Britain Helped Destroy Afghanistan – Now We Must Help Their Refugees

Taj Ali

Even before the Taliban takeover, 20 years of war in Afghanistan killed thousands and created millions of refugees – Britain has a responsibility to those it helped to displace.

Displaced people from the northern provinces of Afghanistan are evacuated to various mosques and schools on 12 August 2021. Credit: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Afghanistan is one of the largest refugee-producing countries in the world. Successive cycles of conflict and the resulting instability have led to the displacement of millions of people, and now, as the Taliban strengthens its hold, the situation facing them is even worse.

Many in Afghanistan live in fear of what is to come – not least the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, who have been historically persecuted under Taliban rule. The Hazaras, who make up about twenty percent of Afghanistan’s population, for example, have been targeted by the Taliban due to their Shia faith and their distinctive ethnic origins. After seizing power in 1996, the Taliban declared a jihad on Hazaras, leading to mass killings in Northern Afghanistan and forcing thousands to flee.

The heartbreaking scenes at Kabul Airport this week demonstrate just how desperate the situation is for so many. As US forces prepared to leave, Afghan citizens attempted to flee by desperately holding on to their plane’s landing gear. Some, it was reported, fell to their deaths. The incident was representative of the scant regard Western governments have long had for the Afghan people.

Our government was an active participant in 2001’s invasion, which led to the displacement of nearly four million Afghan people. According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, around a quarter of a million people have died as a direct result of the last twenty years of war. Between 2016 and 2020, forty percent of all civilian casualties from US and Afghan government airstrikes in Afghanistan—almost 1,600—were children, and in 2017, the US military relaxed its rules of engagement for airstrikes, resulting in an increase in civilian casualties of 330 percent. Hundreds of thousands more, mostly civilians, have died due to the hunger, disease, and injury that follow in war’s wake.

In 2021, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. It has the second highest level of emergency food insecurity on the globe. Forty percent of the population are without a job, and almost seventy percent live below the poverty line. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of Afghans living in poverty rose from 9.1 million to 19.3 million, and the Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the economy and devastated living standards even further.

It’s abundantly clear that two decades of military intervention in Afghanistan have been a disaster. Our government must learn from this history and ensure it avoids embracing policies, either in Afghanistan or elsewhere, that repeat the same mistakes. The priority now must be upholding the right to asylum for Afghan refugees and ensuring their safe passage into the UK. Favouring only those who worked for Western forces during the occupation falls far short of the UK’s moral duty: given Britain’s complicity in the suffering of the Afghan people, our government has an obligation to take as many Afghan refugees as possible.

At present, there are very few safe and open routes for refugees coming to Britain, and the government has thus far declined to say how many people it is committed to accepting. Ministers are apparently working on a ‘bespoke’ resettlement scheme, and there has also reportedly been some relaxation on normal passport requirements, but this is the bare minimum that should be expected – and even that hasn’t been achieved without having to push through reluctance on the part of the Home Secretary, who apparently fears the message a decent asylum system would send to refugees from elsewhere in the world.

That reluctance is predictable from a government that has demonised refugees from the very top. There is an ongoing and concerted effort to depict those seeking asylum in Britain as criminals, and to treat them as such. Instead of supporting those fleeing a real crisis, our politicians and our media class have long shown themselves more interested in whipping up a moral panic about an artificial one.

The icon of this effort, Nigel Farage, was also rolled out on GB News yesterday to suggest that ‘Taliban operatives’ may be among those fleeing Afghanistan to Britain. Farage may be a joke, but the fact that this government has presided over a complete decimation of the UK’s asylum system, and over an increase in the hostility and racism refugees are likely to face once here, is not. Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill is a case in point: set to criminalise many of those seeking sanctuary and coming to their aid, it epitomises an entire political class increasingly hostile to people in need. The same can be said for the recent cut to foreign aid.

Like many European countries, the UK has invested more in securitisation, surveillance, and border control than in the protection and wellbeing of refugees. Despite the ongoing fighting at the time, Theresa May fought in court to have Kabul designated safe to return refugees to in 2016. Many people have been forcibly removed back to Afghanistan, including young adults and children.

One of those deported was Zainadin Fazlie, an Afghan man who sought refuge from the Taliban in the UK in 2018. Fazlie was a father of four British-born children, and was forced to return to Afghanistan after sixteen years in the UK, despite threats to his life. He was later shot dead. This is the inhumane asylum system those fleeing Afghanistan are now facing – and we should not expect it to discover its conscience without a struggle.