Recent events in Afghanistan once again highlights the weaknesses and inadequacies of our UK government’s current immigration and asylum policies. They show without doubt our inability to address the urgent humanitarian challenges facing us.
It is of course expected and right that the UK offers sanctuary to its fair share of Afghan refugees who are fleeing the Taliban. It is also right that priority must be given to Afghans who worked for the British military and UK government allowing them to move to the UK permanently. The government has also pledged to take in 20,000 Afghans over the next five years.
However, does ‘Operation Warm Welcome’ as it is called, meet the urgent humanitarian needs of to-day.
Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary, admitted that there were hundreds of UK nationals still in Afghanistan while at a Foreign Affairs Select Committee session. He was not able to give any precise numbers of those who were eligible to come to the UK, specifically Afghan nationals and their families who worked with British forces. There are also those fleeing for safety who are also eligible to claim asylum under international law.
Only 5,000 of those 20,000 Afghans who will be allowed to resettle here will be welcomed in the first year. The figures are arbitrary and do not reflect the very urgent need for families to be relocated now. Some of those who may be eligible have made their way into Pakistan and Iran, or are trying to. Does this then mean they have to wait for years before starting a new life in safety. A front-loading welcome rather than back-loading them over a five year period would obviously be a much more humane approach.
Further queries remain as to how the UK will assist those who fled the Taliban before it was able to seize control of Afghanistan. Afghan refugees had already been fleeing Taliban aggression in large numbers with some ending up in Europe, in camps in Greece and Italy, or in Calais. The government has not said how it intends to assist those refugees, many of them children, and whether the ‘Warm Welcome’ will apply to at least some of them.
The government’s Nationality and Borders bill, which is currently making its way through the Commons, attempts to criminalise refugees, including Afghan refugees, who arrive in the UK using irregular modes of travel. It was deeply flawed when it was first introduced into the Commons and now those flaws are even more stark in the light of the recent events in Afghanistan. The Bill aims to differentiate and discriminate on an individual’s right to asylum based on how they are forced to travel to the UK, potentially with the threat of imprisonment. We have seen the chaos in Afghanistan and the circumstances under which Afghans are fleeing, even before the Taliban took control, unless a refugee is able to assemble and retain all of their documents and make an ordered and planned journey are we saying that they are not welcome here ?. These requirements are unrealistic, cruel and also in breach of the 1951 Geneva Convention.
The UK, with its European partners and the international community needs to urgently seek an agreement on how we can achieve a common policy towards refugees. This can only be achieved through cooperation so that we can provide sanctuary, fairly and swiftly, to those who desperately need it and can assess if the 20,000 figure currently being offered by the government represents our fair share or whether it is short of what is needed.
Amongst all of this Afghan tragedy we must not forget that there are other refugees, including children, from Syria and the Horn of Africa who are currently stranded in Europe, often living rough or in camps. It would be very wrong for the government to use the Afghan crisis as an excuse to ignore their plight. Both groups have urgent humanitarian needs.