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Afghanistan crisis: refugees must be protected, not punished

By August 23, 2021Blog post

Mariam Kemple Hardy, Refugee Action’s Head of Campaigns, writes about the crisis in Afghanistan and the urgent need for a system based on protection, not punishment. 

The horrific scenes in Kabul have shown just how fast situations can change and how chaotic it can be trying to escape them. We ask: what would I do? How would I get out? How would I protect my family? It’s a line of thought quickly shut down because the answers are too terrifying.

Afghanistan right now is a real-time example of why we need a strong refugee protection system. It also tells us that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Watching the desperate routes people take in desperate situations, whether clinging to planes or handing children over walls, it’s clear how a protection system that only recognises “official” routes to safety, such as resettlement, is no protection system at all.

Of course, official routes are essential ways for a Government to uphold its international obligations and, at Refugee Action, we do welcome the new Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme that will resettle 5,000 Afghans over the coming year, and a further 15,000 in the “long term”. But the scheme does not go far enough. In fact, it barely touches the sides.

First, there is no timeline to complete the commitment. Is it over 2 years or 20? It’s either a positive first step or a total farce. And, as one of the main resettlement providers in the UK, we know it is possible to double the number resettled in the first year to 10,000. In fact, we’ve spent the past year calling for the Government to do just that and commit to a global resettlement scheme that takes in 10,000 refugees a year from around the world. Such a scheme is needed if the UK is to have a sustainable protection system ready to respond both to the crises of today and tomorrow.

And what of the vast majority of Afghans who will not be lucky enough to be resettled? How will we treat the 20,001st Afghan refugee? Any Afghan who arrives in the UK today to claim asylum will be faced with a system riddled with injustice that all too often fails those it is meant to protect. A system that can leave people hungry and homeless. Banned from working, people seeking asylum survive on £5.69 per day and many must choose between food and medicine. A toxic combination of Home Office incompetence and indifference has led to a crisis in asylum accommodation that has worsened for years, with people stuck in dangerously dilapidated housing or in de facto detention in disused army barracks. And current waiting times for asylum decisions are the highest ever recorded, with 76% waiting more than six months and many waiting years.

Worse still, this Government is seeking to double down on this injustice with their anti-refugee Bill currently going through Parliament. If passed, the Bill would represent the biggest attack on the refugee protection system that we have ever seen and will close the door to desperate people who arrive in the UK to seek safety, including those from Afghanistan. Under the Bill, an Afghan arriving in the UK via means other than official routes would likely be detained for who knows how long and deported to who knows where.

This year marked the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. Instead of building on this foundation, the Government is busy pulling it down and putting up a drawbridge in its place. Please join us in fighting this extreme and nasty #AntiRefugeeBill and calling for a system based on protection, not punishment. We know that the coming years will see many Afghans doing whatever they can to reach sanctuary for themselves and their families. Some may even step onto a small boat on a French shore and look to our country for hope. How will we answer them?