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Britain’s faith leaders condemn ‘heartless’ threat to send Afghan war hero to Rwanda

Exclusive: Senior religious figures call for rethink on ‘callous’ government asylum policy

Adam Forrest,Holly Bancroft
Saturday 13 May 2023 16:59 BST
The pilot has been told he could be sent to Rwanda because he came to Britain in a small boat
The pilot has been told he could be sent to Rwanda because he came to Britain in a small boat (The Independent)

Britain’s faith leaders have condemned the government’s “cruel and heartless” threat to send an Afghan war veteran to Rwanda – pleading with Rishi Sunak to rethink his asylum policy.

Top religious figures from the country’s major faiths backed The Independent’s campaign to stop those who fought alongside British and US forces against the Taliban from being deported.

Senior clergy, imams, rabbis and other clerics spoke out following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s scathing criticism of Mr Sunak’s small boats crackdown as “morally unacceptable and politically impractical”.

Faith leaders shared their outrage that the Home Office has told a former Afghan Air Force pilot that he could be sent to Rwanda because he came to Britain in a small boat across the Channel.

The Bishop of Liverpool, John Perumbalath, said there was a “moral duty” to give him safety. “The government has been woeful in its commitment to Afghan refugees and it is time for them to do the decent thing and reverse this cruel, heartless decision.”

The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, said this plight of the war veteran illustrated “the bind that the government have created for themselves” by treating all small boat arrivals as criminals.

“Surely there should be flexibility,” said the Right Reverend Butler, who said the pilot should be allowed to remain under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap). “I would assume given his past service would immediately be welcomed to remain and rebuild his life here.”

Indarjit Singh, director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, said: “It is particularly cruel to threaten to send people who have helped us in good faith to get a better government in Afghanistan. It shows us in a very, very bad light.”

The Sikh leader went further in attacking the “callousness” of the government’s asylum policy – saying Mr Sunak and his home secretary Suella Braverman were attempting to separate “good refugees and bad refugees” by treating all small boat arrivals as illegal migrants.

Accusing the government of “pandering to bigotry”, Lord Singh added: “Threatening to send people to Rwanda if they dare to come to our shores shows a total callousness. Rwanda is not a safe country.”

Senior imam Ibrahim Mogra alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby (PA)

Ibrahim Mogra, a senior Leicester imam who is co-chair of the Christian-Muslim Forum, said the government must consider asylum claims of Afghan war veterans regardless of their route to the UK.

“Whether you were in support of the war in Afghanistan or against it, these Afghans risked their lives to support our government so to abandon them like this shows utter disregard for the sacrifices they have made,” said the imam.

The Afghan pilot – who flew dozens of missions against the Taliban and was praised by his US coalition forces supervisor as a “patriot to his nation” – has told The Independent he feels “forgotten” by the government.

Dozens of military chiefs, politicians and celebrities have backed our campaign demanding a rethink. Former British Army chief General Lord Dannatt has said the Afghan veteran must be considered for the Arap scheme, and said he was “uncomfortable” with the Rwanda policy.

The scheme designed to bring those who helped British forces brought more than 11,000 people to safety in the aftermath of the fall of Kabul. But another 4,300 eligible people, including family members, are still waiting to be relocated.

The pilot has written a letter to Mr Sunak which has been stonewalled. Defence secretary Ben Wallace has the details of the case but nothing has been done.

Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman have pledged to ‘stop the boats’ (The Independent)

Rabbi Charley Baginsky, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, said the UK had a “responsibility” to protect Afghans who worked with coalition forces, including the pilot. Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead synagogue added: “If ever there was an exception to the rule, this is it.”

Rabbi Josh Levy, head of The Movement for Reform Judaism, added: “If they reached here on a boat, it is because there was no other choice. An inability to find the flexibility in these cases is inexcusable.”

Imam Dr Usama Hasan, senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, said: “Many Afghans risked their lives against a brutal enemy in the Taliban. So it’s right and proper that those who helped the British war effort should be given asylum in this country.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s stinging intervention in the Lords against Ms Braverman’s Illegal Migration Bill this week sparked a backlash from senior Tories.

Mark Jenkinson MP accused Justin Welby of being “detached” from church-goers views – arguing that leaving migrants to “the hands of vile people smugglers is as far from Christian as it gets”.

Bishop of Durham Paul Butler wants the government to be more ‘flexible’ (PA)

But more faith leaders are speaking out. Bishop Paul McAleenan, who leads on refugee issues for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, told The Independent that sending people to Rwanda would only “compound the difficulties of those arriving on our shores”.

He added: “Establishing more safe routes, and genuinely understanding people’s individual circumstances are essential.”

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB)’s secretary general Zara Mohammed said the UK “must act to establish safe and legal routes for those seeking asylum in the UK”.

She told The Independent: “The absence of safe and legal routes will only serve to further embolden and enrich human traffickers, endanger the lives of those making the perilous journey across the Channel and make a mockery of our international commitments.”

A Home Office spokesperson said the UK has “a proud history” of supporting refugees in need of protection “and we are one of the largest recipients of UNHCR-referred refugees globally”.

They added: “Since 2015, we have offered a safe and legal route to the UK to almost half a million men, women and children seeking safety – including those from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as family members of refugees.”

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