The fall of Afghanistan did not begin in August 2021, but on 29 February 2020, when the Trump administration signed the Doha agreement with one of the strongest Taliban factions. While it only took months for the country to fall to the various different groups referred to internationally as ‘the Taliban’, it was the speed at which Kabul fell that seemed to shock the world. Many had hoped for some sort of siege that would buy enough time to evacuate those most at risk.

No one expected the Americans to slink out of Bagram at night leaving it with an inoperable airfield, nor did they expect the people who worked at Bagram, sat there as judges or prosecuted terrorists in the court simply to be left to die. 

It caught Afghan judges and lawyers off guard. Over the previous months, they had escaped to Kabul from their towns in the provinces as each fell to the Taliban. The insurgents had raided prisons releasing prisoners; old fighters and new recruits joined them, roaming free. These terrorists and criminals began hunting the judges and prosecutors, thirsty for retribution and revenge. Houses were trashed and taken over. Warnings were delivered via phones. Now in Kabul, having arrived hoping for temporary security prior to evacuation, the judiciary and lawyers were among many who would soon be bitterly disappointed: 

‘Two of my colleagues, Judges Zakia Herawi and Qadria Yasini were already killed by the Taliban in January. Every day I am changing my living place, I do not know what to do? If you can do anything, please do for my family!’

They waited as their friends in the UK and America lobbied government departments desperately, trying to achieve the holy grail; a government evacuation email inviting them to attend the Serena Hotel or Kabul airport. For so many, the emails never came. The messages became more and more desperate:

‘The last plane has gone. What happens now? We are going to die. I can accept my death, but not the death of my children.’

The most senior Supreme Court appellate judges were in a state of shock. Those reading this article from our jurisdiction will perhaps empathise that it is not unreasonable for those who spent lengthy careers creating law – jailing the very worst terrorists and murderers, and creating a legal system that had benefited from significant international investment – to expect there might have been some sort of international coordinated plan to evacuate them, even after their own administration had fled, leaving them in the dust.

If you had told any of us that in September of 2021 that we would be working on emergency evacuation protocols with judges from allied nations and private security teams in order to transfer pregnant Afghan judges out of safe-houses and on to planes, we would have asked you to share whatever it was you had been drinking.

But that was where the team found themselves, and it was really just the beginning. By that point, however, each week felt like six months. All were growing concerned about burnout and our families were asking when it would all end. The team weren’t alone; there were groups of people all over the world working just like we were in that moment, and all of them remain engaged in the work now.

It all started with lobbying before the abandonment of Kabul. MPs, members of the House of Lords, civil servants, generals, the judiciary, barristers, solicitors, heads of NGOs and journalists who had worked in Afghanistan, were emailing the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence trying to highlight those most at risk. The government simply wasn’t set up for the task, and Britain was by no means alone in its failure to prepare for an exercise of this magnitude. Developing argument that NATO, the United Nations and the wider international community should have been better prepared is best tasked to another author; the reality fast-unfolding was that someone had to do something about the fallout.

With heavy hearts, those who had been campaigning and advocating for the people left behind turned to one another and asked with trepidation: What next? How do we keep them safe? Most importantly, how do we get them out?

People with money began to charter aircraft, and a poorly coordinated bunfight began, with everyone desperate to get passengers onto seats. Corruption, favouritism, religious bigotry and inexperience dominated the selection process. The greatest weapon against them was perfect data presentation. The team was blessed with the skills of data inputting whizzes who would sit up all night preparing manifest after manifest for the latest incoming charter. The deadlines were tight and the work exhausting. It was directly because of them that some miracles managed to occur. There were always more failures than successes, and each day was a rollercoaster of hope and disappointment.

Having started the effort in August as a pool of solicitors and barristers working voluntarily to badger the government to extract people, a group recognised that they needed funding to provide shelter and evacuation routes for those left behind, and they needed to function more practically. Charity managers joined the legal professionals along with former members of the military and the civil service. It was from the ashes of the chaotic evacuations that Azadi Charity rose.

Founded by Simon Myerson QC, Daniel Berke from 3D Solicitors, Rosie Shaw who is on the Legal Practice Course, and myself, the charity is not exclusively legal. It is still working through its original caseload, including highly exposed journalists, leading women’s rights activists, outspoken human rights defenders and some incredibly brave female Hazara police officers. From late night discussions with silks about particular families, to forensic IT consultants more used to being instructed on complex criminal proceedings pitching in pro bono, the work has been a team effort of gargantuan proportions. One of the most remarkable things about the charity and a source of tremendous pride is that the majority of its donors and volunteer base, like the founders, are colleagues from the legal community.

In immigration law, the legal professions came together to assist Afghans all over the world. In England and Wales, Allan Briddock of One Pump Court, Chetal Patel from Bates Wells Solicitors and Zoe Harper from Doughty Street Chambers started the Afghan Info Group, an immigration lawyers network tailored specifically to deal with the crisis, and DLA Piper voluntarily became the referral point for new cases needing assistance.

In North and South America, Canada, France, Germany and all over the world, groups of immigration lawyers in each jurisdiction formed networks so that they could coordinate and receive cases on a pro bono basis. While governments showed their ineptitude, the professions rose heroically to the task. As a criminal practitioner who has never practised in immigration, the show of international unity was quite something to behold. New rules were interpreted, task forces were created to challenge refusals, and information was dispensed in places where all practitioners could benefit, to the advantage of their clients.

Grassroots and still in its infancy, Azadi Charity has assisted practitioners on a practical level. They have assisted solicitors in obtaining travel documents for their clients so they can leave to go to the nearest British embassy and be processed to come to the UK. The original caseload is still brimming over, although they have had many heart-warming successes and many judges are now out and safe, with Afghan judicial babies having been born in Greece and Scandinavia. In total the charity has so far assisted just under 600 people to get to safety. There are some extremely high-risk people left behind and so the work continues.

Azadi Charity is still not yet registered with the Charity Commission as the process can take months, but thanks to extremely generous pro-bono representation from Kirkland and Ellis LLP, it will be soon. The charity has paired with Manchester Jewish Philanthropic (reg. charity number 1121373) who ringfence donations, and they are working day-to-day obtaining documents, sheltering and feeding families using a crowd-funder on a JustGiving page. They have signed agreements with international NGOs to enable the resettlement of families and are sheltering families in second country ‘lily pads’. It is expensive work, with the highest-risk priority family resettlement pathway costing as much as £30,000 per family, but it is vital life-saving work and the families are extremely grateful to be given a chance to survive. The team even had the honour of a baby being named after a member.

‘When I met the team, I realised that the whole world is like a village and there are kind people on every side of the world.’

The charity is thankful beyond measure to have been advised or supported by the following people at the Bar and in the sister professions: Nerys Ireland, Maria Patsalos and Mishcon De Reya, Jane Cotton and Eversheds Sutherland, Wilsons LLP, Kirkland and Ellis LLP, Rehana Popal, Schona Jolly QC, Allan Briddock, Naina Patel, Giovanni Passamonti, Jo Delahunty QC, Francis Fitzgibbon QC, Matthew Bolt, the International Association of Women Judges, Kate Hindmarch, Robin Murray, Gerard McDermott QC, Crown Office Chambers, the International Bar Association, the IBAHRI, the coordinating members of the former Afghan IBA, former senior Afghan prosecutors, Lincoln House Chambers, 9 Bedford Row, Emily Foale and Ewelina Ochab and our amazing, entirely pro-bono volunteer team. There are many others who prefer to remain unnamed but to whom the charity owes a debt of gratitude, and there are many hundreds of people outside of the professions on whom the charity is utterly reliant and without whom it simply could not function.

Working pro bono is one of the greatest traditions of the profession and in this crisis, one that has saved countless lives in real time. There are many unseen hands in the effort to mitigate this crisis and the work done by the charity is a small cog in a large wheel. Further details about Azadi Charity can be found at:

Pictured above: US soldiers stand guard along a perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, 15 August 2021, where thousands of Afghans trapped by the Taliban takeover rushed the tarmac and clung to US military planes deployed to fly out staffers of the US Embassy.