January marks one year since a Scottish charity began a campaign to bring 20 female Afghan medical students to complete their degrees at Scottish universities, which has faced delays and uncertainty from the UK Home Office. 

The Linda Norgrove Foundation struck agreements with Scotland’s five medical schools to grant places to the female students, who were forced to abandon their medical training when the Taliban banned women from universities in Afghanistan last December. 

One year on, they cannot even go for a walk without a male family member as a guardian, and are counting on the Home Office to let them take up the places on offer to finish their studies at Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Aberdeen and Dundee medical schools. 

The UK Home Office said its Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) would reopen to process its second year of applications in January 2023, which John and Linda Norgrove had hoped would see the plight of their students considered.

This date was then pushed back to August, and it now remains unclear when the students will be considered, with the Isle of Lewis based charity still waiting for news

The ACRS scheme is broken down into three pathways. The vast majority of Afghans who have been resettled so far fall under pathway one, which accounts for people who were eligible to be part of the evacuation effort of the UK in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, most of whom worked for or with the British Government during its war effort in the country.  

Mr and Mrs Norgrove hoped the medical students would be considered under pathway three last year, which is designed for those particularly vulnerable, such as at risk women and girls, among other groups.

According to the UK government’s latest Immigration Systems Statistics release, no Afghans have been granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK through this pathway yet. 

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One of the students hoping to come to Scotland through the Linda Norgrove scheme broke down in tears on the phone as she relayed her situation to The Herald.  

The student, who wishes to remain anonymous over fears for her safety, is currently living in hiding with her brother and constantly switching locations after the Taliban began showing up at her door.

Her life has changed drastically, having been in her sixth and final year of medical school when her university’s doors were slammed shut to female students in December last year. 

One month before this, in November 2022, she had travelled to Indonesia to attend a workshop on maternal and child health, an area she hopes to specialise in, along with 38 other Afghan medics. During the trip, she also spoke to the Indonesian Foreign Minister and raised with him the situation of womens’ rights in Afghanistan, a move she believes led the Taliban to target her. 

She began to move locations in January last year when one of the students she tutors alerted her that the Taliban were looking for her. It was summer before they showed up at her door.

She told The Herald: “It was about 9pm when they came and looked around our building, our yard, and finally left at 2am. Two weeks later, they came back and directly knocked on the door. I replied that I was a tailor and that I couldn’t open the door because my mahram [male guardian without whom it is not permitted to leave the house] is out so I can’t open the door. They said I was lying and that they had recorded my voice.

“I changed my appearance and clothes to look like a man and left my building to go to my friend’s house. Since that time, I have had bad mental health. I wake up through the night and look out the window to see who is there.”

Before the Taliban takeover, she had been working as a health worker alongside her studies. 

Despite the closure of universities and the Taliban threat, she has continued self study at home and worked as a tutor for the Afghan Online University, which allows women to study at home. 
“My mother was sick, she had a tumour. At that time, we couldn’t find any specialists in gynaecology. It took one year for someone to come to Kabul to give my mother a hysterectomy. I promised myself and my mother I would become a doctor.

“After 15 August 2021 everything returned to zero and the Taliban destroyed all my goals and dreams. I have a brain I can use to be a successful doctor. I had planned to work here and serve the Afghan people,” she says. 

“I can say that Afghan women are the bravest and strongest women in the whole world. Since the Taliban everything has gone backwards and progress has been closed to women. Day by day, restrictions increased and the number of women experiencing mental health problems increased. The rate of suicide and forced marriage increased,” she added.  

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John and Lorna Norgrove set up the foundation in memory of their daughter Linda who was killed while working as an aid worker in Jalalabad in September 2010, at the age of 36. 

Mr Norgrove told The Herald: “We have been very disappointed by the responses from the Home Office to our requests to bring in 20 medical students to the UK, where they have been offered places at all five Scottish medical schools.

“Presently they have no future, some only weeks away from graduating as doctors but denied the opportunity by the Taliban to complete. They could finish their studies in Scotland and then work in the NHS, which is crying out for medical staff.

“At the time of the airlift from Kabul two years ago, the UK government promised to bring out 20,000 Afghan refugees and set a time scale of three years. They’ve accommodated those that were airlifted out that month but appear to have only taken another 200 or so refugees since then.

“We can appreciate that it can’t be easy to process and accommodate more refugees, especially with those coming in from Ukraine and Hong Kong now, but a promise is a promise and this country’s failure to honour its commitments is truly shaming.” 

Alison Thewliss MP, the SNP’s spokesperson for Home Affairs, told The Herald the situation with the students highlights a “mark of failure” of the resettlement scheme. 

“The UK Government owes a special obligation to women in Afghanistan; women’s hopes and dreams were built up only to be ruined by the return of the Taliban. I raised the case of these Afghan students in Parliament in September, and it is deeply frustrating that there has yet to be any progress.

"The female Afghan medical students the Linda Norgrove foundation wish to bring to Scotland should be here already, continuing their studies and contributing to our society. It is a mark of failure of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme that they are not. Far too many Afghans have been left in a very dangerous limbo as they wait for paperwork to be completed.

"I urge the UK Government to move now to grant these brave students their visas so that we can welcome them to Scotland to rebuild their lives,” said Thewliss. 

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The Scottish Government has said that if the UK government resettles the students the women will be able to benefit from free tuition and cost of living support. The Linda Norgrove Foundation will fund their travel from Afghanistan.

“Student support regulations in Scotland allow home-fee status and access to living cost support to those in the country under relevant Afghan resettlement schemes,” a Scottish Government spokesperson said. 

A UK government spokesperson said: “The UK has made an ambitious and generous commitment to help at-risk people in Afghanistan and, so far, we have brought around 24,600 vulnerable people to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan resettlement schemes.

“Supporting the resettlement of eligible Afghans remains a top priority and we continue to work with like minded partners and countries neighbouring Afghanistan on resettlement issues, and to support safe passage for eligible people.”

However, of the 24,600 figure, less than one third account for arrivals after Operation Pitting, the UK’s military evacuation from Kabul after the Taliban takeover almost two and a half years ago which evacuated eligible Afghans, the vast majority of whom had worked for or with the British Government in the country.