We owe many Afghans a debt of honour – we need to be more ambitious in the help we offer

Refugees Welcome: For the sake of those at risk and for Britain’s reputation, we need to get this right

David Lidington
Saturday 21 August 2021 12:32

A brief history of the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan

Just under 50 years ago, Ted Heath’s Conservative government admitted 28,000 refugees, people of Indian origin expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, to settle permanently in the United Kingdom.

The decision was controversial. There were rallies and demonstrations against letting the refugees in. Leicester Council placed a newspaper advertisement in the Uganda Argus asking people not to come to the city. The government itself agonised about the possible impact on race relations and the precedent that might be set.

In the end, Heath overrode caution and doubt, arguing that it was a matter of fundamental national duty for the UK to give these people a home – and of course in the last 50 years those refugees and their descendants have made a hugely positive contribution to British life.

Unlike the Ugandan Asians, those seeking refuge from Afghanistan have no claim to British passports. But we owe many of them a debt of honour. They fear persecution and death because they worked for us and believed the promises that leaders in London, Washington and elsewhere made that we would continue to stand by them.

I salute the courage and professionalism of our ambassador, Laurie Bristow, and the diplomatic and military teams who have stayed in Kabul to help as many people as they can. I welcome the government’s measures to help Afghan refugees. But ministers need to go further.

First, the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme aimed at people (and their families) who worked for Britain’s armed services or civilian authorities in Afghanistan should be expanded. ARAP has brought more than 2,000 people to the UK since June this year and ministers have repeated this week that there is no numerical limit on the number of people who can be helped.

The problem with ARAP is that its limited scope excludes many who worked for us and now live in fear. You are eligible if you were directly employed by the UK authorities but not (except for Army interpreters) if you worked for a contractor appointed by those same authorities, even though this and previous governments routinely employ contractors both to provide services and deliver development projects. This leads to the indefensible situation where guards at our embassy in Kabul and people working to promote women’s rights are denied help because they worked for a contractor, even if that company or charity was hired and paid by the British government.

This issue goes beyond party politics. Any reasonable Conservative should be able to support the call by the Home Affairs Committee chair, Yvette Cooper, for ARAP to be extended to employees of government contractors.

Second, the new humanitarian scheme announced this week (and which is in addition to ARAP), while also welcome, could and should be more ambitious – as The Independent has called for.

The limit of 20,000 people over five years adds up to just 30 per parliamentary constituency. It’s the same number as for the Syrian resettlement programme but for a country with a significantly larger population and to which, unlike Syria, our governments have been making commitments for 20 years. As my former cabinet colleague David Davis MP (not a natural left-winger) has said, a figure of 50,000 seems more realistic.

I hope too that the government will act to coordinate the work of local authorities, as the Heath government did in setting up the Uganda Resettlement Board. Work now on social integration will pay dividends in easier community relations in the years to come.

For the sake of the people at risk and for the reputation of our country, we need to get this right.

Sir David Lidington was chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office between 2018 and 2019 . He also served as minister of state at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) from 2010 until 2016

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