JCWI and others say resettlement-only approach to refugee protection is not enough
UK announces new resettlement scheme for Afghans; refugee and migrant groups say Government must also now abandon plans to criminalise asylum seekers
18 August 2021
Following the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, the UK Government has announced a new refugee resettlement scheme for Afghans who are most in need of safety, BBC News reported yesterday.
The Afghan Citizens' Resettlement Scheme will allow up to 20,000 Afghans to settle in the UK over the coming years, with 5,000 planned to arrive in the first year. Women, children and minorities will be prioritised. The Guardian notes that most will likely come via neighbouring countries unless the UK can strike an agreement with the Taliban.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the new scheme will save lives.
"The UK Government will always stand by those in the world in their hour of need when fleeing persecution or oppression. … Our country has a proud history of offering sanctuary to those in need. We will not abandon people who have been forced to flee their homes and are now living in terror of what might come next," Patel added.
The Home Office has further details here.
On Monday, the Home Office announced that over 3,300 Afghan nationals who supported British efforts and armed forces have been resettled in the UK since 2013. These include interpreters, other staff and their family members. 2,000 have been resettled since June this year.
In a campaign led by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), over 80 refugee and migrant organisations wrote to Priti Patel yesterday calling on her to act immediately to offer a generous and compassionate response to the Afghan crisis.
You can read the letter here.
With the rights and lives of millions of Afghans now at risk, the letter urges the Home Secretary to abandon the dangerous plans set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill to criminalise or deny full refugee status to those who come to the UK without permission to seek asylum.
The organisations say a resettlement-only approach to refugee protection cannot work.
"It is not feasible for refugees to wait for undefined periods of time in unsafe situations in the hope of resettlement in the context of what we have seen. Regulated travel is not a viable option. Many people need to flee urgently and by any means necessary, including by making irregular journeys. These must not be penalised," the letter says.
It adds that all refugees reaching the UK must have their claims assessed based solely on need and never on their method of flight.
The letter also calls on the Home Secretary to immediately publish new policy guidance on Afghanistan that reflects the clear need for international protection for all those at risk.
Women and girls, ethnic minorities, LGBTIQ+ people, journalists and those seen as supporting an international organisation or the Afghan Government are now in immediate danger, the organisations emphasised.
In the wake of the Taliban takeover, the Home Office on Monday removed all but one of its country policy and information notes on Afghanistan. Only December 2020's note on medical and healthcare provision remains current.
UNHCR calls on all countries to allow people fleeing Afghanistan access to their territories, and it calls on all countries to suspend the forced returns of Afghan nationals, including failed asylum seekers.
The position paper states: "UNHCR notes the imperative to ensure that the right to seek asylum is not compromised, that borders are kept open and that people in need of international protection are not consigned to areas inside their country of origin that could potentially be dangerous. In this context, it is important to bear in mind that states have obligations, including under customary international law, to preserve cross-border access for civilians fleeing conflict and not to return forcibly refugees."
UNHCR says the bar on forcible return serves as a minimum standard and it needs to remain in place until conditions in Afghanistan improve enough to permit a safe and dignified return of those determined not to be in need of international protection.
As noted in the position paper, neighbouring Pakistan and Iran host the vast majority of Afghan refugees, with over 2.2 million between them as of December 2020.
Open Democracy reported on Monday that the UK has received around 65,000 asylum applications from Afghans in the 20 years since the US-led invasion of the country. Around half of those (32,000) were rejected at the initial decision stage.