Afghan refugees forced to escape by land will arrive soon – we must welcome them when they do

Refugees Welcome: The troop withdrawal is not the end of the crisis. More asylum seekers will arrive traumatised and exhausted, and it is our job to support them

Ros Ereira
Tuesday 14 September 2021 10:20
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David Lavery describes Afghan rescue operation

After the absolute horror of bodies tumbling from planes, the babies passed over razor wire and the bleeding casualties carted around in wheelbarrows, the military-led evacuation from Afghanistan is over.

Or so the official story goes, anyway. While the reaction to the crisis has so far been admirably sympathetic, it has tended to imply that the US troop withdrawal is the end, the bloody finale of a grotesque competition with the happy winners escaping and the tragic losers left behind.

But it isn’t going to be like that. Rather than marking the end of a crisis, this is more likely to be the beginning. To me, as the founder of a refugee network which supports charities across the UK, northern France and Greece it is sadly all too obvious what is really going to happen next.

Even after the evacuation, thousands of those left behind will be vulnerable to harm, with the rest of the population at risk of starvation, disease, and persecution.

What are these vulnerable people, the truly “left-behind” expected to do? Should wait to see if they are selected for a resettlement plan. Realistically, though, what are their chances of getting a place?

The UK resettlement scheme commits to taking 20,000 people over five years, but the danger isn’t spread over five years. These people are in life-threatening danger right now, and there are more than 20,000 of them. If it was my family, I would do anything I could to get them to safety now. You, and our politicians, would do the same.

At the moment, less than 0.5 per cent of Afghan refugees head for the UK, but given the number of people now at risk, it is highly likely that some of them will come our way. The last six years has shown me that when people escape from Afghanistan, it takes on average three to four months to travel to Calais, although some may get there in less.

Colleagues who run charities in northern France are building up resources and volunteers now in the expectation of the arrival of Afghan refugees in Calais beginning in October. They will be traumatised and exhausted, having witnessed first-hand scenes even more horrifying than we have seen on television. They will be terrified about the fate of those they have left behind and bewildered to find themselves on another continent. It will be up to charities like Refugee Women’s Centre, Refugee Trauma Initiative and Refugee InfoBus to support them, both in Calais and, in some cases, in the UK.

I believe that the British public will be more welcoming to these – and other – refugees than they have been in the past. In the past few weeks, charities across the country have received unprecedented levels of support and donations for Afghan refugees, in many cases from places and people who have previously been uninterested.

Having studied British attitudes to refugees closely for six years, I think this response isn’t a one-off, but a sea-change. The anti-refugee rhetoric cultivated by some for 10 years has begun to melt away. Why? Because for the first time, a contemporary media audience has been shown why and how people become refugees – forces beyond their control endanger their lives in ways they cannot avoid or counter while remaining at home.

But the big question is, how will our UK government respond? Will they be offered a "warm welcome"? According to their new Anti-Refugee Bill, currently at committee stage in parliament, these other Afghans will be second-class refugees, because they won’t have come via the official resettlement scheme. Yes, their lives may have been under threat from the Taliban. Yes, they may even have seen family members killed. But the only thing that matters to our government is the method by which they chose to travel – even though the method of travel is not mentioned in the international legal definition of a refugee.

Applying it to the current crisis in Afghanistan gives us a very clear and real illustration of how the government’s new Anti-Refugee Bill will work in practice – and of how very wrong it is in a moral sense. To take an example. The baby that was passed over the fence to a soldier wasn’t taken onto a plane. The child was given medical treatment and passed back to the father. Let us imagine that the determination of that father to save his little child means he does not wait to see if he survives long enough to be offered a place on a resettlement scheme. He somehow manages to evade the Taliban checkpoints and reach Pakistan. Then he makes the dangerous crossing into Iran, and buys forged documents to get to Turkey. After that, he and his child somehow survive the brutality and horror of crossing the Balkans and get to Calais. Finally, they take the terrible risk of getting into a flimsy boat to come to the UK. What then?

From our government’s point of view, both he and his child are illegal immigrants, not worthy of the full protection given to their "preferred" refugees. Is that what we as a caring society really want? It seems unthinkable that the British public in its current mood would accept such a scenario. That the thousands of people who are currently donating and collecting and offering to help Afghan refugees – because they were so deeply shocked by the desperation of that man passing his baby over the wall – would suddenly be happy for that same man to be discarded by our government and denied help because of the method by which he escaped.

Will the new mood hold, or will hypocrisy and amnesia kick in?

As an optimist with faith in the British public, I believe it will be the former. Which is why I’m organising a rally outside parliament with partners like Women For Refugee Women to show our government, MPs and Peers that we can do and must do better for people seeking asylum and we must not let the Nationality and Borders Bill pass.

Ros Ereira is the founder of Solidarity with Refugees

The Independent has launched a petition urging the UK government to be more ambitious in its plans to take in Afghan refugees following the Taliban seizing power. Here’s a chance to have your voice heard by adding your signature. We thank you for your support. To sign the petition click here

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