The recent scenes at Kabul airport have been very difficult to watch. The desperation of so many to flee the Taliban is something most of us will never have to experience. The recent bombings targeting those trying to access evacuation flights is another example of the instability and danger in the region.
All UK and US evacuations have now stopped with all officials and armed forces leaving the country. It is clear that there are many people who have been left behind who were eligible to be evacuated and should have been evacuated. There are currently lots of questions to be asked about the approach and planning of the UK government in getting our Afghan allies out of the country.
For those who are not evacuated it is still unclear how they are expected to get outside of Afghanistan and to the UK and other safe countries. Taliban checkpoints have been set up across Kabul and Afghanistan and important border areas are under Taliban control. The speed at which the Afghan army and Government fell means many of those who will be targeted by the Taliban had no opportunity to escape.
The UK Government recently announced the ‘Afghan Citizen’s Resettlement Scheme’, a plan to welcome up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghans to the UK. The scheme is limited to only 5,000 people in the first year. The scheme is not a bad start, especially for a government known for its anti-refugee rhetoric. However there is currently no guidance on how this scheme will run, when it will start and how people are supposed to apply. There is also currently no way to obtain any of this information as the Government website advises people not to contact them for updates on the scheme. For those desperate people waiting for a route out of Afghanistan there is no sign of when help will come.
A further problem being raised with the scheme is the Government’s decision to cap the number of people eligible for the scheme, especially in the first year. These people need help now and arbitrary limits make an already desperate situation worse.
Unfortunately, because of policies like this with limited numbers and a lack of proper or safe routes to claim asylum, vulnerable people have no choice but to rely on exploitative people smugglers to move them from one country to the next.
When people do finally arrive in the UK they face navigating a difficult immigration system which suffers from massive delays with many asylum cases taking over 12 months for decisions. Recent figures put the backlog of cases awaiting decisions at around 70,000. There are also currently serious shortages of suitable housing for asylum seekers which has resulted in vulnerable people being kept in inappropriate housing such as hotels or decommissioned army barracks.
While there is hope that, as they did during the Syrian crisis, the Home Office will have a dedicated team dealing with Afghan claims it is still very unclear what timescales they will be working with.
There are many Afghans who already have asylum claims pending in the UK, with some having fled due to threats from the Taliban who had already taken over their area. For them their claims are now stuck in limbo as the Home Office has removed all guidance on Afghanistan and effectively put all their claims on hold. All current case law, much of which supports return to Afghanistan, is now defunct and effectively outdated despite the most recent case being published in 2020.
Although these further delays will undoubtedly be frustrating, the removal of the Home Office country guidance is almost certainly a positive step forward in their claims. Little more than a month ago the Home Office position was that Afghanistan was a safe country to be returned to, despite clear signs the situation would continue to destabilise as Western forces left the area.
For many who come to the UK, the poor housing and long delays result in many asylum seekers struggling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Asylum seekers are unable to work, unable to choose where they live to be near family or established communities.
Asylum seekers do not receive benefits but instead are provided with ‘Asylum Support’ the equivalent of around £5 per day. That needs to cover food, clothes, travel and any other necessities or luxuries that a person may wish to have. This results in many asylum seekers being forced to rely on charities for help or becoming isolated with no way to engage with communities they have no way to reach.
Despite the challenges that face them here the alternative of staying in Afghanistan is unthinkable for many. There will be many groups of people in Afghanistan who will be at risk of ill treatment or death from the Taliban. The risk to women and those who assisted Western forces has been widely discussed. However there are many others who will be targeted; ethnic and religious minorities within Afghanistan, LGBTQ+ individuals and young men of ‘fighting age’ who do not wish to join the Taliban.
We must now wait for the Home Office to publish updated guidance on the situation for Afghan asylum seekers so decisions can resume. At this time we do not know when this will be. Those waiting for decisions have no option but to continue waiting.
For those like myself who are working with asylum seekers it is hoped that the Home Office will approach these claims with the urgency the situation clearly requires. This could be a very clear turning point for the Government to move away from their anti-refugee rhetoric and take steps to reform the asylum process to make it a more humanitarian and fair process.