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We should be welcoming Afghan refugees, not criminalising them – the Nationality and Borders Bill must be scrapped

5 min read

The government says it wants to have a warm welcome for Afghan refugees, but if they come here via irregular routes, they will be criminalised and penalised.

I have two friends. One was a translator for the British forces in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. When he had to flee the country, he got refugee status in the UK right away. My other friend came to the UK from Afghanistan at the same time as me. He came from a province that was even more dangerous than mine, he lost loved ones, like I did, and he was an unaccompanied minor, like I was, but his attempt to claim asylum in the UK was refused.

My two friends are a reminder of the very different experiences of Afghan refugees in the UK. When Kabul fell to the Taliban, Boris Johnson announced Operation Warm Welcome to support Afghan refugees who made it onto planes bound for Britain. But many, many more people were left behind.

There are women’s rights campaigners and civil society activists who are in immediate danger. Every day, I receive messages from democracy activists, friends of mine, who feel we have let them down. People are messaging me saying they have been tortured. Even former Chevening Scholars, who have studied in the UK and are now being targeted for it, are stranded.

There are no humanitarian visas, and the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme isn’t even open yet

It’s easy to feel hopeless, when faced with this situation. But there are things we can do. Firstly, we need to oppose the Nationality and Borders Bill. The government says it wants to have a warm welcome for Afghans, but if they come here irregularly, they will be criminalised and penalised.  It is creating a two-tier system that will just delay people like my friend’s lives even further. It won’t deter people who are fleeing for their lives, but put them in limbo, distressed and unable to access education. The government says it wants to stop smugglers, but the Bill will empower them. They will put people in more danger by sending them to even more distant ports around the UK.

Secondly, we need to create safe routes, so people don’t have to put their lives at further risk to seek sanctuary. Claiming asylum isn’t illegal. There are no humanitarian visas, and the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme isn’t even open yet. There are 250 female judges who are fearing for their lives, but even if they could get onto one of the small number of international flights now operating from Kabul airport, they don’t have visas. We should act now in providing the paperwork to get them out.

We also need to be both more ambitious and realistic in the scale of refugee resettlement. The Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme will only save 5,000 people this year. We should take at least 100,000 people in the next five years, and NATO countries should take a million refugees. After all, it is these countries that have made the situation in Afghanistan even worse.

If we aren’t proactive now, Afghan refugees will still come through irregular routes. The UK will say it’s France’s problem, and France will say it’s Italy’s problem. This mentality just doesn’t work.

Finally, there are things this government could do right now to improve the lives of Afghans in the UK. There are 3,000 Afghans going through the asylum process right now, whom the Home Office is keeping in limbo, and even threatening to deport on the grounds that Afghans who return are at “no real risk of harm”. If Afghanistan is that safe, why is the British Embassy closed? Until the Home Office is willing to have its staff on the ground in Kabul, this guidance isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Instead, this government should do the compassionate thing and grant Afghan asylum seekers refugee status now.

There are the 6,000 Afghans evacuated from Kabul, many of them traumatised, whom the Home Office has dumped in hotels. So long as they stay in this limbo, what chance do they have of starting to rebuild their lives in the community?

After receiving refugee status, my friend the interpreter is now working as a scientist. My other friend, the one who was refused, still can’t go back to Afghanistan. Instead, he is forced to apply every two and a half years for a spouse visa. It will probably take him 20 years before he gets a secure status in this country.

The government says it’s doing what voters want by pushing the Nationality and Borders Bill through Parliament, but the public has shown its support for Afghan refugees through donations, volunteer work and many other acts of compassion. On Wednesday, October 20th, thousands of us will gather in Parliament Square to call on MPs to scrap the Bill and save lives. It’s time the government took its lead from the people.


Gulwali Passarlay is an Afghan refugee and the author of The Lightless Sky, a memoir about his journey to the UK.

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