The UK government is promising a resettlement scheme for Afghans who have fled their country, modelled on the one it set up for Syrian refugees in 2015.
Ministers say a “bespoke” and “world leading” scheme will help those Afghans most in need, particularly women and girls, by providing a direct route to the UK outside the normal asylum system. Given the humiliating retreat from the country, the government will come under pressure from some Conservative MPs, as well as opposition parties, to make the programme generous. Labour says it should help tens of the thousands of Afghans, and it probably will. But the painfully slow and inadequate scheme to admit Afghans who helped the UK during its time in their country, including interpreters and others still trapped there, will not fill the government’s critics with confidence.
The Syria scheme was announced by David Cameron after the global outcry over photographs of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who was washed up on a Turkish beach. The pledge to take 20,000 refugees sounded big but was over five years. Initial progress was slow, and the UK narrowly missed its target in May last year after it paused its vulnerable persons’ resettlement scheme during the coronavirus pandemic. Some 20,319 had been admitted by February and there have been some heart-warming success stories.
But ominously, the government has scrapped its initial target to take 5,500 refugees in the first year of its successor, the global resettlement scheme, which has alarmed the UNHCR. This suggests a switch to ad hoc decisions about refugees in response to events rather than a commitment to take a certain number.
The Commons home affairs select committee said the Syria scheme showed that “a well-funded, well-organised refugee programme can attract public support”, citing the number of local authorities who signed up and received additional funding. But the cross-party group also warned the government against watering down the UK’s humanitarian obligations, urging it to do “more to challenge public misconceptions” about asylum-seekers and to differentiate more clearly between them and migration for other reasons.
No one will doubt there is an overwhelming case to help the Afghan people. For now, ministers are urging doubters to trust them as they work out the details of the new scheme, though Canada has already promised to take 20,000 Afghans and Germany 10,000. One potentially tricky issue for the government is what to do about the thousands of asylum-seekers from Afghanistan who have already managed to reach the UK.
“We have always been a big-hearted nation,” Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. “You have a home secretary and foreign secretary who know what this means from our personal history.” Priti Patel’s parents were born in India and emigrated to the UK from Uganda in the 1960s. (She has admitted they might not be allowed in today under the post-Brexit points-based immigration system she has introduced).
Raab’s Jewish father came to Britain from Czechoslovakia in 1938.
However, MPs in all parties suspect Patel will instinctively be cautious about how many Afghans should be allowed into the UK. The home secretary is fighting to keep her current post when Boris Johnson reshuffles his cabinet and is under enormous pressure: despite her tough rhetoric, refugees are still crossing the English Channel in record numbers.
Johnson is deeply frustrated; his allies, as ever, worry about how these images play in the red wall seas in the North and Midlands. The Home Office has denied as “categorically incorrect” suggestions from military sources that it is reluctant to have a generous scheme for Afghans because of the message that would send to other refugees.
But MPs suspect it rings true. Damian Green, who was de facto deputy prime minister under Theresa May, said: “There are times and places where we should be strict with asylum applications. Afghanistan today is the exact opposite. We should take anyone who can make a case.”
As in Syria, the government will probably be generous in funding neighbouring countries who admit Afghan refugees. But no amount of money will obviate the need to make a big offer to Afghans to come to the UK. Johnson may have to overrule his home secretary to ensure the scheme for Afghans measures up to the scale of the crisis and recognises the UK’s role in causing it, even if that is subsidiary to the United States.