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Afghanistan: UK’s refugee resettlement programme ‘confusing and disingenuous’, experts warn

UNHCR and others warn most Afghans fleeing Taliban will not be able to access scheme

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 19 August 2021 13:04 BST
The UNHCR said there was ‘confusion’ in the Home Office’s resettlement scheme plan
The UNHCR said there was ‘confusion’ in the Home Office’s resettlement scheme plan (AP)

The new Afghan resettlement scheme announced by the Home Office has been branded “confusing” and “deeply disingenuous” after it emerged most people fleeing the Taliban will not be able to access it.

The prime minister announced on Wednesday that the UK would resettle up to 5,000 people from Afghanistan this year under “one of the most generous resettlement schemes in our country’s history”.

Boris Johnson said the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, introduced in response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the country, would welcome up to a total of 20,000 in the “long-term”.

But organisations that facilitate refugee resettlement have warned there is “confusion” in the way the scheme has been presented because, in reality, most Afghans who are internally displaced or face threats of persecution from the Taliban will not be able to access it.

Refugee resettlement can take place only once people have left their country of origin. The vast majority of Afghans who have fled their homes in recent weeks – about 300,000 – are currently displaced within Afghanistan. It is unclear whether they will be able to cross to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran.

The UNHCR, which aids refugee resettlement globally – yet was not made aware of the scheme until it was publicly announced – told The Independent that it would not be possible to resettle people from within Afghanistan and said there was “confusion” in the Home Office’s plan.

Laura Padoan, the UK spokesperson for the organisation, said: “We welcome the scheme but would like to see further details on what exactly it means. At the moment, there is some confusion between the terms relocation, evacuation and resettlement. We would welcome clarity from the government on the details of the new scheme for Afghans.

“To be resettled, you have to have crossed the border and be a refugee. There’s a lot of confusion in that statement [the UK government] put out. They’re confusing evacuation – which is what they’re doing when they’re taking out interpreters and British nationals – and resettlement.”

Ms Padoan also expressed concern that the UK might “turn its back” on other refugees around the world, such as Syrians and the Rohingya people, as a result of the new programme given that the Home Office has no wider numerical commitment on refugee resettlement.

“We would like to see this Afghan programme in addition to a more general programme pledge on resettlement. There are still very many people living in refugee camps in dire situations. We can’t turn our backs on those people,” she said.

Tim Naor Hilton, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said that while the scheme was welcomed, it would be “deeply disingenuous” of the government to claim that any resettlement scheme would protect those “trapped in Afghanistan right now”.

“The reality is that formal resettlement schemes take time to process and would focus exclusively on those who have already fled the country. Such schemes play an essential role in any humanitarian response to ongoing conflict, but they are not a silver bullet,” he said.

The Home Office has said the new scheme is modelled on the Syrian Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme (VPRS), which resettled 20,000 Syrian refugees between 2014 and 2021.

But Mr Hilton pointed out that the situation in Afghanistan was “completely different” because the Syrian conflict had started five years earlier, and many people were already living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, whereas most people needing help in Afghanistan are “not yet refugees”.

He said that in addition to the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, ministers should “match the radical compassion of the public mood” and consider creating a “humanitarian evacuation programme” that could take tens of thousands directly from the crisis “as soon as possible”.

“The government cannot artificially fit their response to one crisis onto another. Extraordinary action is needed in times of extraordinary crisis,” he added.

Jeff Crisp, a researcher at Oxford University’s refugee studies centre and a former senior UNHCR official, echoed these concerns, saying the way the scheme was being presented was “highly disingenuous” in terms of its size, timeframe and the “limited access” for at-risk Afghans who are unable to leave the country.

“Unless the Taliban allows safe passage to the airport or allow the establishment of ‘humanitarian corridors’ to Pakistan and other neighbours, it’s not clear how people in Afghanistan would be able to access the resettlement programme,” he added.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Tory MP and former immigration minister Caroline Nokes said “detail is missing” from the resettlement plans and that her “big worry” was “how are we going to bring people to safety in the time that we’ve been given”.

She added: “I lived for 18 months the VPRS scheme, and I know the complexities and the difficulties with it – on occasion pettifogging bureaucracy, how hard it is to get the referrals, to make sure you have the right vulnerabilities identified.

“It is difficult to work on the ground when people are in camps and are all in one place. The women of Afghanistan are not in one place – they are in hiding, they don’t necessarily have the documentation they need to find routes to safety. And what are those routes? We need to know as a matter of urgency.”

It comes after The Independent on Wednesday backed a call for the government to be far more ambitious in its plan to resettle those at risk of losing their lives amid the Taliban takeover after western troops withdrew.

Our Refugees Welcome campaign, originally launched during the 2015 migrant crisis, calls for the government to offer sanctuary to as many Afghans as possible and for local authorities and charities devoted to their welfare to be given the strongest of support.

The Home Office has been approached for comment.

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