It is a sign of utter desperation to hang on to a plane that is taking off from a runway. But such were the scenes that unfolded at Kabul airport last week, as Afghan citizens raced to escape the takeover of their city and nation by reactionary Taliban forces. Such desperation is unlikely to ease.
Once the looming 31 August deadline is reached, the US will likely end its occupation of the airport. Foreign military airlift efforts will then cease, leaving hundreds, probably thousands, of vulnerable Afghans still trying to flee. Ben Wallace, the UK Defence Secretary, admitted on Sunday that “no nation will be able to get everyone out”, and that many of Britain’s Afghan allies would likely be left behind.
Among those who have aided foreign forces during the 20-year-long conflict are interpreters – some of whom I met, years ago, as part of a parliamentary delegation on a Ministry of Defence visit to the country – as well as their families and others who worked with our forces, perhaps through subcontractors.
Yet it is not just those who collaborated directly with the British military that are now at risk. We have seen on our TV screens many brave Afghan women, judges, teachers, the education minister, politicians, students, and members of humanitarian organisations. They are all in serious danger if they remain in the country. They took up their positions in the reasonable belief that the Nato countries would always ensure their safety. We cannot desert them.
Hard information is scarce, but it seems that many have already fled to neighbouring countries in the region – places that are themselves very poor and in need of aid to accommodate the newly arrived refugees.
That so many Afghan people now face such a crisis clearly won’t do. The withdrawal has been mishandled by the allied powers, especially, it would seem, by America. The scheme the British government announced last week, to take 20,000 over 5 years, with just 5,000 to be accepted in the first year, is too small and too late an effort.
We have done better in the past. In under a year between 1938 and 1939, the UK took in 10,000 children on the Kindertransports from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia – of whom I myself was one. In the more recent past, when Idi Amin forced East African Asians out of Uganda, the UK accepted 27,000, though admittedly they had British overseas passports.
In contrast, a 5,000 limit on Afghan refugees in the first year is arbitrary and will not meet the immediate need. There is no guarantee that vulnerable Afghans will be able to get out of their country in the coming months or years. And it is unclear whether the 5,000 and 20,000 figures only apply to Afghans still within the country or if they include those who managed to flee before the American troop withdrawal.
Some such refugees have already reached neighbouring nations, or perhaps even Europe. Yet many of the latter are now in a precarious situation. Under the UK government’s Nationality and Borders Bill they will be liable to arrest if they cross the channel with or without the aid of traffickers. On the other hand, they obviously can’t return to their own country. I believe some of them, especially those with relatives in the UK, must be included in the government’s plan for Afghan resettlement.
The Nationality and Borders Bill was an appalling policy when it was introduced into the Commons before the summer recess. Recent events in Afghanistan have made it even more urgent that the Bill should be drastically amended to take account of the new situation, or better still withdrawn and replaced by a new bill.
It must also be made totally clear that there is no case for returning Afghans to their own country. Until recently, some EU countries were still talking about sending Afghans back, but that cannot be allowed to happen. More importantly there is surely a case for a wider European/Nato approach to refugees with all countries sharing responsibility. Germany made such a plea in 2016 when many Syrians fled their country, but it fell on deaf ears. Then, after the Moria migrant camp fire on Lesbos last year, various countries offered to help – though, as ever, the UK response was muted.
I have been asked over the years why so many of the children fleeing Afghanistan are young men. Some who’d reached this country told me that their families had raised the money to help them escape local Taliban forces, who would have compelled them to join. A second reason why young men rather than women featured among the Afghans was because of the length and dangers of the journey. Now that the Taliban have taken over, however, it is the women and girls who are in greater danger.
We don’t know how many Afghans have already fled to Pakistan and other neighbouring countries, but it is possible it could run into thousands if not millions. It is surely right that we should provide aid to these countries to help support the new arrivals. Restoring the aid budget to 0.7 per cent of GDP is an obvious immediate step.
In a wider sense we also need to try and improve our relations with Pakistan, a key player in the region and a country that probably has influence on the policies of the Kabul government.
Finally, let us remind ourselves that the Afghan refugee crisis came on top of the existing refugee situation in Europe. In particular there are young Syrians and refugees from the Horn of Africa who have fled to Europe. Let us make sure they are not forgotten because of the urgent need to save the Afghans.