As the Taliban advanced on Kabul, we received increasing numbers of calls from people in communities across the North West. They were desperate for help for family members still in Afghanistan. Over the last five years we’ve worked with hundreds of people from Afghanistan. 75 were children on their own in the North West without their parents.
The events of the last month make the reasons why people fled Afghanistan particularly devastating: young men fleeing forcible recruitment from the Taliban, children at risk because their parents worked for the Americans or British, people whose lifestyles met with fierce disapproval from Taliban supporters.
So how has our government responded to this crisis? We’ve been scrutinising the government’s response to the situation in Afghanistan and the promises it has made over the last month to people in need of protection in the UK.
In the heat of the emergency evacuation from Kabul airport, the government rightly recognised the urgent need to step up and protect people at risk. Operation Pitting resulted in the airlift of thousands – British nationals; people who had supported the British army; and people identified as being at particular risk – fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters.
A cold shoulder
But what of those fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters who didn’t make it on to the evacuation flights? Despite badging support for those relocated to the UK as “Operation Warm Welcome”, we believe for many needing protection from Afghanistan, the UK’s response will be Operation Cold Shoulder.
The pictures from Kabul airport made clear that people fleeing conflict and persecution will do so however they can. Wouldn’t you? But the government’s recently released policy on resettlement and immigration from Afghanistan expects people to stand in a fictitious queue. Those who stand in line for the government’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) – which hasn’t even opened yet – will get the open arms welcome promised by the Prime Minister. Indefinite leave to remain; the right to work; access to benefits, healthcare and education; help with English language lessons – all aimed at helping people to rebuild with certainty and stability.
But those who scramble over the border to Pakistan or Iran and make their own way to the UK will be treated as illegal immigrants. Priti Patel is currently pushing her #AntiRefugeeBill through parliament. It will criminalise people fleeing the Taliban who arrive in the UK without having sat in a refugee camp for years, waiting to be among the 0.5% of the world’s refugees selected by the UN for resettlement.
Meanwhile, people who had already fled to the UK before the fall of Kabul wait in a very real queue. They’re waiting in an asylum backlog because the Home Office has frozen all decisions on claims for protection from Afghanistan. 3,000 people across the UK have fled Afghanistan over recent years and are still waiting for an asylum decision. At this moment, 24 of the people we support from Afghanistan have waited longer than six months for a decision on their asylum claim. 12 are children, who are emotionally and physically falling apart while adults struggle to make the asylum system work and decide their claim for protection.
Families kept apart
And there has been more heartache for people calling us desperately trying to reunite with family members in Afghanistan. Most people we speak to don’t fit the narrow rules for refugees to bring family to the UK. And the government’s policies on Afghanistan have done nothing to remove the barriers. They haven’t waived the financial restrictions of the family rules or the practical restrictions of the refugee family reunion route. Instead government advice coldly says “we do not recommend making applications at this time”.
These are fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters fleeing the same conflict as those receiving the hand of friendship from Operation Warm Welcome. The same people, divided only by the way they were able to flee a terrible, chaotic situation. Some by plane, others by boat, some through a refugee camp, others having walked over mountains and smuggled themselves on lorries.
It makes no sense.
We strongly believe that by creating false groups of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ refugees the government’s approach will fail – it will fail people from Afghanistan, it will fail the British public who have showed such concern and compassion for people fleeing the Taliban, and it will fail on the government’s own terms because it’s approach is not based in the real-world.
So what can we do?
It’s easy to feel powerless. But here’s three practical things we can all do today, to show the government that it is us, not them, who are in the majority:
- Share our advice guide to explain the options for people from Afghanistan seeking protection in the UK.
- Raise up the voices of people with lived experience, like Gulwali Passarlay and Dr Waheed Arian from Afghanistan or the members of RAS Voice, and learn from the experiences of local communities doing things differently – like our local leaders explaining why the Hostile Environment harms us all.
- Use your voice – we need to tell our MPs that the #AntiRefugeeBill is not in our name. Please send our parliamentary briefing to your MP to make it clear that refugees – from Afghanistan and elsewhere – are welcome here.