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© UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Statement: Response to Afghanistan crisis and government resettlement programme

Response to the Afghanistan crisis and UK government resettlement programme from Asylum Matters, Freedom from Torture, Refugee Action, the Refugee Council and Scottish Refugee Council

Overview

Many Afghans now face profound dangers to their lives, human rights, and ability to live in freedom and dignity. The UK’s response to the crisis must be compassionate, comprehensive and equal to the scale of the crisis. It must combine: a strong UK contribution to international humanitarian aid to refugees in the region; a wide-ranging package to provide protection to Afghans seeking safety in the UK via resettlement and providing asylum; and a fundamental rethink of the government’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill which would prevent people fleeing for their lives from Afghanistan and other such crises from securing safety in the UK.

Resettlement and relocation

We welcome the government’s announcement of the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme to resettle 20,000 refugees fleeing from Afghanistan to rebuild their lives in the UK, but more clarity is needed, and much more than this must be done. We could, and should, have been better prepared before this crisis hit by ensuring that a functioning UK refugee resettlement programme was back in place, as we have continually pressed for over the last two years.

We await important further details needed to ensure this scheme is a success. This includes over its exact timeframe, how people will be selected and where from, the potential role for the UN in helping coordinate this initiative with other international action, and the support and planning the government will provide to local authorities and devolved governments to help communities across the UK provide the welcome for refugees we know they want to. We and other refugee groups stand ready to work with the government to help ensure resettling Afghans refugees in local communities is the success we know it can be.

But the government needs to go further in scale and scope on resettlement to respond to the
magnitude of need in Afghanistan – and be better prepared for the next crisis. This must
include investing in the necessary infrastructure for an ongoing, global resettlement
scheme. It should commit to resettle at least 10,000 refugees a year over the next five
years, from Afghanistan and across the world. The government should also change
restrictive rules to allow family members from Afghanistan to join those already settled in
Britain – and ensure existing applications for family reunion are fast-tracked. This would
allow families facing danger to live together and support each other as they make a new life
in the UK.

We also note the government ARAP scheme to relocate Afghans with direct links to the UK’s previous operations in Afghanistan. As this is not a refugee resettlement scheme, we welcome that it will be additional to the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme. It is vital this scheme shifts the way it operates to the new reality on the ground and ensures strong support for local authorities and others to make this a success.

Beyond the resettlement scheme

Beyond a resettlement scheme, the government needs to take urgent action to provide safety to Afghans in pressing need of our protection who are already in Britain or who come outside the resettlement scheme. They are fleeing death, danger and persecution in Afghanistan just as much as those selected via a resettlement scheme, and also desperately need our protection. And they currently suffer agonising waits in limbo for a decision on being accepted as refugees in common with other people from other countries in an deeply-flawed system bedevilled by long and growing backlogs. We can help many of these Afghans right now, right here. In particular, the UK government must:

  • Immediately update the official guidance used to inform decisions on whether people from Afghanistan are accepted as refugees in the UK to reflect the new context and ensure those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan are granted rapid protection.
  • Put in place a simplified, fast-track procedure to ensure rapid decisions through safety-first processes to provide protection to the approximately 3000 Afghans already in the UK asylum system, and for those lodging new claims for protection in the future.
  • Confirm it is suspending all forcible returns of Afghans who have sought asylum in the UK to Afghanistan immediately – and release any in detention given that we cannot return anyone to the new context.
  • Commit that no Afghan will have their claim for asylum ruled inadmissible or will face being sent away to a third country regardless of how they have had to travel to the UK, under the post-Brexit rules that were introduced at the end of last year.
  • Change restrictive rules on family reunion to allow family members from Afghanistan to join those already settled in Britain – and ensure existing applications for family reunion are fast-tracked.
  • Provide emergency humanitarian visas for people who need to get out of Afghanistan and come to the UK safely to claim asylum.

Rethink the UK’s wider approach

The Afghanistan crisis provides a stark reminder of why refugees are forced to risk their lives to escape in any way they can from the horrors they face. Many are simply not able to do this through official schemes such as a resettlement programme. And yet the government is proposing a new law that would stymie our ability to protect many such people who come to the UK via irregular routes to seek asylum – despite the UN refugee convention guaranteeing people have the right to seek asylum no matter how they arrive in a country like the UK. If the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill became law, Afghans arriving in the UK in any way other than from a direct flight with official visas would be met with punishment and expulsion, not protection. The government needs to agree to a fundamental rethink of the Bill which would deliver a hammer blow to the UK’s ability to help people
fleeing for their lives in crises such as that in Afghanistan today.

18 August 2021