“Some people won’t get back.” These were the words of the UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, choking up as he swallowed back tears during an interview following the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
The former army officer was referring to the UK’s evacuation effort of British passport holders and local Afghan allies to whom the government owes an obligation. “We are only now in Afghanistan,” he said, “to process those people”.
Yet if even these cohorts are not guaranteed an exit, what then for the wave of civilians – a snapshot of whom can be seen clinging to the planes at Kabul airport in horrific footage published by the BBC – who will leave the country to flee persecution?
“The return of Taliban control to large swathes of Afghanistan will have a devastating impact on the wider civilian population. It is highly likely that many thousands of people will be driven from their homes, with women and girls at particular risk,” wrote Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, in a letter to the Home Secretary Priti Patel on Sunday 15 August. Thomas-Symonds argued that Britain has a responsibility to all those “facing displacement” by providing “safe and legal asylum routes”.
The Liberal Democrats have joined Eric P Schwartz, the president of Refugees International, in calling for a humanitarian corridor out of Kabul to be established, connecting the capital to an international border, for those beyond the “lucky few” who managed to leave the country by plane.
“The safe passage corridor must be open to all those who need to flee the Taliban,” said Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for foreign affairs. “The government must make this their top priority today… All those who need to escape the Taliban, especially women and girls, must be given the chance.”
A complacent response so far by the Home Office to those in most danger does not bode well for ordinary civilians seeking an escape.
The inadequacy of the British government’s relocation scheme for Afghan interpreters and other allies who helped the British military has been well-covered – overlooking third party contractors, interpreters’ family members, “second-order” workers such as cooks and cleaners arbitrarily deemed less at risk of retribution, and former interpreters sacked without the chance to appeal from their jobs, for example.
As Conservative commentator John Oxley wrote in the New Statesman:
“The position of the Home Office is exposing the department’s worst qualities – an obsession with absolute immigration numbers and the use of process to frustrate rather than facilitate… The rules have been designed and applied to minimise our largesse, rather than rescue as many people as possible from the militants’ retribution.”
The British Embassy has since put on hold the visas of 35 Afghan students who had won scholarships to study at UK universities, because it could no longer process their applications.
As the Taliban took over Kabul, the Sunday Times reported on senior military sources calling the Home Office “reluctant” to give so many Afghans with links to Britain (such as interpreters, intelligence allies, embassy staff, etc) asylum “because of the message it will send to other refugees”.
In a tweet, the Home Office called these claims “categorically incorrect”, and Wallace responded echoing that they were “total[ly] incorrect (sic)”. The Home Secretary spoke about an “enormous resettlement programme” she was overseeing with the Defence Secretary.
[See also: The refugee crisis: A decade of displacement]
According to the latest figure at the time of writing, announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 1,978 Afghan nationals have been settled in the UK so far. After this piece was published, a government spokesperson updated the New Statesman that the government has resettled over 3,300 Afghan interpreters, staff and their families who served alongside the British military so far, and are planning to bring more people to safety.
The Home Office has put a block on deportations to Afghanistan, and there were vague briefings on Monday about the department working up a “bespoke refugee scheme” – the latter had not been officially confirmed at the time of writing, but the Times has reported since that the government confirmed it is planning a resettlement scheme based on the one drawn up for Syrian refugees in 2015 (which brought tens of thousands of Syrians into Britain), yet neither the Foreign Secretary on the Tuesday morning media round nor the Home Office would provide numbers.
A Government spokesperson said:
“No one should be in any doubt of our commitment to build upon our proud history of resettling refugees in need of protection. Since 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 vulnerable refugees, around half of whom are children, and earlier this year the Home Secretary opened a new visa for Hong Kong BN(O) status holders to reflect the UK’s historic and moral commitment to those who have had their rights and freedoms restricted.
“Through our New Plan for Immigration, we will strengthen safe and legal routes to the UK for refugees from regions of conflict and instability, and discourage dangerous journeys.”
The New Statesman understands that the numbers the UK plans to resettle will be kept under review, to allow for flexibility regarding the capacity of local authorities and other bodies to provide places for people. The Covid-19 recovery also appears to be a factor in the decision around numbers.
Wallace suggested on Monday 16 August that passport rules may be relaxed for certain Afghans being evacuated to the UK, “if they’ve already been through our checks, we know who they are”. Visa requirements have been waived for the families of British nationals.
[See also: Why it’s time to abolish the Home Office]
On Sunday 15 August, Johnson would not confirm how many Afghan refugees the UK would take. Canada, in contrast, has committed to providing sanctuary to more than 20,000 citizens deemed likely Taliban targets. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany may take in 10,000 of those most at risk. Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney has said that the Irish government has waived 45 visas so far, and is looking to make 100-150 places available to refugees – prioritising people involved in human rights organisations, the media, and women and girls.
“The focus now needs to be on refugees, and humanitarian and development assistance for the fall-out from this tragedy,” tweeted Rory Stewart, the former diplomat and MP who contested the Conservative leadership against Johnson in 2019.
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and Tory MP, has called for more urgency in issuing thousands more visas to a wider group of people, telling the Telegraph: “That includes female members of the Afghan parliament, teachers who taught female students and those whose lives are now at the mercy of Islamist fundamentalists allied with Isis. They need to have visas open to them.”
As time runs out, concerns about the pace and scope of the UK government’s humanitarian and asylum response are mounting. With a fresh refugee crisis imminent, its persistent reluctance under successive Conservative governments to open up safe and legal routes to the world’s persecuted does not look promising for Afghans desperate for a way out. This is, after all, the same “Global Britain” that cut its international development spending and is trying to criminalise those who rescue asylum seekers to safety.
The Home Office has been contacted for comment.
Update 8.57am, 17/8/21:
After this piece was published, the government confirmed it is planning a resettlement scheme based on the one drawn up for Syrian refugees in 2015, yet neither the Foreign Secretary nor the Home Office would provide numbers. This piece has been updated to reflect these developments.