Opinion

The UK needs a common policy on refugees, not this shameful shambles

The government's immigration and asylum policies are out of step with what's required says Lord Alf Dubs.

Home Secretary Priti Patel speaks to an Afghan refugee, but more action is required. Photo: Dominic Lipinski / POOL / AFP via Getty Images

The shocking and chaotic scenes we have witnessed in Afghanistan over recent weeks have yet again exposed the inadequacies of the UK government’s current immigration and asylum policies. Sadly, it’s an all too familiar story of incompetence and indifference which has come to characterise the UK’s response to refugees fleeing war, violence and persecution.

It was of course entirely right that the UK prioritised the evacuation of UK nationals and Afghans who worked for the British military and UK government. However, not all have been successfully evacuated and their fate remains unknown.

At last week’s foreign affairs select committee, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab admitted that there were hundreds of UK nationals still in Afghanistan. He was unable to give precise numbers of those Afghan nationals and their families who worked with British forces whose lives we must assume are now in grave danger. What a shameful shambles.

The government has pledged to take in 20,000 Afghans who are eligible to claim asylum under international law over five years, in what is being called Operation Warm Welcome.

But given the United Nations has warned that up to half a million Afghans could flee the country by the end of the year, on top of the 2.2 million Afghan refugees who have already fled, Operation Warm Welcome looks very unlikely to meet the urgent humanitarian needs facing Afghan refugees.

Only 5,000 of those 20,000 Afghans who will be allowed to resettle here will be welcomed in the first year. It is an arbitrary figure that neither reflects the real and urgent need for refugees, including children, to be relocated now, nor represents our fair share of the refugees who need safety. It is worth remembering that neighbouring Pakistan has already taken in 1.5m Afghan refugees, Iran some 780,000 and more are still arriving who may be eligible for asylum.

Which begs the question, are they simply to wait, in some cases for years, before starting a new life in safety? Surely front-loading those welcomes, rather than back-loading them over a five-year period, is a more humane approach?

The other question that remains is how the UK will assist those who fled the Taliban before it was able to seize control of all of Afghanistan. For years, Afghan refugees had already been fleeing Taliban aggression in large numbers, some ending up in Europe, in camps in Greece and Italy, or in Calais. The government has not yet said how it intends to assist those refugees, many of them children, and whether the Warm Welcome will apply to at least some of them. Last year, according to the UNHCR, the UK allowed just 12,600 Afghans to settle here, fewer than Switzerland (15,400), Sweden (31,300), France (45,100) and Germany (181,000).

The government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, currently making its way through the Commons, attempts to criminalise refugees, including those from Afghanistan, who arrive in the UK using what Home Secretary Priti Patel describes as irregular modes of travel. It was deeply flawed when it was first introduced into the Commons and now those flaws are even more stark in light of the events in Afghanistan. The Bill aims to differentiate and discriminate on an individual’s right to asylum based on how they are forced to travel to the UK, potentially with the threat of imprisonment.

We have seen the chaos in Afghanistan and the circumstances under which Afghans are fleeing, even before the Taliban took control, so are we really still saying that refugees who arrive in dinghies or on the back of lorries should face prison and unless a refugee is able to assemble and retain all their documents and make an ordered and planned journey, that they are not welcome here? Those requirements are unrealistic at best, at worst cruel and in breach of the
1951 Refugee Convention.

Together with its European partners and the international community as a whole, the UK needs urgently to seek an agreement on how we can achieve a common policy towards refugees. This can only be achieved through cooperation so that we can provide sanctuary, fairly and swiftly, to those who desperately need it and can assess if the 20,000 figure currently being offered by the government represents our fair share or is in fact short of what is actually needed.

We must not forget that there are other refugees, including children, from Syria and the Horn of Africa who are currently stranded in Europe, often living rough or in camps and vulnerable to trafficking. It would be wrong for the government to use the Afghan crisis as an excuse to ignore their plight. Both groups have important humanitarian needs.

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