Afghan citizens trying to escape the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan have become caught up in the UK government’s latest attempt to revise refugee policy. They face significant obstacles in obtaining adequate protection. Those who have no choice but to flee for their lives and travel without documents have their applications placed on hold for six months or more, while the Home Secretary pursues their removal to another country.
In practice, this broadly seems to mean treating people fleeing war and persecution more like they are economic migrants applying for a visa and making them navigate a series of administrative obstacles. In comparison, Ukrainian refugees have a dedicated helpline to support with their visa inquiries and applications are processed at a faster pace and have low documentation requirements.
As of 2021, an estimated 3.5 million Afghans have been displaced due to war and conflict. With the rigid restrictions regulating refugees, it is unfortunately no surprise that since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, only 9,000 Afghans have been relocated to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme, and 1,400 under the earlier Ex-Gratia scheme. The government introduced the new Afghan Citizen’s Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) in January 2022 to allow an additional 20,000 refugees to settle in the UK, with a stated intention to welcome 5,000 of them this year.
However, the exact figure of how many people have been resettled under ACRS so far is unknown. The Government has not confirmed how many Afghans have asked to come to the UK, but it is estimated that “between 75,000 to 150,000 people applied for evacuation in August 2021”. Raphael Marshall, who previously worked on the Foreign Office’s Afghanistan crisis response estimated that only 5% of these received assistance. And this figure is significantly lower compared to the 162,000 Ukrainians Refugees who have been issued visas. As Joe Tomlinson has pointed out, “it is shocking that this is what preferential treatment in the modern refugee system looks like—and the Afghanistan schemes are far worse than those for Ukrainians”.
When an application is made to UKVI — the division of the Home Office responsible for the UK’s visa system — an automated generic response is received, informing them that Ukrainian Visa Scheme application is the priority:
“We are writing to inform you that due to the humanitarian crisis caused by the invasion of Ukraine, UKVI is prioritising Ukraine Visa Scheme applications. This means that customers applying for other routes will experience some delays in the processing of their application. This means you should get a decision within 24 weeks (120 working days) from the date you attended the Visa Application Centre to give your biometrics, rather than 12 weeks.”
But why are the needs of one group put above the needs of another? Surely the UK has the capacity and wherewithal to help both?
Introducing an additional delay into the processing of their claims is counterproductive. It leaves applicants stuck in a limbo under life threatening circumstances. All Afghan asylum cases should be heard without delay and processed at speed to provide the urgent protection required – an urgency underlined by the fact Afghans are the largest single nationality of people making the perilous crossing of the Channel in small boats.
Retired Senior British Army Officer Sir John McColl stated that it was “appalling” that the UK was failing to meet its commitments and that “hundreds of those who are eligible to come to the UK are still in hiding”.
This is unfortunately the reality for many Afghans. And for me, this is close to home. I escaped from the conflict in Afghanistan when I was five years old. I have grown up and studied here. But I’m one of the lucky ones. My uncle is still in Afghanistan and is desperate to leave. Despite having supported the UK armed forces, he is currently hiding from the Taliban. He, like many others in similar positions, has been deemed a traitors and is in constant fear for his live. Afghans feel betrayed and abandoned by the UK government for not fulfilling their promise to protect the families of those who are in dire need of rescue.
Many others are suffering from the severity of daily hardships. Taking aside the worst humanitarian crisis experienced by any country, Afghanistan is currently one of the most difficult countries in the world in which to identify as a woman. Afghan girls above grade 6 do not have a right to education; Afghan women do not have the right to work. They are not allowed to leave the house without being fully covered or without a male chaperone. Political and economic insecurity, educational inequality, sexual violence, and poor health are pervasive amongst Afghan women and children. The official resettlement schemes are often too slow for crises such as the one in Afghanistan.
The major delays and the unresolved backlog of asylum cases at the Home Office is much worse than is being reported. The Home Office immigration statistics illustrate that from January to June 2021, only 489 out of 1,089 Afghans were granted protection outside of the two main schemes.
The overriding goal of the policy towards Afghanistan should be to reduce the impact of the humanitarian disaster unleashed by the international withdrawal, not worsen it. It is clear that we need fairer and more humane refugee policies. Refugees should not be arranged into some sort of hierarchical pecking order when all are in desperate need of aid. The government should focus its efforts in reducing its delays and improving the quality of decision making so that vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers receive the protection to which they are entitled.