With UK troops having left, it’s critical a humanitarian withdrawal does not follow in Afghanistan

·3-min read

The scenes around Kabul airport have been a terrible and tragic reminder of the dangerous reality which Afghans who remain in Afghanistan face. Thursday’s horrific attacks on people at the airport, which claimed three British lives, have made the situation even clearer.

As the final planes of evacuees take off, with UK forces having departed, it is critical that a humanitarian and diplomatic withdrawal does not follow.

Afghanistan represents the modern face of humanitarian crisis. The country has suffered from enduring conflict, the Covid-19 pandemic and an extreme drought currently affecting more than 80 per cent of the country. Nearly half of the country’s population, 18.4 million including 10 million children, have been left reliant on humanitarian aid to survive. We know from our team in Afghanistan – the International Rescue Committee (IRC) that has been working in the country for more than 30 years – that conditions are growing increasingly dire.

The situation will only deteriorate further. This year alone more than 550,000 people have been made homeless, half of whom have fled in just the past two months and who will now join three million people already displaced inside the country. The safety of women and girls is of particular concern. The UN has warned that core food supplies could run out by October due to continuing access issues. More than a million children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year.

How the UK government responds in Afghanistan will be a defining moment for its “global Britain” aspirations. There is a clear moral and strategic imperative to stand by Afghans to whom we made a commitment to support.

The complex challenge which the crisis in Afghanistan presents calls for the combined force of British diplomacy and humanitarian support. Last week, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, announced that the UK would double foreign aid to Afghanistan, a welcome partial retreat from the devastating cuts in UK aid to the country of a few months ago. These funds must now be made available urgently. The crisis also powerfully demonstrates why the UK must restore the aid budget back to 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income.

Humanitarian aid must be matched with urgent diplomacy to protect at-risk people on the ground and ensure aid workers have unfettered access to the communities who remain. Women play a central role in the humanitarian response; it is essential that their safety is guaranteed. The UK should lead efforts to ensure the commitments made this week at the G7 are now turned into action.

Closer to home, the UK must also take decisive action to protect and welcome Afghan refugees. The government’s recent commitment to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees is a promising first step but they must go further as The Independent has pointed out. The UK should increase its pledge from 20,000 over five years to 20,000 within 12 months and 60,000 over five years. That is well within our country’s capacity at just 18 people per constituency each year. The IRC and others stand ready to help make this happen.

And what of the Afghans who have already found their way here in search of safety? The government’s resettlement pledge is not an excuse for the UK to tear up its asylum obligations. According to the government’s own figures, 3,000 Afghans are still waiting for their initial asylum decision. Many continue to languish in detention centres; some have even been returned to Afghanistan. This is wholly unacceptable.

The clear and present dangers in Afghanistan should prompt the government to urgently review decision-making on asylum applications. Let’s be clear. People who are seeking safety in this country should never be returned to a situation where their lives are at risk.

The IRC has operated in Afghanistan for over three decades throughout waves of conflict, including during Taliban rule in the 1990s. We will stay alongside the Afghan people as long as we are needed. To succeed, we need the UK government to stand with us.

Melanie Ward is executive director at the International Rescue Committee UK.

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