How The Afghanistan Refugee Scheme Works – Which Charities Say Is Only "A Start"
Britain’s leading asylum seeker charities have welcomed the government’s commitment to resettle 20,000 Afghans fleeing the Taliban but have urged the Home Office to consider that figure as “just a start”.
On Tuesday night home secretary Priti Patel announced a new Afghan Citizens' Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which will be offered to people forced to flee their homes or facing threats of persecution from the Taliban.
The scheme mirrors that which was set up by former prime minister David Cameron in 2015 to aid 20,000 Syrians escaping the violent Assad regime.
Under current plans, 5,000 Afghans will be taken to Britain in the first year, with 5,000 joining in subsequent years.
The scheme has been welcomed by some MPs, but others have rejected it as not generous enough.
Concerns have particularly been raised around the 5,000 per year refugee intake rate.
Speaking in the Commons Afghanistan debate today, Labour MP Chris Bryant questioned, “what are the 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait until they have been executed?"
Labour leader Keir Starmer was also critical. “The offer to others is in the long term. But for those needing our help there is no long term,” he told the Commons.
SNP Westminster group leader Ian Blackford stated that ACRS ''does not go far enough or fast enough”.
Leading campaigners and experts in the refugee charity sector echo these concerns.
Paul Hook, co-director of the charity Asylum Matters, told PoliticsHome the government is right to implement ACRS with care and consideration, but at the same time must be mindful of the urgency of the matter.
“There are a lot of very important logistical considerations within a program of this scale. It needs to be done in a way that works first and foremost for the refugees, but also for the communities in which they are going to be resettled”, Hook said.
“While this is clearly a very acute and urgent situation, if the Home Office needs to take some time to get it right it can and should do. But the situation is nonetheless urgent and there is a risk that a large number of people who need sanctuary right now will not be able to access it.”
Refugee Action, an organisation supporting asylum seekers in the UK, believe Britain has the resources and capacity to welcome 10,000 refugees per year.
Tim Naor Hilton, CEO the charity, said: “The Government should build a sustainable protection system led by principles, not headlines. That means committing to resettle 10,000 refugees from across the world each year so that the UK can provide safety for those escaping the crises of both today and tomorrow.
“We welcome any action to protect Afghan refugees but this scheme simply doesn’t go far enough. Resettling 20,000 refugees is a start but there is no timeline to fulfil the commitment, is it over two years or twenty? This is either a positive first step or a total farce."
The process of resettling families and individuals under ACRS, as with the 2015 Syrian scheme, is multipronged.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for processing asylum seekers while they remain overseas. Afghans who manage to escape to neighboring states will speak to a UNHCR field agent, who will verify their identity and reason for seeking asylum.
Field agents will also assess the urgency of those they speak to based on specified criterium. Under ACRS the home office is prioritising women and girls, and those most at risk of persecution, such as journalists and those with ties to foreign governments.
Once checks are completed, UNHCR will nominate families and individuals to countries who have pledged to take in refugees, such as Britain, Canada, Germany and the US. Nominations to the UK are received by the Home Office, who consider whether or not to accept them.
When the department accepts a UNHCR referral, it then puts a call out to local authorities to see if any will take in the referral/s. Different councils will accept varying numbers of asylum seekers based on housing availability, school places and provision of support services including GPs and hospitals.
Refugee charities often assist local authorities in their efforts to resettle arrivals, helping to prepare housing, welcoming families and teaching them essential life skills, such as opening a bank account, using the post office and navigating the education system.
Like Hook and Hilton, Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, believes ACRS works as a starting point, but must maintain flexibility and adapt to demand.
Doyle told PoliticsHome: “We welcome that the government has acted swiftly to announce a resettlement scheme, but it’s important that these things are kept under review and that they match need. The scheme has to be flexible enough to increase if needed.
“We’ve all seen the pictures of Afghans desperately trying to leave the country. It shows the reality of what happens in conflict.
"I’d like to see a resettlement scheme that is ambitious and well resourced so that local authorities are happy to take part and people can get the support they need to rebuild their life in the UK once they are here. I’d also like to see family reunion rules expanded so that family members of loved ones who have reached safety can be rejoined with them.”
Defending ACRS in an interview with Sky News' Kay Burley this morning, Patel said: “It’s important we have a scheme that can deliver and we have to think very carefully about the practicalities…
"This isn’t just about bringing people over – this is about resettlement. Resettling people so they can begin a new life in the UK.
“We cannot accommodate 20,000 people all in one go."
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