Journeys to safety in the UK

7 Mins read

“Chaos overwhelmed the streets as people ran, suitcases in hand, some even in slippers. East of Kiev, where I lived was still okay, but I did not have a basement to protect myself in case of attacks.”

Victoria Baranoska was 24 years-old and living in Kiev when the war started in 2022.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict forced more than six million people to flee Ukraine, increasing the numbers of those dealing with poverty, food insecurity and displacement, the latest affecting mainly women and children. 

Ukrainian refugees have been allowed to the UK through two legal routes that opened up at the beginning of the war for humanitarian help: the sponsor scheme (entirely depending on sponsorships from UK residents, welcoming refugees in their house, receiving incentives in return) and the Ukraine family scheme (allowing Ukrainians to join family members in the UK), which was recently shut down. 

Victoria’s journey to safety involved months of travel through Moldova and Hungary before reaching London. She described the months spent in Budapest, before applying for the visa: “It felt like a prison because the flat was in central Budapest and we could hear every sound from outside.

“I remember I used to jump from the sofa every time I heard an ambulance, I still do. The first time I took a walk alone outside I could not look at the people; it was unreal seeing people at night, walking, laughing, and enjoying their time, knowing people were dying in a war so close to them.”

In the present context, global crises and conflicts happening in several countries are forcing millions of people out of their houses to seek refuge in other nations. 

Sima Sultani is an Afghan refugee who worked as a journalist when the Taliban returned to power in 2021 and had to flee because she was at high risk.  

She arrived in the UK shortly after she was granted flight and accommodation by the government. In Afghanistan, since the Taliban regime returned to power in 2021, 3.2 milion Afghans have been displaced, facing hunger and poverty. 

“I had nothing: banks were closed, I couldn’t take my money, ATM machines were empty, nothing was working. All banks were closed for 15 days after the Taliban came, and people were queuing outside”

Sima Sultani

Every day, the situation deteriorates for women, who are being forced out of universities, losing their educational rights, and facing restrictions on their freedom to work safely or leave their houses unaccompanied. 

When I met Sima Sultani, she told me that working in a professional setting was already seen negatively by some family members and neighbours even before the Taliban regime, as “women working in professional settings is not something that is common or accepted by society in Afghanistan. You’re lucky here in the West is different,” she says. 

In 2021, Sima was working as a journalist for the BBC’s international channel, reporting on women’s affairs, and staying in her country meant putting herself and her family at risk. 

Fortunately, she was able to flee thanks to the UK scheme, enabling people working internationally for the UK to escape quickly and, in certain cases like Sima’s, without the need of a visa or a passport. “I didn’t have to apply or pay for a visa, nor wait endless time to be in the UK, while my family is still stuck in Pakistan,” she tells me. 

The ARCS scheme is the sole alternative scheme launched in 2022, with the aim of resettling up to 20,000 Afghan people in the UK. 

Eligibility for resettlement under the program is determined through one of three referral pathways, each with specific criteria and processes.

Pathway One targets individuals evacuated during the 2021 Operation Pitting, Pathway Two focuses on Afghan refugees referred by the UN Refugee Agency, and Pathway Three addresses at-risk groups in Afghanistan or neighbouring countries, initially including specific contractor and alumni categories.  

Additionally, the UK government has various schemes in place for refugees fleeing from different parts of the world. By the end of 2023, more than 260 thousand visas were granted to Ukrainian refugees.  

I spoke with Sima and Victoria to understand more about their journeys and different experiences to arrive in the UK. 

For Victoria, getting out of the living situation in Budapest, where all she was doing was taking care of her aunt’s children for months, was a necessary step to heal. 

“On the 18th of March, my mum informed me of a visa for England and I applied. I needed sponsors so I contacted a family living not too far from London, through a website helping Ukrainian refugees ‘Hope for Ukraine’. I just had a feeling, I read their info, and I contacted them. I was 22 at the time and I couldn’t speak any English, but we arranged everything very quickly and in five days I got my visa.”

Two days later, on March 26th, she was on a flight to London. 

“When I arrived in the UK, I only had a handbag and 100 euros with me and very limited knowledge of the language,” says Vicky. She tells me the important role her host family played, raising £200 from the community to help her buy essentials and settle in the UK. 

Meanwhile, arriving in the UK was different for Sima as she recollects: “I was stuck at the Kabul airport for three days and there was no water, it was a very traumatic situation,” and “it was very unorganised as some people who were allowed to leave Afghanistan and take their whole families were not really at risk as some others.” 

Once in the UK, Sima, along with other refugees from Afghanistan, was required to quarantine for a month in a small hotel room, before being granted indefinite leave to remain.

“Once Afghan refugees arrive in the UK, they have a set of pretty discriminatory attitudes that they have to overcome: one is that they look different, the language is difficult and they end up put up in hotels far away from urban centres,” says Professor Dawn Chatty, from Oxford University. 

Additionally, the hotel accommodations Afghan refugees receive on their arrival were previously described by Daniel Trilling in The Guardian as “cramped and demeaning”. 

“It has an effect upon them when they just came from that trauma, and you just put them in a small room,” comments Sima. 

Both Sima and Victoria had to adjust to life in the UK, however the support received was not equal. Victoria has found the help of her host family extremely important for getting the support she needed in the first few months of living in the UK.

She tells me the family helped her learn the language, finding a job and addressing the loneliness and negative feelings that impacted her daily life.

She recounted a particular incident that left a lasting impression. “One day,” she began, “I left my shoes outside to dry after cleaning them but when I went back for them, they were nowhere to be found. I was devastated. Those shoes were my only pair, and now they were gone.”

“I cried a lot,” she admitted. However, it was what happened next that truly touched her heart. “My host family reassured me that it might have been foxes that took them. Then, they took me shopping to buy new shoes.” 

Vicky’s voice warmed with gratitude as she remembered the kindness and support she received during that difficult time. “They became like a second family to me here, showing me just how much they cared.”

As reported by international journals, ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, in less than 6 months, the UK welcomed almost 12 times as many Ukrainian than Afghan refugees, dedicating more staff and resources to Ukrainians, demonstrating a disparity in resource allocation and support toward different refugee groups.

“Ukrainians are directly integrated into towns and villages, especially because the British government opened a scheme: they paid people to open up their bedrooms for Ukrainians, which also means they have a family that is supporting them and helping them to manage the bureaucracy. Afghan refugees don’t have that,” asserts Professor Chatty. 

“When I arrived in the UK, I struggled a lot to understand people and their accent. I had never studied English before, although I learned something from working with Sesame TV in my home country. It was really difficult for me to adapt to the cultural differences,” affirms Sima.

During our conversation, she mentioned several times how she considers herself lucky, compared to her family and neighbours. 

She talks about ‘privilege’ for the reason that the government helped her flee her country rapidly in a situation of danger, but what she thinks is privilege, in comparison to her family and friends and many others still waiting in Pakistan, should be granted as a basic human right. 

It would be very difficult for Sima to bring her family to the UK because the British government has harsh criteria for people to apply for a family visa. “If your family is outside, you need to sponsor them, and for that you need a lot of money. It’s not easy,” she says. 

More openness and security should be granted to refugees from Afghanistan as much as Ukrainian refugees. Critics argue that the disparate treatment of refugees from different conflicts exemplifies a selective approach by the government evidencing the presence of a dual standard and a dual system.          

While according to the migration’s observatory, over 105,000 Ukrainians were granted visas in just the second quarter of 2022, data on Afghan resettlements during the same period remains undisclosed, fuelling accusations of neglect and oversight.

“Many are still in Pakistan, at risk,” laments Sima. “When that [Ukraine war] happened, the government totally forgot about us.” 

“This situation is partially appealing to law,” says Professor Chatty. The temporary protection directive, applied for the Ukranian’s case, wasn’t previously approved for Middle East states.

“Many have had to wait for a long time, some were able to get out of Afghanistan and went to Pakistan or Qatar. Some of it is bureaucratic difficulties and then I would say of course there is an element of discrimination.”

To address these concerns, there is a critical need for governments and international bodies to prioritize and allocate resources effectively, ensuring the safety and well-being of Afghan refugees and offering them the support they urgently require.

“I am grateful for the help I received here, but I wish the government would do more to assist refugees from Afghanistan,” says Sima. “Getting a job and starting a new life here felt like being reborn. But for my family and many others, it’s not that easy.”

Both Victoria and Sima could never imagine returning to their hometowns and building their future there. 

Meanwhile, Victoria and Sima navigate their new lives in London. Victoria has moved out from her host house and is now renting a flat while working for a healthcare company in Canary Wharf. 

Sima is currently employed as a journalist for the BBC: “At least I know I started from somewhere, I have a job and now I can help my family, which is a big deal for me.”

Featured image by Rainy Travels via Wikimedia Commons.

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