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Britain Has Betrayed Afghan Refugees

Britain's broken promise to resettle refugees from Afghanistan following last year’s withdrawal stands in contrast with the support provided to those fleeing war in Ukraine — and exposes the racism behind government policy.

(Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Next week, the first flight taking asylum seekers to Rwanda for offshore processing is scheduled to depart.

One of those at the coalface of the UK-Rwanda deal is Hakim Khan, a 32-year-old Afghan asylum seeker. He first arrived in the UK when he was 14—his asylum claim was rejected shortly after his 18th birthday. He then travelled to France where he was homeless for a period, and arrived back in the UK in May 2022. Now, he has been informed he is eligible for offshore processing in Rwanda.

His story is yet another instalment in the UK’s decades-long betrayal of Afghans, characterised by spectacularly disastrous military strategy, combined with our refusal to provide sanctuary to the refugees fleeing the mess we made.

Following the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, which paved the way for the Taliban takeover last August, the UK government promised to ‘do right by Afghans’. Almost a year later, our resettlement and relocation schemes are still abysmal—and Afghans, without safe passage to the UK, now constitute one quarter of those crossing the English channel.

Unlawful delays 

The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) was launched in April 2021 to resettle UK-affiliated Afghans. The government is due to issue outcomes within two weeks, and yet, over a year later, many Afghans are still waiting, facing the government’s unlawful delays.

I spoke to an ex-BBC journalist in hiding in Afghanistan, waiting for an outcome on his ARAP application filed in August 2021. He forms part of a group of journalists who have brought legal proceedings against the UK government, arguing the delays have left applicants at imminent risk of death.

Due to his UK affiliation, he was attacked—beaten, stabbed, and pistol whipped with Kalashnikovs—two months after his ARAP application was filed. Following the attack, the International Federation of Journalists petitioned the UK government, who responded without an update on his case.

‘My colleagues at the Wall Street Journal, at Deutsche Welle—they all were evacuated to the US, Germany’, he told me. ‘I worked for the BBC for over ten years and here I am stuck in this awful situation. Each night I go to sleep wondering if it will be my last.’

I also spoke to an ex-BBC producer who applied to ARAP in August 2021. He described the application form as so poorly designed it had no space for him to explain his role at the BBC. The UK government in February asked him for basic information he had attempted to provide in the form; he hasn’t received any other updates.

Since, he’s sought refuge in a UAE refugee camp with his family. Those settled there complain of prison-like conditions, banned from approaching the camp’s gates. His family’s life is confined to their room; his children have been out of school for a year.

The West’s empty promises

Empty promises from across the West

Following ARAP, the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) opened in January 2022, which, unbelievably, has been more disastrous. Whilst ARAP targets UK-affiliated Afghans, ACRS aims to resettle those who may not be affiliated with the UK, but are at grave risk. In the first year, the government said it would prioritise Chevening scholars, GardaWorld security and British Council contractors. Nonetheless, in a bizarre turn of events, the government announced that applicants cannot apply themselves and may only be approached directly. Many still haven’t been contacted, five months after the scheme officially launched.

Poor execution aside, the narrow eligibility criteria of ARAP and ACRS exclude scores of at-risk Afghans from even applying. In December 2021, the ARAP scheme was narrowed to defence and national security sectors only, meaning judges and other such professionals are ineligible. Since direct applications to ACRS aren’t available, they currently have no available pathways, breaking Dominic Raab’s promise made to resettle them in August 2021.

Even for those who are successful, the family relocation applications mean ‘the battle never ends’, in the words of Sarah Pinder, a barrister at Goldsmith Chambers.

One of her clients, an Afghan interpreter for the British army in Helmand, applied for ARAP in June 2021, and only received an outcome in January 2022. He then applied for relocation for his elderly parents, unable to care for themselves, and his brothers who have been threatened due to his affiliation to UK Armed Forces. The government rejected this request.

Worse yet, under ACRS, the government hasn’t guaranteed at-risk individuals will benefit from family reunification at all. At-risk Afghans are now having to choose between finding sanctuary for themselves but not their family, or sticking together in grave danger.

The situation is mirrored in the US-equivalent scheme. The Special Immigrant Visa programme (SIV) has similarly narrow eligibility criteria, and a total cap of visas of 34,000 applicants. Under the parallel Humanitarian Parole scheme (open to all nationalities), only 10 percent of Afghans are successful—but all are required to pay $575 per family member, making it prohibitively expensive. If successful, the scheme offers temporary residence, with no pathways to permanent status.

Recent months have shown there is no real need for the bureaucracy. ‘The US ‘Uniting for Ukraine’ scheme makes clear that when the US really cares, all the hurdles are lifted’, Adam Bates, a lawyer at IRAP, told me. Whilst applying to SIV takes years, Uniting for Ukraine can take just days. SIV insists on face-to-face interviews, making Afghans leave the country in absence of US consular presence, whilst Uniting for Ukraine is a purely online and free process.

The devil’s in the detail: the headlines of the relocation schemes seem impressive at first glance, but the small print keep refugees out.

Deceptive rhetoric

It seems that ARAP and ACRS were designed to react to public demand for resettlement schemes, without actually committing to meet humanitarian need. Scores of Afghans made at-risk by the UK are ineligible, and those who are eligible are deterred from applying by the UK government’s unlawful delays, the inability to be joined by certain family members, and under ACRS, the months-long delay to launch the scheme and the complete absence of any direct application process.

Relocation statistics aren’t published, but the numbers seem paltry. Evidence provided to the cross-party inquiry showed just 5 percent of applicants for evacuation in August 2021 were resettled. By May, just 9,000 people (which includes family members) have been relocated under ARAP. Statistics on ACRS aren’t available—but no lawyer I spoke to is aware of anyone who has been successfully relocated under it.

Furthermore, the government’s target for resettlement under ACRS is misleading. Although the government have published that 20,000 Afghans will be resettled under the ACRS, this figure includes those already evacuated.

With no safe passage, Afghan refugees crossing the channel in small boats have risen fivefold—but not without risk. With the Nationality & Borders Bill, if the UK government deems an Afghan refugee’s claim inadmissible, and they made a ‘dangerous journey’ arriving in the UK after 2021, they can be considered for relocation to Rwanda.

The situation is similar across Europe. Afghans who have chosen Greece as a third country risk deportation to Turkey, which was ruled a ‘safe third country’ in September 2021—despite Afghans being unable to register for asylum in Turkey.

Today, Afghans have no safe choices: smuggling themselves to Europe only to risk deportation to Turkey, waiting in prison-like camps in the UAE, hiding in Afghanistan at grave risk whilst awaiting the result of their relocation claims, or making their own way to the UK to be potentially sent to Rwanda.

A refugee crisis of our own making

Policy hacks refer to ‘wicked problems’ of social policy, which are impossible to solve in a simple or final manner. This isn’t one of them—this is refugee crisis of our own making, for which there are solutions.

First, the eligibility criteria of the schemes must be widened to match reality; vulnerability is far more intersectional and complex than what can be conveyed in the UK government website’s dropdown list.

Second, committing more resources will reduce the wait time to the legal timeline of two weeks. A barrister I spoke to had seen letters from the government excusing wait times on the basis that resources have been diverted towards Ukraine. This is unacceptable, and signifies the UK government’s slapdash approach to humanitarian crisis.

Third, the UK government must address the needs of everyday Afghans without affiliation to the UK, who nonetheless have suffered the disastrous ramifications of the withdrawal. This would mean scrapping the Nationality & Borders Bill plans for offshore processing in Rwanda and criminalising refugees based on crossing a border irregularly, which, in any case, contravenes international law. This would also entail establishing schemes which resettle everyday Afghans suffering from the humanitarian crisis triggered by the withdrawal—schemes which we’ve seen are possible in the example of Homes for Ukraine.

We have a chance to attempt to right the wrongs of our policy in the last few decades—we need to take it.