Boris Johnson urged to expand UK’s ‘total farce’ scheme for Afghan refugees

Britain must accept ‘tens of thousands’ of Afghans in months ahead, say MPs and charities

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 18 August 2021 20:11
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The UK government must be ready to accept “tens of thousands” of Afghan refugees fleeing persecution in their country in the months ahead, Boris Johnson has been warned.

Charities and MPs from all sides have warned that greater action is needed after the government pledged to take just 5,000 people fleeing the Taliban over the next year.

Today The Independent backs calls for Downing Street to be more ambitious in its plan to resettle Afghans at risk of losing their lives in the Taliban takeover after western troops withdrew.

Our Refugees Welcome campaign is calling 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 government has committed to giving 5,000 people refuge under the Afghanistan citizens’ resettlement scheme in the coming year – with a vague ambition to provide sanctuary to a total of 20,000 Afghans over the “long term”.

Refugee charities have told The Independent the short-term commitment was “too little” to meet the scale of the immediate crisis. Safe Passage International said the government should try to resettle at least 20,000 in the months ahead.

Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage International said: “The resettlement scheme announced fails to match the scale and pace needed. Britain can and should do much more now. We urge the government to resettle a minimum of 20,000 as soon as possible.”

Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, said the scheme “simply doesn’t go far enough” and risked becoming “a total farce”. He added: “We know it would be possible to at least double this commitment to 10,000 refugees in the first year, with the ambition of increasing that number in years to come.”

The British Red Cross also called on the government to expand its scheme. “Five thousand people over the next year is a good start, but this new scheme for Afghan refugees should be part of a wider programme supporting at least 10,000 refugees from around the world,” said chief executive Mike Adamson.

In scathing comments in the Commons, former prime minister Theresa May said the UK had a responsibility to deal with the consequences of the military pull-out, adding: “We boast about Global Britain – but where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?”

Senior MPs warned Mr Johnson he would have to rethink the resettlement scheme and be willing to accept tens of thousands of fleeing Afghans in the coming months.

Conservative MP David Davis said the UK should be willing to take in more than 50,000 people if the next few months if necessary, given the level of imminent danger faced by those who worked against the Taliban.

Mr Davis told The Independent: “The reason I say 50,000 or more is that I want people to be braced for what could be necessary. And I mean right now, in the short-term. This will be resolved, one way or another, within the next few months.”

The former cabinet minister added: “I want us to be able to take people who are at risk of their life. That could be next to none, if we can’t even get them out, or it could be a very large number. Most of the people coming here will have worked for the [UK] in some way. We will have documentation for them, and we should be able to make decisions quickly.”

Influential Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, said the government should be aiming to accept “at least” tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in the short-term.

Mr Ellwood told The Independent: “The commitment to resettle a mere 5,000 refugees, from a population of 38 million Afghans, falls hopelessly short – a drop in the ocean given the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis.”

Urging Mr Johnson to rethink the ambition of the current scheme, he added: “Over the coming days and weeks the government must revise this number, and use all of our diplomatic weight to urge allies to do the same.”

Labour MP Chris Bryant criticised the difference between the short-term commitment and the pledge to accept 20,000 in the longer-term. “What are the 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait until they have been executed?” he asked the prime minister in the Commons.

No 10 defended its scheme and insisted that only 5,000 fleeing Afghans will be offered sanctuary in the UK over the next year because it is “very rare” for people to abandon their country.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said it was important to have a scheme that could “delivered”, arguing that the government had to “think very carefully about the practicalities” of resettling Afghans across Britain.

Meanwhile, charities urged the government to make sure people forced to flee Afghanistan are not criminalised for their method of travel – as set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill – if they cannot come to the UK via the resettlement scheme.

Amid the crackdown on migrant boat crossings in the English Channel, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants warned that for many refugees “regulated travel is not a viable option – many people need to flee urgently and by any means necessary”.

A spokesperson for the United Nations Human Rights Council said: “We hope the UK’s resettlement scheme won’t happen at the expense of the right to make an asylum claim. We should not penalise or criminalise anyone fleeing the country who does not have their paperwork.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said Britain must be “generous” and ready to welcome all Afghans in need of safety – arguing that the government should not place a limit on the total number of refugees accepted from Afghanistan.

Speaking in the Lords on Wednesday, Justin Welby said: “We owe an absolute, lavishly generous moral covenant to all those who are at risk because they served with us in Afghanistan … This is about morals, not numbers.”

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