Politics

MPs ask if Johnson expects Afghans to ‘hang around and wait for execution’

Boris Johnson came under fire for the government's offer to accept 5,000 refugees from Afghanistan in the next year

The prime minister is facing scathing criticism from opposition MPs and his own backbenchers as parliament debates the developing crisis in Afghanistan after the country fell to Taliban insurgents.

Home secretary Priti Patel announced 20,000 Afghan refugees would be accepted into the UK, although just 5,000 would be taken in over the first year of the scheme and another 15,000 will be resettled on a “longer term” basis.

“What are the 15,000 meant to do?” said Chris Bryant, Labour MP for the Rhondda in South Wales, speaking in the House of Commons. “Hang around and wait until they’ve been executed?”

Boris Johnson said the government would spend £200m on resettling people fleeing danger in Afghanistan, and that the number brought into the UK in the first year of the crisis “would actually be 10,000” including local allies taken in through the scheme aimed at people who supported British military efforts in the region.

Fear has spread across Afghanistan after the militants’ returned to power, with women and those who assisted Western military operations in the country particularly at risk under the brutal regime.

Thousands of people gathered on the tarmac at Kabul airport after the Taliban seized control of the capital, as footage showed people desperately clinging to departing planes.

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The Home Office was denying asylum claims by people from Kabul as recently as last week, according to reports, because the government deemed the city safe for return. Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, asked for reassurance from the prime minister that Afghan nationals awaiting refugee status in the UK would be kept safe and that the Home Office “will not send people back to this nightmare”.

“We will not be sending people back to Afghanistan and nor will we be allowing people to come from Afghanistan to this country in an indiscriminate way,” Johnson said. The UK should be generous but also “look after our own security” and “protect the UK homeland”, he added.

But Labour leader Keir Starmer told Johnson to “snap out of his complacency”, calling for safe and legal routes for Afghan refugees to reach the UK and a resettlement scheme which “meets the scale of the enormous challenge”.

The government’s “vague” plan “does not do that”, Starmer said, condemning the decision to accept 5,000 people in the first year as “without rationale”.

“Was that based on a risk assessment of those most in need or was it plucked out of the air?

“The offer to others is in the long term. But for those desperately needing our help, there is no long term. Just day-to-day survival.”

The UK does not currently know if people outside of Kabul are able to get to places of safety, said Layla Moran, foreign affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, urging the prime minister to create a “safe corridor to an international border” for people to get to safety via third countries. This further called into question the decision to take in 5,000 people, Starmer said.

“We know the consequences now. Violent reprisals in Afghanistan, people tragically fleeing into the arms of human traffickers, people risking and losing their lives on unsafe journeys including across the English Channel. We cannot betray our friends.”

The Labour leader directed anger across the House of Commons, addressing Johnson: “He mutters, but he was in a position to lead and he didn’t.”

Two decades of Western military presence ended abruptly earlier this month, after Donald Trump made a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 without input from the Afghan government at the time.

The prime minister bears heavy responsibilityKeir Starmer

The withdrawal triggered a rapid increase in Taliban operations, seizing control across most of the country in a matter of days before eventually forcing the government in Kabul to fold.

“We’ve had 18 months to prepare and plan for the consequences, for this resettlement of refugees, for supporting the Afghan government in managing withdrawal,” Starmer said in the House of Commons. “The very problems we’re confronting in this debate were all known for 18 months.

“The lack of planning is unforgivable. The prime minister bears heavy responsibility.” Johnson’s decision to cut the budget for support in Afghanistan was “short sighted, small minded and a threat to security,” he added.

John Redwood, Conservative MP for Wokingham, was met by groans and laughter when he dubbed the government’s response to the crisis “fast and purposeful”.

It was the first time all MPs are gathered in the House of Commons since before the pandemic, and the first time parliament has been recalled from summer recess early since representatives met to discuss Syria in 2013.

Theresa May spoke scathingly of the government’s handling of the crisis. The UK joined the US in hoping on a “wing and a prayer” that it “would be alright on the night”, the former Prime Minister said.

“This is a major setback for British foreign policy. We talk of ‘global Britain’. Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” May said. “We will be judged on our deeds, not our words.”

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