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99% of calls to UK’s Afghanistan evacuation helpline were never answered

Exclusive: Home Office failed to answer almost three million calls, as Afghans fleeing Taliban say UK government ‘did not care’ about them

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Martin Williams
23 November 2021, 4.11pm
UK government answered less than 1% of calls to hotline helping Afghans fleeing Taliban
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Afghanistan Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

More than 99% of calls to a UK government helpline set up to help Afghans escape the Taliban went unanswered, openDemocracy can reveal.

As thousands tried to flee Afghanistan earlier this year, the phone number was meant to advise people who may be eligible for resettlement in the UK.

But the government has now admitted that less than 1% of the calls to the number were answered during the last ten days of the evacuation, between 22 and 31 August.

For those whose call was answered, there was an average wait time of more than 17 minutes, while some waited more than four hours.

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The government previously blamed a “technical glitch”, after it emerged that some callers to the evacuation hotline were being redirected to a washing machine repair company in Coventry.

In total, nearly three million calls were made over the ten-day period, of which government officials answered 28,000.

The UK government ‘did not respond and did not care’

Speaking to openDemocracy in August, one Afghan citizen said that no one had answered his call to the Home Office hotline, despite waiting “hours and hours” on the line.

The official – who had worked on dangerous UK-funded projects – said he had been “forgotten” by the British government and was hiding from the Taliban with his young children.

Asked how he felt about the British government, he said: “We don’t get angry, but we get sad – because we worked with no fear with them. We worked on their agenda.”

After giving up on the UK for help, the man finally got assistance from Australia and left Afghanistan a few days ago.

Today, he told openDemocracy that the UK government: “did not respond and did not care”.

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Labour MP Clive Lewis, who served with the Territorial Army in Afghanistan, told openDemocracy: “The public has clearly been misled about the extent of government action, as what the government said they were doing to support evacuation efforts simply does not match up with reality.

“Added to the fact that the government has failed to open the already-meagre Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, this is just more evidence that they aren’t living up to our obligations to the people of Afghanistan.

He added: “From my own experience of trying to support constituents with affected family members during the evacuation, there was chaos at every turn.”

What the government said it was doing to support evacuation efforts does not match up with reality

Clive Lewis, Labour MP

The mass evacuation took place after the Taliban took control of the capital on 15 August, leaving thousands of people fearing for their lives – especially those who had worked along Western forces.

More than 15,000 people were reportedly evacuated from Afghanistan to the UK in August, including British embassy staff and translators.

“We haven't forgotten the people who still need to leave,” the UK ambassador to Afghanistan Laurie Bristow said at the time. “We'll continue to do everything we can to help them.”

But those trapped in the country struggled to get any proper assistance from the UK. Last month, openDemocracy revealed that Afghan interpreters left behind during the evacuation had accused the British government of “playing with their lives” after it advised them to escape Afghanistan on their own.

In an email from the Ministry of Defence, the interpreters were told to “actively consider evacuating to a third country”, but were warned that the journey is “potentially dangerous”.

One former embassy worker told openDemocracy that the advice was “totally mad”, with another saying: “They’re asking us to risk our lives by attempting to cross the border.”

A spokesperson for the government said: “We undertook the UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping over 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan who we are continuing to support.

“The Afghanistan helpline was set up during a crisis situation and at pace for individuals or their family members to register foreign nationals who they are eligible to be brought back from the UK.

“At its peak, call volumes reached 1.8 million in one day. Due to the immense popularity of the helpline there were wait times – a holding message made callers aware their call would be answered as soon as possible and we also rapidly increased the number of agents available.”

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