The urgent humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan highlights the deep flaws in our asylum system
Are we really still saying that unless a refugee is able to assemble and retain all their documents and make an ordered and planned journey, that they are not welcome here? Those requirements are unrealistic at best, at worst cruel.
Recent events in Afghanistan have yet again exposed the inadequacies of the UK government’s current immigration and asylum policies. They clearly show our inability to address the urgent humanitarian challenges we are facing.
It is of course entirely right that the UK offers sanctuary to its fair share of Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban. So, it is right that priority has to 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 made a pledge to take in 20,000 Afghans over five years.
But does Operation Warm Welcome, as it is being called, meet today’s urgent humanitarian needs?
At yesterday’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee session, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, admitted that there were hundreds of UK nationals still in Afghanistan. He was also unable to give precise numbers of those who were eligible to come to the UK, specifically Afghan nationals and their families who worked with British forces. And then there are those fleeing for safety who are eligible to claim asylum under international law.
The UK, together with the international community, need to urgently seek an agreement on how we can achieve a common policy towards refugees
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 real and 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 do so. Which begs the question, are they simply to wait, in some cases for years, before starting a new life in safety? Surely front-loading those welcomes, rather than back-loading them over a five-year period, is a more humane approach?
The other question that remains is how the UK will assist those who fled the Taliban before it was able to seize control of Afghanistan. For years, Afghan refugees had already been fleeing Taliban aggression in large numbers, some ending up in Europe, in camps in Greece and Italy, or in Calais. The government has not yet 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, 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 light of the 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, so are we really still saying that unless a refugee is able to assemble and retain all their documents and make an ordered and planned journey, that they are not welcome here? Those requirements are unrealistic at best, at worst cruel and in breach of the 1951 Geneva Convention.
The UK, together with its European partners and the international community as a whole, 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 is in fact short of what is actually needed.
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 wrong for the government to use the Afghan crisis as an excuse to ignore their plight. Both groups have important humanitarian needs.
Lord Dubs is a Labour peer.
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