The speed with which the Taliban took over Afghanistan speaks volumes about what has been achieved during the decades of external interventions, demonstrating both the moral illegitimacy and ineffectiveness of the War on Terror.
While politicians are coming up with all sorts of excuses, unable to evacuate their staff, faced with the torrent of harrowing testimonies and reports from Afghanistan, the least they could do for those fleeing with a well-founded fear of persecution, is to offer safe passage to a safe country.
Canada and Germany offered to take in substantial numbers while the US, meanwhile, is outsourcing its rescue mission to Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia. These so-called resettlement programmes may appear to be the solution for the scenes from the Kabul airport, but they are not. The refugee resettlement programmes are temporary emergency solutions and must not be used as an excuse to end the right to protection for people who make their own way out of danger.
These emergency responses, created under public pressure, are not only inadequate but also reflect the non-existence of protection systems which have been dismantled by decades of hostile anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric and policies. The most recent example of this in the UK is the Government’s current Nationality and Borders Bill, a dangerous piece of legislation that entrenches hostile immigration policies by dismantling the already meagre rights protections. And as we advocate for an urgent support for people in Afghanistan, we must extend our support to all people in need by building a movement that combats the hostile environment at home
What is unfolding in Afghanistan has caught the entire government by surprise, and the Home Secretary Priti Patel at the most inconvenient time, by demonstrating the need for humanity and adequate and safe resettlement programmes, at just the same moment she is seeking to introduce her new, anti-refugee Bill.
In addition to plans to lock up refugees, refuse them protection, criminalise them for how they enter the country, move them to an island thousands of miles away, and deport them – there was one thing offered in the New Plan for Immigration to offset this systemic and racist violence: a resettlement programme. In her so-called public ‘consultation’ of the new measures in May 2021, the Home Secretary suggested that the UK may pick and choose refugees to resettle – in her words to ‘protect the vulnerable’. This was based on the most recent resettlement programme for Syrian refugees.
It took less time for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan than for the government to come up with the offer to rescue 5,000 people per year. This pitiful offer came just a day after Uganda, with GDP 52 times lower than the UK, announced that they are offering to welcome 2,000 people fleeing Afghanistan.
What we know from the Syrian and many previous resettlement schemes is that they are very slow, complex, and bureaucratic, and often (given the small numbers) nothing more than tokenistic. They are certainly not fit for the emergency response required for the current crisis, evident to anybody watching the scenes from Kabul Airport.
But things do not have to be this way,and there is something we can do to change it.
What is the Refugee Resettlement Programme?
While governments are throwing numbers around, further dehumanizing the people of Afghanistan, it is important to understand what the resettlement programme is now and how it is not, and must not become, a replacement for so-called ‘spontaneous arrivals’:people in need of protection who arrive outside a formal resettlement programme.
The protection of people fleeing persecution is defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention, and those fleeing the Taliban are the textbook example of a situation in which this protection applies.
The Refugee Convention, as it is also known, was adopted in 1951 as the world faced the horror of the Holocaust. The Convention was an attempt to accept responsibility and guilt for failing to protect Jews who tried to escape but could not find sanctuary.
In 1938, just after Nuremberg Laws were passed, government ministers from 32 countries, 24 civil society organisations, and 200 journalists came together at the Evian Conference to discuss how to help Jews persecuted in Germany. Apart from the Dominican Republic, all other governments looked away, employing all manner of excuses as to why they could not take in any refugees. Four months later Kristallnacht occurred, and soon millions of people in Europe could no longer escape, ending up instead in death camps.
But, a less known part of this history is that there were people who did not look away and decided to do something to help.
In the UK, a civil society initiative known as the Kindertransport was set up, despite official and public opposition to it, and between 1938 and 1940, a grassroots, people’s resettlement programme was set up through which 10,000 Jewish children were sponsored and brought over to the UK. Lord Alf Dubs, one of the tireless campaigners for the refugee children now, escaped certain death and arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport and was looked after by people all over the UK..
When Idi Amin kicked Asians out of Uganda in 1972, even though they were British citizens, 28,000 people arrived and needed support. This is the first time the policy of dispersal (ie dividing recent arrivals and sending them to different communities around the country) was employed by the government, and it failed to take into consideration the needs of new arrivals as well as those of the communities of arrival. But, the resentment and indifference of some, and incompetence of the government, is only one side of the story. There are many other stories of resilience and welcome too.
The Vietnamese Resettlement Programme that started in 1975 and lasted until the ’90s was a much more structured way of supporting nearly 20,000 refugees. As the last Vietnamese families waited in the reception centre in Derby to be rehoused, in late 1992, Bosnian refugees started arriving. The UK government promised to take 5,000 Bosnians who survived torture and genocide, after the British journalists uncovered and filmed the infamous torture camps in the Prijedor area.
Just over 2,500 Bosnians were supported to resettle in the UK, largely because people from Bosnia did not want to come to the UK, and opted for resettlement in the US, Canada, and Germany to join their families and communities already there. As soon as I was able to work as an asylum seeker from Sarajevo in 1994, I became a caseworker for the multi-agency Bosnia Project and worked on the resettlement of around 500 people in the Midlands and later in London.
It seems strange now, that just two decades ago, refused asylum seekers like me were able to work, and even stranger that the government spared no costs to ensure Bosnian refugees were looked after, had interpreters and caseworkers, and the best NHS care for the wounded and the traumatised. It is perhaps even stranger, that I was refused asylum and yet was working to support people from the same city who were considered ‘good’ refugees just because they came via the official resettlement programme.
By 1999 the Kosovan Refugee Resettlement Programme was in place. Despite many challenges and shortcoming of this approach to protection, the key agencies involved – The Refugee Council, Refugee Action, The Red Cross, UNHCR and Scottish Refugee Council acquired invaluable experience and expertise on refugee resettlement, but the government at the time chose not to harness that or turn it into a meaningful policy and practice. They opted for an embarrassingly small number of 700 refugees per year.
Now, we have an even better infrastructure of local and national refugee and migrant advice and advocacy community groups who can provide additional support and welcome to new arrivals. But sadly, instead of growing this expertise and good will, subsequent governments have passed a series of bills and hostile immigration policies restricting rights, criminalizing, incarcerating, and degrading people seeking protection as well as all other categories of immigrants.
But, like everything that is man-made (pun intended) immigration policy and refugee protection and resettlement could very easily be made differently.
The public response to Syria and now Afghanistan and movement of people in search of protection has been much more positive and organised than that of many governments in Europe and around the world.
From volunteers in Lesvos to a very public and warm welcome for 1 million new arrivals in Germany, and thousands of people offering a spare bedroom in the UK it is clear, like in the ’30s with Kindertransport, that subsequent UK governments have been out of touch not only with what is happening in Afghanistan but with the public sympathy and openness to the idea of welcome.
In fact, over the past two decades, the immigration debate has been cynically exploited by all kinds of politicians who needed to ‘look tough on immigration’ to get elected.
Migrants and refugees have always been unpopular, othered and demonised. The most recent hostility can be traced to the demonisation of the “bogus asylum seekers” in the ‘90s and it spiralled into the Hostile Environment immigration policy, Windrush scandal, and thousands of people locked up in disused barracks with no social distancing in the middle of pandemic – all punished for making their journeys in search for protection.
When it comes to refugee resettlement and protection, we in civil society organisations have the expertise, experience and the will to do it, but the government has refused to learn any lessons, ignoring the many useful examples of how to do welcome and resettlement well and making the same mistakes over and over again.
Here are things we can and must do now to ensure that the resettlement schemes are timely, adequate and do not replace an immigration system based on the principles of welcome, dignity and justice:
- Tell your MP what you want this country to do to help – write to them, call them, tag them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or even better go and visit them in their surgery (as long as it is Covid-19 safe) and urge the government to immediately grant protection and status to all people from Afghanistan in the UK. This will help them rebuild their lives and support their families.
- Ask your MP to urge the government to resettle all 20,000 people from Afghanistan as soon as possible instead of waiting five years, and that this must be the first step, not a final target.
- Ask your MP to oppose the divisive and discriminatory anti-refugee bill and ensure that the new immigration system is based on dignity, justice, solidarity, and welcome.
- Ask your MP to ensure civil society takes a lead in the resettlement programme instead of private and unaccountable security companies that are running barracks and hotels like prisons and for profit.
- Get involved – volunteer or donate to your local organisation or national campaign, or join the effort for fair immigration under the Solidarity Knows No Borders banner and start organising in your community.
Zrinka Bralo and Migrants Organise Team