To say the offer of help to refugees from Afghanistan by Boris Johnson is disappointing is an understatement. The offer, which is to take 20,000 Afghan refugees over five years and just 5,000 in the first year, falls far short of both the need and Britain’s moral responsibilities.
Afghanistan has a total population of 38 million. And faced with the return of the Taliban, the Afghan people are being swept by waves of panic and facing violence. In recent hours there are reports that the Taliban is carrying out a door-to-door manhunt for “collaborators”. By this, the Taliban means not just anyone who worked with the British army as an interpreter, but also men and women who worked with a range of western agencies like charities, schools, or aid agencies – however humble role their role.
People are desperate to get out of the country and away from Taliban brutality. There is no question that in the coming months there is going to be an even more severe refugee crisis in Afghanistan than we have seen so far. It will spiral out of the immediate region and will touch the entire international community.
The paltry number of Afghan refugees that the British government is prepared to take seems to reflect the idea peddled in some quarters that Britain already takes in too many refugees. But this is far from the truth, particularly when it comes to Afghanistan. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in its figures for the end of 2020 reveals the 85 per cent of Afghan refugees are actually in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries Iran and Pakistan. Germany comes third with 148,000 – or around 5.5 per cent – of Afghan refugees.
Austria, France, and Sweden are other major destinations for Afghans fleeing their country because of the fear of violence and disorder. Britain currently comes behind all these. Which makes the offer to take 5,000 more Afghan refugees in the coming year look even more derisory.
After 20 years in Afghanistan fighting the “war on terror”, attached to America’s coattails, Britain has a responsibility to take its fair share of Afghan refugees. The government should also look again at the Nationality and Borders Bill it is driving through parliament. This bill would make it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK without entry clearance. It would effectively criminalise desperate Afghan refugees who, having made the long journey overland, then attempt to cross the English Channel to claim asylum in Britain.
It is paradoxical that some of the political forces in this country who were most enthusiastic about the “war on terror” are now least keen on Britain taking in very many Afghan refugees. Yet it is that “war on terror” which is one of the root causes of the current instability in Afghanistan.
The truth is that on current figures most refugees will find themselves in neighbouring countries to Afghanistan. But those who reach Britain should be offered a safe haven. And our government should definitely take more than the 20,000 over five years – that is a shameful offer.
Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington