…but government bungling together with Priti Patel’s inhumane Borders Bill and disastrous Home Office response have only served to hinder humanitarian efforts, Vivienne Griffiths examines the horrifying events of recent days and offers practical advice for anyone wanting to help Afghan refugees locally,
The horrific human tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan in recent days has been hard to watch. And for most of us, it’s impossible not to experience deep and mixed emotions – sorrow, along with escalating anger. It is inexcusable that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary went on holiday when the fall of Kabul was imminent and that Dominic Raab stayed away for two more days after being recalled.
As Kabul fell to the Taliban, UK government refusals to offer help to the Afghan guards at the British embassy were only overturned after growing accusations of betrayal. And a recent video clip of PM Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab visiting an Afghan crisis centre went viral after being shown by BBC Newsnight, prompting thousands of horrified comments from viewers on witnessing the PM make cringe-inducing attempts at jokey banter in place of the gravitas the situation warranted.
The evacuation process has been handled by the government in a predictably confusing and ill-planned way, even if one accepts that Raab’s claim that “no-one saw this coming” about the rapid Taliban takeover. The statement is also belied by the fact that other countries, like France, were somehow able to get their citizens out of Afghanistan well ahead of the 31 August deadline.
Delays in planning the evacuation of Afghan guards at the British embassy in Kabul, after the government’s initial refusal to offer help, resulted in failure to issue clearance, leaving the guards and their families devastated and vulnerable. Details of Afghan staff were also left at the embassy for Talban fighters to find; whilst three families have since been rescued, the others’ whereabouts are unknown.
FO ignores pleas
It’s been revealed that the Foreign Office ignored thousands of pleas from qualifying Afghans, their UK families, MPs and charities – with a high number of emails not even being opened. Several MPs, including Chris Bryant, have reported that attempts to evacuate their constituents from Afghanistan are still being ignored.
Labour MP Lyn Brown said the lack of response from the government about the families of constituents, including a British girl of school age, was a “dereliction of duty.” Brighton Pavilion Green MP Caroline Lucas also reported that “urgent calls to Foreign & Home Offices go unanswered.”
As the evacuation mission from Kabul airport came to an end, the Ministry of Defence announced that over 13,000 people had already been evacuated. But at the same time, a government minister admitted that many eligible Afghans will be left behind, and will now have to try and make treacherous escape across land borders.
Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “I’m not giving up but my anger and shame for those we’ve left behind to be hunted by the Taliban is growing.” He and other leading Conservative MPs are calling for an urgent inquiry into the government’s handling of the withdrawal.
Sadly, in addition to the chaos and suffering at Kabul airport, the way that the Home Office is choosing to respond to the humanitarian crisis will likely only exacerbate the problem.
There are particular fears for the plight of Afghan women and girls, who were denied basic human rights like identity, education and work under the previous Taliban rule. Despite the Home Secretary Priti Patel’s announcement that a “bespoke resettlement scheme” will be set up, targeting women and girls in particular, the government has a poor record of settling female Afghan refugees so far.
According to the Home Office’s own data, under a fifth of young adults from Afghanistan granted asylum in the UK since 2009 have been female. Patel has tried to defend the current plans against criticisms that they are “woefully inadequate”. But although the UK has pledged to take 20,000 Afghan refugees over the next five years, only 5,000 are to be resettled in 2021.
Moreover, refugee agencies have severe criticisms of the Home Secretary’s Nationality and Borders Bill. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) argues that it will create a two-tier asylum system, discriminating between “good” refugees who arrive through resettlement schemes and “bad” ones who arrive by boat or other means without permission. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, warns that such a system “risks breaching commitments under the Refugee Convention that clearly protect the universal right to seek asylum.”
Although the Home Office claims that “thousands of Afghans most in need will be welcomed to the UK through one of our most ambitious ever resettlement schemes”, Caroline Lucas argues that the Nationality and Borders Bill will criminalise asylum seekers from Afghanistan who cannot wait to be included in the five-year scheme and may have to flee by whatever means possible.
Priti Patel irony
The Home Secretary claims that the UK cannot accommodate 20,000 refugees in one go, but she seems to have forgotten that it was a Tory government under Ted Heath who welcomed 28,000 Ugandan Asian refugees in 1972. Patel’s own parents fled from persecution in Uganda in the 1960s, but under her own proposed scheme would not have been allowed to enter the UK. Yet despite her personal background, Patel appears to lack any empathy and understanding of refugees’ desperate circumstances. And her latest proposals with regards to Afghan refugees are, quite simply, inhumane.
Brighton and Hove has already announced that it will support the Afghan refugee settlement scheme and is ready to help house them. As a City of Sanctuary, Brighton has already welcomed many asylum seekers from war-torn countries such as Syria in recent years, but the council often has to pick up the pieces of Home Office incompetence and insensitivity.
Specific cases give the lie to the government claim that: “Each and every day we work closely with local authorities across the United Kingdom to ensure suitable accommodation and support is in place for those seeking asylum or resettlement in the UK.”
For instance, only a few weeks ago, Hove MP Peter Kyle reported on the shambolic situation where 60 unaccompanied refugee children had literally been “dumped” in a local hotel by the Home Office, with no planning, safeguarding or communication.
The council had been given less than 24-hours’ notice, preventing any preparation from taking place. Elaine Ortiz, from the Hummingbird Project in Brighton, also criticised the Home Office for not providing clothing, money, or even any protection, to child refugees.
Nationally, the Home Office has been criticised for an unfair dispersal system, whereby the majority of asylum seekers are housed in poorer local authorities, such as Rochdale, Cardiff and Glasgow, while wealthier areas take none. Whilst pledging support in housing Afghan refugees, there have been pleas by leaders of cities in the North of England for a more equitable distribution, with adequate support.
Only 6% of refugees have been housed in the South, so it is heartening to see that a growing number of councils across East and West Sussex have offered support for Afghan refugees, including Adur and Worthing, Lewes and Eastbourne, Horsham, Wealden and Chichester.
Phelim MacCafferty, leader of Brighton and Hove council, has urged the government to “adequately resource the new settlement scheme and financially support councils who want to do everything possible to welcome refugees fleeing horrific circumstances.” West Sussex Lib Dem leader Kirsty Lord also stated: “The Government must live up to its obligations by giving West Sussex County Council and our district and borough councils extra funding so we can house, support and integrate these refugees properly.”
Charities such as Care4Calais are now appealing for help with clothes and other essentials and the public is already responding generously. But with the last UK evacuation flight having already landed, and an estimated 9,000 people who are eligible for UK asylum still trapped in Afghanistan, the aftermath of this tragic situation will continue for many years to come.
How to help
If you want to help out personally, there are useful lists of local charities and resources in The Argus and Sanctuary on Sea. Or you can find nationwide information and a volunteer form to offer targeted help via the government website: https://www.help-refugees-uk.service.gov.uk/