I work for Kent Refugee Action Network, a small charity that supports young people who arrived in the UK as unaccompanied asylum seeking children. Many of the young people I work with are from Afghanistan and it’s part of my job to help them tell their stories when and if they are ready to do so. Many never will be.
The trauma that they have been through is too much to process and they simply can’t speak about it. But yesterday I sat with a newspaper journalist as three young people in their late teens and early 20s recounted unimaginable horrors at the hands of the Taliban. They spoke of seeing the aftermath of suicide bombings and witnessing executions. All of them fled Afghanistan after being targeted by the Taliban and told they would have to join, either as fighters or as suicide bombers.
I always find it baffling when comments appear on social media suggesting that the young men who arrive on our shores bedraggled, cold and desperate are some kind of invading army. Most of the young people I work with are young men or boys, who arrived as teenage children, and who fled their homes precisely because they did not want to fight. Like all of us, they just want to live in peace. That’s why they are here.
The young people who spoke to the journalist yesterday are the lucky ones. They have refugee status. But many of the young people I work with don’t. They were refused in the past because the Home Office told them it was safe for them to return to Kabul. They are all, without exception, now absolutely terrified that they will be returned to a country under the control of the very people they fled. Many turn up at my office to ask for help but there is little I can do and I feel hopelessly inadequate. They look exhausted. None of them are sleeping properly. They say that when they do sleep they suffer vivid nightmares about what faces them.
There will be young men and boys, like them, who arrive in small boats on the Kent coast over the next weeks and months. They too will have faced unimaginable horrors and fled to safety. Are we seriously suggesting that we push their flimsy vessels back into French waters, dust off our hands and say that we have done enough? How is a person in a dinghy less in need of sanctuary than someone who was lucky enough to get a place on an evacuation flight out of Kabul? We’re in a Kafkaesque situation where we are dividing vulnerable people into “good” and “bad” refugees. The “good” ones join a non-existent, imaginary queue and the “bad” ones run and head for a place they think will be safe to rebuild their shattered lives.
The government may believe that they have a mandate for their actions. They don’t. There is no mandate for cruelty. Polling consistently suggests that the majority of the public believe that asylum seekers should receive fair treatment. In polling by British Future and the Refugee Council in April this year, 70 per cent agreed that, “We need an asylum system that is effective, fair and humane so that the UK can uphold our responsibility to offer refugee protection to those that need it”.
In my opinion we don’t do enough to uphold our responsibility and the young people we fail the most are those from Afghanistan. It’s time that we let those who are already here know they are safe. After all they have been through, they deserve that. And we need to make sure that those who fled Afghanistan more recently and are heading for the UK are offered safe passage. Not turned away in the cold waters of the Channel. They too need a warm welcome.
Bridget Chapman is media lead for the Kent Refugee Action Network.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies