The UK’s plans for Afghan refugees will be a test of the nation’s moral character
The UK has promised to welcome 20,000 Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban. The proposal looks set to mirror a scheme introduced at the height of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, under which more than 20,000 vulnerable refugees have been resettled by the start of 2021.
In its first year, the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme will welcome up to 5,000 Afghans to the UK who have been forced to flee the country. In addition, some Afghan nationals who were former employees of the UK government are being relocated to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy.
Given the lack of concrete information published to date, for now there are more questions than answers as to how the Afghan scheme will be implemented in practice. Issues such as the level of support that will be provided to individuals and families, how it will be coordinated and how much funding and support local councils will receive from central government (especially after years of austerity cuts and the subsequent Covid-19 pandemic) are all still unclear.
A bigger, fundamental, question relates to how the government plans to deal with individuals who are not caught by the scheme, including people who are either already here or may be expected to arrive as part of the fall-out of the change of regime in Kabul, including via so-called “illegal routes”.
How will the UK treat the plight of Afghan refugees who have an obligation to claim protection in the first country of refuge? How will this be reconciled with the treatment of refuges from other countries? These matters need to be clearly addressed as it will lead to delay in the decision-making process, costly litigation and potential discriminatory treatment.
Official figures suggest there are more than 2,900 asylum seekers from Afghanistan in the UK awaiting an initial decision on their claims. There are likely many more whose claims have been refused. Until very recently, the Home Office has been effecting returns to Afghanistan under its “country guidance” policy, unless asylum seekers could prove that they were personally at risk because of individual circumstances. That country guidance was deleted last week and it still has not been replaced.
Organisations like the Refugee Council have already called for an urgent suspension of returns to Afghanistan, as well as for the expansion of family reunion rules to enable family members who have relatives in the UK to travel here legally. Whether this translates to a meaningful shift in policy remains to be seen.
In the post-Brexit political climate with “crack downs” on illegal migration, immigration practitioners are unlikely to be holding their breath. The Home Office has emphasised that people who “knowingly arrive in the UK illegally without permission to be here” (including from Afghanistan) will be committing a criminal offence under the new Nationality and Borders Bill, a main tenant of which also includes penalising asylum seekers who travel to the UK through a “safe country”.
Noises coming from other countries reflect a general reluctance to welcome Afghan refugees, despite the full extent of migratory flows arising out of the humanitarian crisis being difficult to predict at present. France, Germany and EU representatives have been quick to advocate a cautious approach and even “robust” immigration policies. They are keen to guard against a repeat of the 2015/2016 European Refugee Crisis, when the European international community spectacularly failed to deal with the massive influx of refugees in need of protection from Syria.
Despite widespread, bold, assertions of a “moral responsibility” to house Afghans who worked for them in Afghanistan and who are now at risk, so far, the most likely common response to any future mass movement of people may end up being to try to stop it before it starts.
In the UK, statements emanating from Whitehall about the UK being a “big-hearted nation” which has “always been a country that has provided safe haven for those fleeing persecution” (as the Foreign Secretary put it last week), must be carefully stacked against efforts by the current administration to overhaul and undermine the very legal framework on which vulnerable refugees rely for securing protection in the UK.