

Abdullah (below) was out of the country on a work trip to Lebanon when the extremist group took power in August. He’s never returned. But, staying temporarily with his wife and children in a third country amongst thousands of other fleeing Afghans, he’s looking for a chance to come to the UK.

The National: Mawlana Abdullah is trapped not only by politics, geography and bureaucracy, but by his own profileMawlana Abdullah is trapped not only by politics, geography and bureaucracy, but by his own profile

The trouble is, with so many questions around the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, it’s not at all clear how to do this. And if he doesn’t, he fears he’ll be killed or his children abducted. He’s already survived one assassination attempt which was blocked by his bodyguards just a few months before the regime change. The guard caught the gunman, who claimed he’d been paid by a high-ranking security official. But Abdullah doesn’t have such protection any more and, with his name and face known to millions of people, he fears it’ll be a matter of time before danger catches up with him if he stays put.

The Sunday National has agreed not to publish his location as a result. Abdullah, a former media lawyer and chairman of the Afghanistan Radio & Television Union (ARTU), feels stuck; trapped not only by politics, geography and bureaucracy, but by his own profile. At the IEC, part of the job was going before the cameras to update the nation on elections and as a result, it’s hard to stay under the radar. “A lot of people have already seen me here,” he tells the Sunday National.

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The IEC had long been a target for terrorists. Its Kabul office had been the subject of bomb and bullet, with staff killed. Today it no longer exists. “Our office has been looted,” Abdullah says. “Doors were broken, computers destroyed, documents destroyed. Our home was attacked. They took all documents and burned them, destroyed them. Afghanistan is in the hands of people who don’t believe in any sort of governance. They are violating, destroying everything; destroying the values, destroying people’s freedom.”

He goes further. “Afghanistan is a hell on Earth now. Thirty-five to forty million people are hostages in the hands of 50,000 terrorists.

“Afghanistan is a country where people sell their children for a living. There is no security, no freedom of speech, you can’t say what you want. Millions of people are hungry, people are in a very extreme difficulties, various different terrorist groups are coming in to the country and taking people every night, nobody knows where to. Everything is gone.”

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR says there are 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees worldwide, 2.2m of whom are registered in Iran and Pakistan. But countless more are undocumented and there’s been little welcome in neighbouring countries. In 2020, the UK’s total Afghan refugee population was 12,600, behind Italy, India, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Around 7000 have been brought to the UK since August’s chaotic evacuation and the government says it will accept another 20,000 through ACRS, with 5000 accepted in the first year. But it’s emerged that this figure will include people who are already in the UK and there are serious questions about aspects of the scheme, which opened earlier this month.

Working through referrals, not applications, it prioritises people who “have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and rule of law”, the government says, and UNHCR will work with UK authorities to “identify those we should help”. But it’s already emerged that people who were brought here under the evacuation programme will be counted in that ACRS 5000 first-year total, reducing the number of places available.

While there will be prioritisation for “vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk, and members of minority groups at risk” it’s not clear where those lines are.

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And though the scheme is focused on those remaining in Afghanistan “or the region”, there’s no detail on what geographical area is meant by this. All the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) will say is “refers to countries that border areas of conflict and instability and does include those who fled to nearby countries”.

But there are six countries sharing borders with landlocked Afghanistan, all with varying numbers of displaced people. That displacement has pushed the people who have money to travel further away too, with some going to India, where an estimated 11,000-21,000 live, and others to Turkey, which is home to 120,000-300,000 Afghans.

It’s uncertain that ACRS will be open to people newly-fled to those countries, regardless of who they are. Meanwhile, Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill will criminalise anyone who arrives through irregular channels, if it’s passed.

The National: Taliban fighters block roads after an explosion Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. An explosion went off Tuesday at the entrance of a military hospital in Kabul, killing severa; people and wounding over a dozen, health officials said.(AP Photo/Ahmad Halabisaz)

Abdullah is looking for answers and he hopes the UK Government has them. He respects good governance, he says. He’d worked for months with staff to modernise and digitise Afghanistan’s voting system, something he says was “a big success”. “The Taliban have dismantled all of it. Employees who have worked there for 20 years have no jobs, no future,” he goes on. “In the media, we were a lot better than our neighbours. We could compare ourselves to some European countries and there were a lot of organisations standing for the right to freedom of speech and against censorship.

“Now we have chaos in a country. It’s very painful for me to see this happening in the 21st century. All these rights are violated.”

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Before the fall of Kabul, Abdullah had no plan to leave his country, he says, despite sending his family away for their own safety after the assassination attempt. “There were the responsibilities our nation put on my shoulders. I thought it was my duty to stay. Now I am not safe. I think I would be more safe in Britain.”

The Home Office did not respond to the Sunday National but the UNHCR said it can’t comment on individual cases. The agency said individuals can approach local UNHCR offices: “In countries neighbouring Afghanistan where there are Afghan refugee communities, trained UNHCR staff will identify those most in need of protection in the country of asylum. With 2.5m Afghan refugees, those places need to be prioritised only for those most in need.”