Britain’s offer to Afghans does not go far enough
The current offer is a sad sign of British inaction on the world stage. Now is the time to commit to a flexible resettlement programme, which can adapt as situations in countries change.
When the Taliban took Afghanistan in the 1990s, anyone who was associated with the previous Soviet-backed regime was targeted. It was one of the reasons my family had to leave. My parents, academics, had studied in Russia. When the Taliban took over, I was only a small child, but I remember my father kept getting calls and visits from people asking him what he did in Russia and why he went there. He tried to explain he was only a student, and that he’d received a bursary to study Law in Moscow, but he wasn’t believed.
The stakes were high – a report from Physicians for Human Rights at the time described a regime that had “virtually imprisoned Afghan women in their homes” and were discriminated against for the ‘crime’ of being born a girl, while “thousands of men have been taken prisoner, arbitrarily detained, tortured, and many killed and disappeared”. My family ultimately made the difficult decision to leave our home behind and start a treacherous journey that led to us seeking sanctuary in the UK.
Today, Afghans who worked with the Coalition-backed government are facing a similar sense of dread. US President Joe Biden has pledged to pull out troops by September 11th, but reports suggest they could leave as early as late July. The US has also pledged to relocate up to 100,000 Afghans who worked for the US government, with Biden claiming that: “Those who helped us will not be left behind.”
In Britain, around a dozen Afghan interpreters touched down this week - the first of around 3,500 such families expected to be relocated this summer. After years of campaigning by the Afghan community, MPs and others, this is welcome news, but many questions remain.
If the resettlement scheme isn’t going to work for war-torn Afghanistan, who is it going to work for?
Firstly, what is the timescale? Every single day, I get calls from Afghans saying: “The Taliban are in our district now.” One man who works for an organisation funded by USAID told me they were patrolling the streets outside. He ended the call saying: “Let’s see what happens tomorrow.” He was living day by day.
The second question is, what happens to those who worked for British-government backed organisations, but were not directly employed interpreters? The fact is, the Taliban does not respect the Home Office’s small print on the scheme. Just as my father could not convince them in the 1990s that he was nothing more than student studying in Russia and not a ‘communist’, what happens to contractors and freelancers who served the British troops and government? The Western powers may distinguish between full-time staff, contractors, and volunteers, but the Taliban does not.
What happens to those who served the British Embassy, the British Council or any of the big British charities? What happens to the women who, believing the promise of regime change made in 2001, stepped up to become public servants, journalists and teachers? Even working for the Afghan government can make you a target. A distant relative of mine was recently stopped by the Taliban. When they took his phone and discovered he was an Afghan policeman, they shot him instantly, with no mercy.
The fact is, a single, narrowly-defined evacuation will never be able to offer all of these people sanctuary. In its New Plan for Immigration, the government has made it clear it would prefer to receive refugees through resettlement schemes, but so far, it has failed to provide many details.
Now is the time to commit to a flexible resettlement programme, which can adapt as situations in countries change, as they may well do very quickly in Afghanistan, especially as district after district is falling to the Taliban.
After all, if the resettlement scheme isn’t going to work for war-torn Afghanistan, who is it going to work for? Back in 2001, Afghans really had faith in the West’s promise that there was no going back to Taliban rule. The UK went in and brought progressive change, giving people a taste of freedom. To leave Afghanistan in this position, to fight human rights abuses by the Taliban alone. The current offer is a sad sign of British inaction on the world stage.
Shabnam Nasimi is the director of Conservative Friends of Afghanistan.
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