The Hostile Environment Awaiting Afghan Refugees

The government has long worked to create a permanent limbo for asylum seekers. Despite new pledges, this will be the welcome many of those arriving from Afghanistan receive.

A member of Border Force staff assists a female evacuee as refugees arrive from Afghanistan at Heathrow Airport on 26 August 2021. Credit: Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool / Getty Images

Just after the execution of Troy Davis ten years ago by the US state of Georgia, carried out despite serious doubts emerging over his guilt, Question Time hosted a debate on capital punishment. As a new Conservative MP, Home Secretary Priti Patel was present on the panel show and explained her support for the death penalty in spite of the overwhelming controversies the case presented.

While the idea of bringing back the death penalty has long been popular among Tory members, Patel struggled to make a convincing case. She insisted that capital punishment was a good ‘deterrent’, but seemed unable support her stance with facts or respond to counterarguments.

Ten years on, the grim reality is that Patel’s approach to immigration as Home Secretary is highly reminiscent of her views on the death penalty at that time. Her immigration plans to date seem principally aimed at pleasing Tory hardliners and opponents of immigration by creating maximum ‘deterrents’ against low-paid immigration and asylum seekers, with a view to eliminating them altogether. They also create unprecedently high numbers of people living in limbo, awaiting the processing of their asylum claims.

At Glasgow-based charity Positive Action in Housing (PAIH), director Robina Qureshi is well-acquainted with asylum seekers living in those circumstances.

‘When the pandemic started, I thought, at least they’ll no longer be destitute or on the streets,’ she said. ‘But the last eighteen months of my work has involved watching people stuck in hotels and suffering.

‘It’s not holiday homes or anything like what some seem to think. It’s being stuck in a room and not being able to leave, not being able to drink the bathroom water, with no money to spend, living on small rations of awful food which many aren’t able to digest.’ Depression is common, she adds, when people have all their agency removed.

Nimatullah, an Afghan former UN worker now granted asylum and assisting at the charity, describes some who’ve been waiting for years.

‘They feel that their best years have all gone and there’s no hope left in them in,’ he said. ‘They say they have nothing to live for.’

Given the circumstances in Afghanistan and a brewing refugee crisis, Qureshi believes the number of people going through this will spiral. Following the rushed evacuation after the surprise takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, around 10,000 Afghans have arrived and have now spent the last twenty days quarantining in hotels. Most are still there.

‘They’re saying that local authorities have come up with 2,000 firm offers of accommodation, which means 8,000 are going to be languishing in hotels,’ she added, noting that it’s unclear how long they’ll be there. This comes despite a wave of warmth and generosity to refugees that’s emerged from the UK public: in August alone, she says they received 1,748 offers to host people.

But with so many asylum seekers now in UK hotels, there’s also reason to suspect that the quotas for those to be offered asylum through the resettlement scheme—5,000 the first year, 20,000 in total of an unspecified period—aren’t going to be filled at any great speed, despite the widespread dread of arrest, torture, and execution in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

PAIH isn’t the only charity lamenting the scale of the scheme. At Freedom from Torture, media manager Aalia Khan said: ‘5,000 is an arbitrary number which isn’t based on our capacity to house people in the UK, or the numbers of people who need safety. Priti Patel’s pledge to resettle 5,000 refugees next year is nowhere near enough.’

According to Qureshi, PAIH’s caseworkers have been getting floods of emails and texts from within Afghanistan with scans of varied documents showing different certificates individuals hope will somehow help them exit the country. Staff strive to offer advice on safe routes to different countries even though the UK government hasn’t yet given guidance, and despite its plan to criminalise entry to the UK by non-official routes via the Nationality and Borders Bill.

This bill, dubbed the ‘anti-refugee bill’ by activists and charities, is to all purposes a Patel-style ‘deterrent’ that will serve mostly to put individuals in increased danger and further boost the UK’s giant backlog of asylum claims, which stood at 70,000 in July 2021 – the highest level in a decade. Any feasibility in the plan would rely on agreements to return migrants to safe countries they have passed through, typically France. Such accords with other EU countries were voided by Brexit.

Among the numbers waiting are around 3,000 Afghan asylum seekers, who remain in the further limbo of knowing that the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan amends their claims with a further level of legitimacy. In this light, a humane and pragmatic government would be inclined to grant them leave to remain, particularly given the role played by Britain in the fall of their home – leave that has so far been granted only to those who worked for the UK government during the war.

But a government department primarily interested in PR and pandering to hard right voters wouldn’t agree. Instead, it’d be more likely to align policies with the right-wing press or the numerous pundits who talk up astronomical, falsely-accounted projections of impacts and costs, and who suddenly recall and remind people the UK has hundreds of thousands of homeless people of its own that should be helped instead.

If anti-immigration lobbyists have been successful in one thing, it’s been in the process of redefining ‘illegal immigration’ to no longer refer to people coming to work under the radar, but to include and punish those arriving to a country to seek asylum by non-official routes, regardless of how legitimate their case for asylum otherwise is. Turning that redefinition into law to create a ‘deterrent’ is a plan Patel is proud of to the point that she’ll be promoting it to other G7 home affairs ministers visiting London this week.

What may or may not emerge in this week’s meetings is the fact that in the absence of safe routes for seeking asylum, plans like Patel’s anti-refugee bill will in no way deter large numbers of people from wanting to escape very unsafe environments. Criminalising their routes simply means increasing the risks to life that people in their situation will be pressured into taking.