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‘The uprisings opened up the door’: the TV cop shows confronting a harmful legacy | US television

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There’s a moment of police harassment in the pilot of ABC’s cop drama The Rookie, which premiered in fall 2018, that’s so tangential to the plot you could easily miss it.

Three Mexican gardeners honk at the cruiser of an abrasive training officer, who then berates the gardeners as a “test” of his rookie trainee on her first day. The three mostly mute Mexican men are accessories to this characterization of the tough-guy officer and his flustered trainee, as the effect of the harassment on their lives goes unexplored – until a third season episode from earlier this year, in which the trainee asks the officer to imagine how the gardeners felt about the “terrorizing” encounter that, for them, was not a test. His admission that he “used” the gardeners is a startling example of on-air revision: a main character acknowledging a personal failure that is also the show’s failure to consider that the minority characters – in real life, the policed – were used to positively characterize its police officers.

It’s also the work of cultural consultants, experts on diversity and inclusion who advise TV producers and writers’ rooms on how to more responsibly and accurately portray law enforcement on television. Following last summer’s nationwide protests against anti-black police brutality, broadcast networks have increasingly turned to consultants to address the disconnect between the reality of racist policing and the lionized, mostly race-blind law enforcement seen on such popular shows as Law & Order, NCIS, Blue Bloods and Chicago PD. Before the protests, “the barrier was just getting people to recognize the urgency of changing these narratives,” said Kristen Marston, culture and entertainment advocacy director for Color of Change, who helped advise The Rookie’s third season. “The uprisings opened up the door.”

Outside help in TV writers’ rooms is not new: crime shows have, since the beginning of serialized TV, collaborated with ex-law enforcement advisers or police departments to depict seemingly realistic, unfailingly heroic policing; post-#MeToo movement, film and television productions turned en masse to intimacy coordinators to safely choreograph sex scenes. Cultural consultants such as Marston could become a new standard on crime shows – one tool to address how some of the most popular shows on television work as PR for a criminal justice system that is not the generally color-blind, fair, dramatic and effective one seen on screen.

Hollywood has long been one of the most influential forces in how Americans think about law enforcement, particularly for white people who are, as a group, less likely to have a harmful interaction with police. From Dragnet to Dirty Harry, NYPD Blue to Law & Order and its many spinoffs, film and television overwhelmingly present law enforcement as heroic, or at least acting with good intentions. Nowhere is this perspective – “cop-aganda” in which police are always the protagonists – more entrenched than in network procedurals. These shows, in which a stable roster of characters resolve a case within a single episode, have for the past decade composed anywhere from a fifth to over a fourth of all scripted network programming; NBC has an entire night devoted just to the Law & Order creator Dick Wolf’s trifecta of Chicago first responder shows (PD, Med and Fire); six of the top 10 most watched scripted broadcast shows in 2020 were crime procedurals.

A still from The Rookie
A still from The Rookie. Photograph: ABC/2021 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

These shows about a system which disproportionately targets people of color are overwhelmingly produced and written by white people. The landmark 2020 Color of Change study Normalizing Injustice, which examined broadcast crime series airing in 2018-2019, found that 86% of writers across 19 series were white, and five series had entirely white writers’ rooms. Despite depicting a criminal justice system that over-polices black Americans – black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and black and Latino people comprise 56% of incarcerated Americans (compared to 32% of the population at large) – all series except CBS’s Swat had 15% or less black writers, and nine series had none at all.

As in many industries, Hollywood responded to intense public pressure for change last summer with some immediate, once unthinkable actions. Paramount shelved the popular show Cops, the longest-running reality series in TV history, which for 33 years used questionably sourced footage of real arrests to valorize misconduct as a necessary policing measure and exaggerate the prevalence of violent crime. A day later, A&E cancelled a similar series, LivePD. CBS struck a groundbreaking deal with a police reform group founded by the executive of Obama’s taskforce on 21st-century policing, 21CP Solutions, to advise portrayals of police on its shows. The network also pledged 25% of its development budget to black, Indigenous and people of color (bipoc) creators, and promised its writers’ rooms would be, at minimum, 40% bipoc for the 2021-2022 season.

Showrunners and writers also went public with their personal intentions to embrace change. The cast of the NBC comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund. Donnie Wahlberg, star of CBS’s Blue Bloods, one of the more conservative cop procedurals on air, teased a “more mindful” upcoming season. Law & Order SVU’s executive producer and showrunner, Warren Leight, also pledged to re-examine the influence of the hero-cop narrative. “This has to be a moment where people make themselves uncomfortable, where people in power have to make themselves uncomfortable,” he told the Hollywood Reporter’s TV’s Top 5 podcast in June last year.

“I always tried to approach from a place of having cops trying to do the right thing,” Alexi Hawley, co-creator and showrunner of The Rookie, told the Guardian of the show’s early seasons. But after 2020, “it felt like being solely aspirational wasn’t good enough any more, that we were showing a version of policing that was alien to many people.”

The murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and the cultural reckoning over systemic racism that followed, pressured Hollywood to grapple with its productions’ responsibility in obfuscating and excusing the real criminal justice system’s harms – calls renewed this week after Chauvin became one of the few officers ever convicted for a fatal shooting in a system that overwhelmingly sees police use of force as justified. Nearly a year later, now that episodes conceived and written post-2020 have aired, the question is: how much is changing?

Law & Order: SVU.
Law & Order: SVU. Photograph: five

Television presents a version of the world which, as the Color of Change chief, Rashad Robinson, puts it in the intro for Normalizing Injustice, “license law enforcement to do whatever they think is right to catch the bad guy” and “justify and rationalize the actions of law enforcement and prosecutors no matter how many people get hurt along the way”.

Procedurals offer “a very simplified view of law and order and offending in general”, said Kathleen Donovan, a political scientist whose 2015 study analyzed the effect of police use of force on public perception. Crime is depicted as a static constant, though rates of violent and property crimes have declined sharply since the early 90s. Most TV crimes are violent and solved by the end of the episode, even though property crime is far more common than violent crime and police are far less effective at closing cases.

Shows like Law & Order: SVU, which solve sexual assault cases at triple the national rape case clearance rate of 33.4%, promote “fantasies of hyper-competence”, said Soraya McDonald, a cultural critic at the Undefeated, with “situations where police are always in the right”. Officers such as the longtime SVU anchor Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), whose disciplinary record of multiple lethal shootings is mentioned several times in his return to the series this month after a decade’s absence, “might not necessarily operate by the book, or neglect to give someone their Miranda rights, or will use some sort of subterfuge that is justified because it is neatly wrapped up”. The resolution of “see, we’ve caught the bad guy” almost always outweighs the ethical transgressions – breaking into a house unannounced, use of weapons, witness intimidation, roughing up a suspect, or just macho aggressiveness – deployed as “necessary” for the end.

Years of research have demonstrated how consumption of television news influences one’s perception of, say, the prevalence of local crime. Depictions of justified force and hyper-competency on scripted TV shows can similarly shape how positively people view police. The links are not directly causal, but subliminal, especially as Americans spent, on average, 2.8 hours a day watching TV in 2019. “It’s entirely plausible that people are changing their attitudes or forming perceptions based on what they’re watching repeatedly on TV, even if they tell you, ‘I know it’s not real,’” said Donovan.

Seeming “real” has been the aim since the earliest police procedurals, which began a long tradition of Hollywood productions acting as a mouthpiece for police departments. As Alyssa Rosenberg documented in her exhaustive, seminal 2016 Washington Post series on law enforcement in film and television, one of the first popular police procedurals, Dragnet, which premiered in 1951, worked in full collaboration with the LAPD and its police chief, William Parker, on storylines and logistical help, in exchange for script approval by the police.

The show set a model for how police and Hollywood could work together for mutually beneficial audience entertainment and standardized the use of real-life police consultants on crime shows. Crime staples such as ABC’s NYPD Blue and HBO’s The Wire – the show largely considered to be the most nuanced and challenging depiction of systemic flaws in law enforcement – were both heavily influenced by former police officers. Blue Bloods has a 30-plus year NYPD veteran, James Nuciforo, on retainer as a technical consultant.

A still from The Shield.
A still from The Shield. Photograph: Sony/Sony/Channel 4

Shows that challenged the police narrative were met with department resistance. Glen Mazzara, who co-created FX’s The Shield based on the real LAPD Rampart police corruption scandal, recalled tense conversations between Fox and the LAPD before the show aired in 2002. Presumably worried about the critical nature of the show , whose early prestige anti-hero Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) resorts to extrajudicial violence in a flash-bang unit, the LAPD threatened to withdraw standard security support for production, according to Mazzara, and refused to license their name. Characters in The Shield thus never say “LAPD” by name and wear fake badges on the wrong side of their uniforms. “In my opinion LAPD bullied Fox to make concessions to make sure that we would not in any way try to give a dramatization of the LAPD or the Rampart scandal,” he said.

The deference to the perspective of police is one of the mainstays of television made untenable after last year’s uprisings, according to Mazzara, who went on to serve as co-chair of the Writer’s Guild of America Diversity Advisory Group. Procedurals need to have writers who are “from the community who are coming up against cops”, he said. “We can’t just tell everything from the cops’ perspective. You need to show how people are encountering cops, how people are going through the criminal justice system, and how difficult that can be on individuals and families.”

“I don’t believe most showrunners understand the impact of how people see law enforcement,” said Mazzara. “Because for most showrunners in their profession, in which they’re in a cozy relationship with police consultants, they’re probably not engaging [with] law enforcement, and they’re probably not involved in the communities that are being heavily policed.”

One of the very few exceptions is Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, co-creator of CBS’s Swat and one of the few black showrunners in Hollywood. “As a showrunner of color and as a writer of color, I do feel an added responsibility that I’m not sure some of my peers feel, which is I’m very aware of the content that I put out and the impact it can have on those who perhaps do not have a voice or do not have a spotlight,” he told the Guardian.

A still from SWAT
A still from Swat. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

Swat airs on a network whose audience skews older and whiter than America at large; at the start of last season, the age of its average viewer was 63, the oldest of the four broadcast networks. The CBS slot, said Thomas, offers “an opportunity to reach an audience who may, in some cases, very rarely interact with someone who looks or sounds or comes from the background as our main character”, Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson (Shemar Moore), a black former marine raised in south LA.

Thomas is careful to balance discussion of race and policing with the familiar adrenaline of action; the show’s 2017 pilot, for example, depicts protests in Hondo’s home neighborhood over the accidental killing of a black teenage bystander by one of Hondo’s Swat teammates. Hondo espouses a different method of policing than LAPD higher-ups, and urges his team to treat residents like civilians, like “family”; he also thwarts anarchist terrorists with action-cop standards: fast cars, big guns and explosions.

“The goal is never to proselytize with the show,” said Thomas. “The most effective way, a lot of times, to communicate with people is to guise it with the idea of bringing something of substance, entertainment-wise.”

While Swat addresses the reality of police brutality and racism far more directly than its peers – the fourth season premiere splices a teenage Hondo amid the 1992 LA riots with the adult Hondo in a Black Lives Matter march that ends with him kneeling before a mural of George Floyd – it’s still a high-octane action show in a unit defined by militarized weapons. The “most delicate dance”, said Thomas, is presenting the Swat team “as a life-saving unit” with the show’s entertainment action-genre hooks, especially as the protests put the over-militarization of police departments – the tanks, riot gear and military-grade weapons – under greater scrutiny.

As part of a recalibration of that balance, the Swat writing team has been more conscious about depicting gunfire by police in its fourth season, which premiered last November. “Ideally it should be the last resort instead of the first resort,” Thomas said, noting that writers have consciously prioritized uses of non-lethal force in its fourth season. “In the same way that we’re trying to be mindful of the images that we put out culturally and ethically we’re also trying to be aware of the type of violence that we’re perpetuating.”

The Rookie, meanwhile, has incorporated guidance from several cultural consultants into storylines that expand from “bad apple” individual to rotten tree system. Third-season storylines include intergenerational conflicts between black officers over how hard to push for reform; the difficulty, both in administrative hurdles and attitudes, of disciplining an officer who routinely profiles and harasses black residents; unhelpful white savior complexes at a community policing center in a predominantly black, underfunded neighborhood; and the perverse incentive for police to up-charge misdemeanors to felonies in order to induce plea deals.

The show’s central aspiration, in other words, has shifted from depicting police officers doing their work well to police departments handling systemic issues better. “For the first couple months, we were in listening mode and trying to figure out how to do it,” said Hawley. “We really took it on as a challenge to go ‘how many different ways can we talk about what the problem is and still be our show?’”

But not all shows are embracing the directness seen in Swat and The Rookie. Blue Bloods, which Slate called “the perfect white-privilege lullaby” in 2014 for its belief in police color-blindness in a fundamentally fair system, obliquely incorporates last year’s reckoning in its 11th season through pervasive anxiety among the force about bad PR. The character of Regina Thomas (Whoopi Goldberg), a city council speaker calling for police reform, acts as a benevolent foil to its star, the chagrined, ultimately sacrosanct Commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck); relieving the heat of the moment, for Frank and Blue Bloods, is portrayed as a matter of interpersonal niceties and common middle ground, rather than police reform. The arc of the season isn’t toward racial justice, or department introspection, so much as Frank Reagan’s balance of “the common good” and the show’s utmost value: loyalty to the police family.

A still from Blue Bloods.
A still from Blue Bloods. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

Law & Order: SVU has found somewhat of a middle ground, with headline-lifting storylines that gently challenge its officers’ methodology without undermining their fundamental heroism. In its 22nd season premiere, a black internal affairs investigator calls out Detective Olivia Benson’s implicit racial biases after she arrests an innocent black man in an incident ripped directly from the viral video of Amy Cooper, a white woman, falsely accusing a black man of harassment in Central Park last summer. Another episode drops Detective Finn Tutuola, played by Ice-T, in a deposition for his fatal shooting, depicted in a prior season, of a black man who held a knife to his young son’s throat. New supervisors interrogate Stabler’s penchant for vengeance-fueled aggression; “we don’t do it this way any more,” Benson says after he threatens to beat up a mouthy suspect in his mid-season return. All three stress over how, as Benson puts it, “everything is being looked at through a different prism now.” The show processes public pressure for an updated playbook through personal reckonings – mistakes and shortcomings shown in a new light and then absolved by good intentions.

The relative stability of juggernaut shows like Blue Bloods and Law & Order, which gesture at shifting attitudes but don’t significantly change their formula, are part of the reason why some, such as Rosenberg, have called the genre itself compromised and outdated. How can shows so closely aligned with the centering of cop narratives tell more ethical, responsible stories?

Limited series which depict the fallibility of law enforcement, such as Netflix’s Unbelievable, which adapted a ProPublica story about an investigation into a serial rapist initially botched by disbelieving Seattle police officers, or the systemic racism in Watchmen, could point the way forward. As do renewals in genres such as romcoms and teen movies, which have updated sexist, heteronormative tropes to reflect audiences’ fluid, inclusive, queer realities.

If procedurals were more accurate to real life, “I think we would be alternately bored and disgusted by them,” said critic McDonald. The question is not so much a limitation of depicting law enforcement than of writers’ imaginations in how holistic, nuanced and oriented to make said depictions – writing which “actually reflects the truth of how people live”, said McDonald, “and how their lives are affected by policing”. What would a police show that centered bail reform or abolition movements or community alternatives to policing look like?

The Rookie and Swat are two shows which have started to embrace storytelling aimed at systemic brokenness. One of the positives of 2020, said Thomas, was finding an audience “that was ready to have actually more intelligent, more nuanced conversations about race, class, the challenges that occur between seemingly disparate elements when we’re talking about the community and police”.

“I’m personally seeing a change, where there’s certain things that I’m seeing people talk about on TV, on network shows, that I never would’ve imagined they would want to talk about,” said Marston of crime shows at large. But hiring a consultant is “not a replacement for a black writer”, she said, nor a remedy for an industry-wide failure to promote black talent beyond the lowest writers’ room ranks. “I’m there to talk about the issues surrounding the communities that the black writers shouldn’t have to know about if they don’t want to,” Marston said.

“I hope that we can at some point say that this is the new standard, the old practices are no longer acceptable,” she added. “I don’t think that we’re quite there yet.”

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Jury calls for sweeping reforms to Canada’s approach to femicide | Canada

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A community in rural Canada has made a series of transformative recommendations at a coroner’s inquest that – if adopted – could position the country’s most populous province as a leader in preventing femicides, particularly those carried out by an intimate partner.

The jury in Renfrew County, Ontario, just west of Canada’s capital, delivered 86 recommendations this week in a unanimous verdict on the deaths of three local women, who were killed by the same man on a single morning nearly seven years ago.

The boldest was to have the Ontario government “formally declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic” that requires “significant financial investment” and deep systemic change to remedy.

Since the triple homicide on 22 September 2015, 111 women in Ontario have been murdered by their current or former partner, the inquest heard. Every six days in Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner, according to Statistics Canada.

The jury also recommended official prominence be given to the word “femicide” – to have it be listed as a manner of death by coroners in the province and added to the criminal code of Canada to underscore the misogyny beneath the killings of women and girls because of their gender.

“A lot of the recommendations are groundbreaking,” said Pamela Cross, a lawyer and expert on intimate partner violence in Ontario who testified at the inquest.

The inquest, which heard from nearly 30 witnesses over three weeks, was meant to examine the systems that broke down in the weeks, months and years leading up to the day Basil Borutski got in a borrowed car, drove to Carol Culleton’s cottage and strangled her with a coaxial cable, then moved on to Anastasia Kuzyk’s house where he shot her to death and then to Nathalie Warmerdam’s farm where he shot her too.

All three women had previously been in an intimate relationship with Borutski. He had been in and out of jail for assaulting Kuzyk and Warmerdam and was on probation at the time of the murders and subject to a weapons ban.

Borutski had been flagged as “high risk” two years before the triple homicide, the inquest heard, and exhibited 30 out of 41 risk factors identified by Ontario’s domestic violence death review committee – including a deep sense of victimhood and the ability to convince new partners he was innocent and unfairly targeted by police in his prior convictions.

Police witnesses told the jury Borutski was very good at “manipulation” and constantly flouted court orders, including never showing up to a mandated partner assault response program.

The jury heard from family members, including Valerie Warmerdam, Nathalie’s daughter, who painted a nuanced and empathetic picture of Borutski as a troubled stepfather. It heard from a frontline worker who described Warmerdam and Kuzyk’s constant terror that Borutski would kill them or harm their family.

The inquest jury demanded decision-makers make “significant financial investments” in ending violence, have police all use the same records management system and create clear guidelines for flagging high-risk abusers. It urged the study of disclosure protocols like Clare’s Law, which is used in the United Kingdom and in parts of Canada to allow a concerned person to check if their partner has a police record of intimate partner violence.

Valerie Warmerdam welcomed the verdict, but underscored the need for action on the part of governments who will receive these recommendations in the wake of the inquest. “I want change,” she said. “These recommendations are a good start, if they are actioned. That’s a big if.”

Kirsten Mercer, counsel to End Violence Against Women Renfrew County (EVA), noted that it was the jury themselves who added the epidemic recommendation among 13 others, including creating a registry of high-risk offenders akin to the sex offenders registry, and exploring electronic monitoring of those charged or found guilty of an IPV-related offence.

“The jury has asked that we tell the truth about intimate partner violence,” Mercer told the media after the verdict. “The jury has asked that we put our money where our mouth is.”

The idea to add femicide to the coroner’s list of manners of death and to the Criminal Code of Canada came from the joint submission. Countries in Latin America have already added this as a criminal offence, she said, and should be looked to as a model for how to do it here.

Accountability was a priority for this jury, Mercer said. The verdict called for the creation of an accountability body akin to the United Kingdom’s domestic abuse commissioner and a specific committee to make sure this verdict does not just languish in decision-makers’ inboxes.

“We are not going to wait forever any more.”

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Apollo Go: The Beijing neighborhood with robotaxis and driverless delivery service | International

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Book a robotaxi on a mobile app and it will pick you up in less than 10 minutes. It’s 2:00pm on a Thursday in Beijing and our ride is going smoothly with no human intervention so far. “Sometimes we have to speed up manually to avoid causing traffic jams. Bicycles and motorcycles often cause traffic congestion because they ignore traffic signals,” says the driver supervising our trip, as the steering wheel magically moves by itself.

The 37-square-mile (60 square kilometers) Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area (BJHAD) is where the country’s first pilot project to use autonomous vehicles on public roads is happening. Located in a secluded district in the southeastern part of the city, BJHAD is the test site for a futuristic plan that envisions turning Beijing into the standard-bearer for artificial intelligence (AI). The Apollo robotaxis manufactured by Baidu and the autonomous delivery vehicles manufactured by JD.com (aka Jingdong) zip around a tranquil utopia that stands in stark contrast to the hectic jungle of downtown traffic.

“[A robotaxi] can handle an average of 15 daily bookings, most of which are trips between a subway stop and an office,” said the cab driver. In November 2021, Baidu and Pony.ai became the first companies authorized to operate a fleet of 100 robotaxis in BJHAD. As of April 2022, humans are no longer required to sit in the driver’s seat of the robotaxi, which is allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 37 miles per hour (60 kph). The service is free for now, although the two companies are commercially licensed.

Baidu, China’s leading search engine, is diversifying its business by commercializing its AI and intelligent transportation technology. Its Apollo Go program is currently operating in seven cities, and the company plans to expand to 65 cities by 2025, and 100 cities by 2030. Unlike the Waymo robotaxis that Google began operating in 2020 in the US, Baidu’s vehicles circulate during the day, enabling them to collect more data.

Although Baidu has topped the list of Chinese companies with the most patents for AI applications over the last four years, e-commerce giant JD.com is the leader in the autonomous delivery vehicle space. In 2016, Jingdong established its headquarters in BJHAD, and its delivery robots now dominate the streets. These vehicles mainly transport orders from the 7FRESH smart supermarket chain operated by JD that combines e-commerce and traditional commerce. “Instead of people going out to buy products, we deliver them,” said Yang Han. Who works in Jingdong’s communications department.

JD’s applies big data analytical methods to the information collected from more than 400 million annual users, and utilizes it to tailor inventories to the specific needs of each 7FRESH physical stores location. The entire 7FRESH inventory is available in the app. The delivery robots, which travel at nine miles per hour (15 kph) and can carry 220-440 pounds (100-200 kilos), deliver orders in less than an hour within a three-mile (five kilometer) range.

JD employees rely on smaller robots to send documents and other items between offices in 10 minutes or less. “They speed up the work and saves us from having to run around from one place to another,” said Yang Han. The robots are able to operate elevators and open doors by themselves as they follow their delivery routes.

The robots can recognize their surroundings and avoid obstacles with a 98% accuracy rate for small objects. Information streams in through cameras and other sensors, while the navigation algorithm pinpoints their location and plans routes. JD’s cloud-based simulation platform accumulates data from every trip to continuously improve the robots’ capabilities.

The Covid pandemic spurred JD to accelerate its autonomous delivery program, enabling it to deploy small and large delivery vehicles to the Chinese cities most affected by the pandemic over the last two and a half years. In early 2020, during the peak of the pandemic in Wuhan, these delivery vehicles traveled a total of 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometers) and delivered more than 13,000 packages.

In a country where low unemployment is one of the main pillars of its social stability goals, the move to autonomous vehicles may prove to be risky in the long run. However, Yang Han insists that the objective is to “achieve a synergy between humans and machines… The goal is to take the pressure off delivery drivers and allow them to focus on customer service and vehicle maintenance. The couriers don’t need to transport the goods. Instead, they wait by the curb for the robots to arrive, and then walk the goods to the customer’s door. “

BJHAD is part of the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area, the first place in China specifically geared to AI research. The country aspires to become the world leader in AI by 2030 and to leave the “factory for the world” image behind for good.

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Afghan embassy staff remain in hiding despite being eligible for UK relocation | Global development

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More than 170 people who worked for the British embassy in Kabul remain in hiding in Afghanistan in fear for their lives, almost a year after the Taliban retook the country.

A list of Afghans currently in hiding, seen by the Guardian, shows almost 200 former interpreters, security guards and local staff waiting for a response from the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, the departments responsible for relocating people at risk. All of those on the list are eligible for transfer to the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap), intended to bring those formerly employed by the UK government, and their family members, to safety in Britain.

Aarash* was employed by GardaWorld, a security subcontractor for the MoD, and worked at the British embassy for more than 10 years. He and his children have fled their home and live hidden in a basement in a village outside the city, surviving on one meal of boiled rice a day.

“The Taliban, they have access to the details of all the guards and their ID cards,” Aarash said, speaking by secure connection. “Two times, they came to search our house, so we had to escape. They say that we are criminals, that we are not true Muslims, that we worked for foreigners. If they find us, they will kill us – this is for sure.”

In August 2021, as the Taliban took Kabul, Aarash was on a coach with his family, due to be evacuated. A suicide bomb inside the airport forced the bus to turn back. He has been in hiding since.

“Every time we receive a message from the MoD, they say to wait. More than 10 months we are waiting. We hoped the British government would help us but they have done nothing – they have left us alone here to die.”

British and US soldiers help evacuate British nationals and former British staff eligible for relocation, Kabul Airport, 21 August 2021
British and US soldiers help evacuate British nationals and former British staff eligible for relocation, Kabul Airport, 21 August 2021. Photograph: MoD/AFP/Getty Images

Another man, speaking through a translator, said: “The Taliban came to our house, they broke everything and we had to leave very quickly. Now we are in very bad conditions. Our children cannot go to school, we cannot walk in the streets or go to the market [for food]. Every day, we are at risk. They will come for us and they will kill all of us, including the children. We are in a humanitarian crisis.”

He added: “The British government, they know everything about us. They know we are eligible [to come to the UK] because we worked for them for many years. We did good work for them. We respectfully ask the British government to help us and begin our transfer as soon as possible.”

Sarah Magill, a director of the charity Azadi, said eligible Afghans were in their tens of thousands. “They are scattered in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, in hiding and terrified. We would like more diplomatic energy and investment going into establishing pathways for them, including through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Relying solely on Pakistan, a country in political turmoil, has caused a bottleneck.”

Sara de Jong, co-founder of the Sulha Alliance, which supports Afghans who worked for the British government to resettle in the UK, said: “The Arap team’s slowness and unresponsiveness leaves applicants in limbo, while fearing for their lives. The processing of applications needs to be expedited, and applicants should be given clear timelines, which will also help reduce duplicate applications from Afghans simply desperate to get a response.”

It is the latest criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, with a damning report from the foreign affairs committee in May saying there has been a “total absence of plans to evacuate Afghans who supported the UK mission without being directly employed, which has put lives at risk”.

In response to a written question last week, armed forces minister James Heappey said one Arap case dating from when the scheme opened remains unresolved. He added that it “relates to an individual we have contacted three times, requesting further information relating to their eligibility”.

However, earlier this month, in response to a parliamentary question, Heappey said decisions on only two of the 3,226 Arap applications received since April 2022 had been processed. Heappey told MPs that 9,500 Afghans have been relocated to the UK under Arap but added: “We think we’ve got about the same to go in terms of the number of people who are eligible.”

Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton station in southern England, 24 August 2021.
Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton in southern England, 24 August 2021. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office this month launched an online system, where those eligible can send an “expression of interest” in being transferred to the UK as part of its Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), which is separate to Arap. The ACRS is designed to support those who assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and members of minority groups based, for example, on ethnicity, religion or sexuality. Former GardaWorld and British Council employees will be considered, but it is not possible to apply for the scheme.

An MoD spokesperson said: “Between April and the beginning of June, 683 eligible Afghan civilians along with their families and dependants were relocated to the UK under Arap.

“In total, the Ministry of Defence has relocated over 9,500 Arap principals and their families since the beginning of the scheme. We know there is still a way to go to bring all those who are eligible to safety in the UK; the government is continuing to work with third countries to facilitate the relocation of those who are eligible under Arap.

“We continue to process applications in the order in which they are received, which has meant that some of the newer applications are still being worked through. We recognise there are too many individuals waiting for an answer, and this is not acceptable. This is why we are putting more resource into a dedicated team for processing Arap applications.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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