It’s heartbreaking dealing with evacuations from Afghanistan – why wasn’t the government more prepared?

·5-min read

The best part of my job as an MP is being able to lend your ear and voice to cases that your constituents bring to you.

It ranges from everything from cracked paving slabs to homelessness. It’s often heartening and hopeful as well as bureaucratic and maddening.

My team are experts in housing, welfare, asylum, local services, schools, uniforms, foreign consular communications, trees, slabs and bins. But nothing could have prepared us for the last two weeks since US and UK forces announced that they were leaving Afghanistan.

It would be rich of me to talk about the emotional toll on my staff this week because we will each go to sleep at night warm in our beds, fed and healthy with our families safe. For my constituents who have family in Afghanistan, let alone for those who are actually still in the country, it has been torture. The fact that there are reports that emails relating to potential cases have not been read by the Foreign Office only adds to the pain.

In the last two weeks, my office has handled the cases of around 400 people in danger in Afghanistan whose relatives live in my constituency. To date, I am aware of five of those who were put on a US or UK flight. Five.

Every case has worked with the UK or US, or qualified for the government's special cases scheme, including those who had worked in anti-terror, narcotics enforcement, women’s rights and journalism.

All through the day phone calls were coming in asking for updates we could not provide, while new cases for action piled up. Of course, the ordinary cases didn’t stop. Foodbank vouchers still needed to be issued, while people still needed help with housing, their kids' school places and furlough.

I still had community meetings to attend and appointments that needed to be kept. At the end of each day in the office, we had to audit each evacuation case – making sure we had done all we could, that nothing had been missed. When we got back to our lovely safe homes we would immediately start talking to each other on the staff WhatsApp group about new cases coming in.

In order to give each of us rest or some time working on something else, we have had to rota to make sure that there was always someone’s eyes on the cases coming in. I have felt guilty in any of the down moments and always had one eye on my phone. I would pop for a coffee in the morning and couldn't understand why every single person wasn’t consumed with Afghanistan evacuation. It was as if in MP’s offices up and down the country were living in an alternate reality.

One of our cases is of three boys all younger than eleven whose relatives live in Yardley. Their father is already dead and they had been separated from their mother but had made it to Kabul Airport. We raised their case with literally any official or politician who was in our reach, including the foreign secretary. When the news of the bomb came it was those boys we thought of. We don’t know if they are alright.

Having seen the news of the bomb, we knew now we hadn’t got a chance in hell of getting out even a fraction of our cases. I knew without question that the evacuation would very soon be completely hopeless.

Boris Johnson says we got the lion’s share of people we owed a debt to out – but how he can say that when only five out of 400 cases in my constituency alone got out as far as I know? There are still British nationals who didn’t get out, let alone Afghans who had served alongside us.

I can’t stress enough how brave constituents with family in Afghanistan have been. The gratitude and kindness of those who have been in touch with us is overwhelming. My constituents, most of whom are British nationals who have been settled here for years, thank me profusely even though I didn’t get their families out. They are grateful even though their families’ lives are still at risk. How can these people who are so scared be offering me such kindness and understanding? “Thank you for trying.”

So what now? We packed up the office on Friday evening after a hellish day where we had to contact all our cases and tell them to advise their loved ones to find a safe place and hide while we wait to see what happens next. We have a rota for the weekend because we can't come down from the experience. Where is the government’s urgency? All we can say to constituents is that we will do what we can, even though we know how the land lies in the next few weeks.

When the government tell us what the schemes for family reunification and refugees will be, then we can start to provide hope again. In the meantime, I prepare my staff as best I can for the inevitable news of the deaths of some of those they have been trying to help. This feels like a dreadful defeat.

So much time has been wasted – time that people simply didn’t have.

Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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