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UK's pledge to resettle 20,000 Afghans is not enough, critics say

Displaced Afghan families flee northern provinces due to fighting between Taliban and Afghan security in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 10 August 2021 [Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency]
Displaced Afghan families flee northern provinces due to fighting between Taliban and Afghan security in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 10 August 2021 [Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency]

The UK's announcement that it will resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees over five years overlooks the immediate needs of people, who need a safe place to live now, rather than in several years, critics have said.

Videos earlier this week of people in Afghanistan clinging to the wheels of a plane as it took off went viral. Another caught a man being hoisted into an open window, brought home the desperation felt by thousands of people who are trying to leave the country.

On Sunday the Taliban announced they had taken control of 31 provinces in Afghanistan after forces surrounded the capital over the weekend shortly after the US withdrew from the country after 20 years.

The pledge to take 20,000 Afghans follows an earlier call by charities, including Refugee Action, for the UK government to provide safe routes for these Afghans escaping the country so they are not pushed into the arms of people traffickers.

There has been some speculation over the length of the programme. UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has said the first 5,000 people will arrive over the next 12 months with Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab commenting that the UK cannot accommodate 20,000 people all in one go.

The programme will run parallel to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), under which local staff who worked for the UK Government in Afghanistan, including interpreters, teachers and community workers, will be eligible for relocation. Roughly 5,000 Afghans and their family members will benefit from this scheme.

READ: UK to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees over 5 years

The Daily Express has run with the headline, "'Big-hearted Britain' to take 20,000 refugees," in reference to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab's comments that Britain is a generous nation which has "always been a country that has provided a safe haven for those fleeing persecution."

However, the UN's announcement that as many as 18 million Afghans, half the country, need humanitarian assistance and roughly three million are internally displaced, means demand for places will hugely outweigh supply.

Several reports say the scheme will be modelled on the UK's 2014 pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over seven years with priority then given to torture survivors, women, children, and people with medical conditions.

Under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme 20,319 Syrian refugees were moved to the UK from camps in the surrounding countries, including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

However, in September 2019 the Scotsman reported that Scotland had welcomed twice as many Syrian refugees as the UK average with the SNP saying that the UK government was failing to meet its responsibilities and instead ramping up their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Despite the resettlement scheme, hundreds of Syrians still died in the Mediterranean trying to make it to Europe whilst a 2016 UK government pledge to help 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees, including from Afghanistan and Syria, only helped 350.

Several people have spoken out about the Afghan resettlement scheme, with British Labour politician Lord Dubs saying it is not going far enough.

READ: UN concerned for thousands of Afghans who worked on human rights

Chairman of the Defence Select Committee and Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood said it was a "woefully inadequate response."

As MPs were recalled to parliament today to debate Afghanistan, former PM Theresa May criticised the government's failure to prevent the collapse of the Afghan administration after the US withdrew its troops.

On Tuesday the United Nations said it is concerned about the safety of thousands of Afghans who have worked on human rights in the country in recent years with the spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert Colville urging the international community to give all possible support to people who may be at risk.

The news comes amid controversy over a proposed bill which will grant asylum seekers different rights whether they arrived in the UK legally or illegally, mainly in reference to the people who arrive in small boats crossing the Channel on the southeast coast of England.

Throughout last year, 8,410 men, women and children made the crossing between France and England and by 21 July this year, 8,159 people had already crossed.

The Nationality and Borders bill proposes that people who arrive in the UK "illegally", for example without a visa or on board one of these boats, will only be given temporary refugee status, will always be at risk of removal and their access to benefits and family reunion could be curtailed.

Rights advocates have strongly warned against dividing refugees into "good" and "bad".

READ: Taliban reportedly agree to allow Kabul airport evacuation to proceed

This week Priti Patel has suggested that Afghans seeking refuge in the UK who arrive on small boats across the Channel would not be considered an exception and would have to come via the resettlement or ARAP scheme.

In an exclusive article for the Telegraph, Patel urged European countries to take Afghan people fleeing their country, stating that "we cannot do this alone."

"I want to ensure that as a nation we do everything possible to provide support to the most vulnerable fleeing Afghanistan so they can start a new life in safety in the UK," wrote Patel, "away from the tyranny and oppression they face in Afghanistan."

However, the Home Office has previously refused asylum to Afghan refugees with immigration lawyer Jamie Bell commenting to the Guardian, that they have had a "lengthy uphill battle to be recognised as refugees."

The government has also used monthly charter flights to return Afghans who have had their asylum claims rejected, back to the country.

Charities have long called for more legal routes to be made available to people arriving in the UK, with numbers of people crossing the Channel set to continue to rise. Ministers have warned that the UK must be prepared for a new refugee crisis and more deaths at sea.

Refugee and migrant rights director at Amnesty, Steve Valdez-Symonds, had said the resettlement programme was "unforgivably slow" and asked whether Afghans arriving in the UK or those already here will be "criminalised and vilified" by the government's new bill.

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