Afghan Refugees

 

Sarah Hearn OBE

New York University

 

I am part of a group of over 60 former UK diplomatic and development officials who served the British Government in Afghanistan since 2002. We wrote to the Prime Minister in August because we were gravely concerned for the safety of former Afghan colleagues with whom we worked in the British Embassy in Kabul and the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand.

We have received hundreds of requests for help and continue to receive new ones. Despite the incredible efforts of the British Government and military to evacuate thousands of people before the US withdrawal deadline, many vulnerable families are stranded now that Kabul airport has closed to Afghans.

The UK has a moral responsibility to help our partners leave safely. Many partners and their families have received death threats because of their relationship with us. We hear reports that some have already been killed. The Taliban’s promises of amnesty are hollow. UN Envoy on Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, briefed the Security Council that the UN has received credible allegations of Taliban reprisal killings. Disturbing video and audio are circulating that evidence persecution. Some feature Taliban soldiers calling for orders to search, arrest and kill “allies of foreigners.” Other footage is genocidal. In one video of unknown date, Taliban soldiers ask for orders to “wipe Hazara from the face of the earth.” Amnesty International is documenting recent brutal Taliban massacres.

 

I believe there are four major areas for action to help the most at-risk Afghans to escape and resettle.

 

The first is to fulfill the UK’s duty of care to former staff. The UK government created the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) in April to relocate former Afghan personnel employed by the British government in Kabul and Helmand. ARAP processing was too slow to keep pace with the Taliban’s takeover, and the eligibility criteria have been too narrow to give protection to everyone that served the UK. Vulnerable people who fall through the cracks include staff of the British Council and private sector companies, as well as international and local NGOs. They delivered significant results in areas such as demining, building Afghan institutions, promoting rights, delivering basic services, and building infrastructure at community levels. Many are also vulnerable women who worked with us as cleaners and cooks, and the guards who kept us safe every day.

 

The Taliban does not distinguish between an embassy employee and a contractor. They have issued orders to kill whole families. The UK government has a duty of care to broaden the scope of ARAP to include the families of eligible Afghan staff, as well as Afghans who implemented UK-funded programmes, and who worked for UK contractors. The task is huge, and the British government should surge resources to processing these Afghan applications.

 

Second, countries in NATO and the region have a moral responsibility to offer protection to persecuted Afghans. The British Government has promised a generous new Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told Parliament that human rights defenders, journalists, high profile women, children, LGBT+ activists, ethnic and religious minorities and close government allies would be given priority. Other countries, including Canada and the USA, have made similar commitments. This is very welcome news. However, the mechanics of the UK’s scheme (and those of other countries) are still to be clarified. I am concerned that figures will be fudged, and that we will miss many of the people most in danger. The 5,000 UK places announced for 2021 must be genuinely new in addition to those people already evacuated or approved for evacuation under ARAP. The application process must also be accessible so that the most vulnerable Afghans are able to apply, and not only those with the best connections.

 

Third, we need a coordinated inter-departmental, international and regional response to the crisis. The clear risk is that a refugee crisis on the scale of Syria is repeated, with all the associated risks from human trafficking. In August, Boris Johnson appointed a new Minister for Afghan Resettlement in the Home Office, Victoria Atkins. She started in the Home Office and was subsequently moved to the Ministry of Justice. Her mandate is to run the UK’s Operation Warm Welcome to resettle Afghans arriving in the UK. She oversees Home Office processing of applications and coordination with local authorities. For the new role to be fully effective, the Minister needs an international and inter-departmental mandate. The Minister should work with allies, the UN, and border countries to put in place safe passage routes out of Afghanistan, and third country processing facilities for applicants to UK schemes. The Minister could be given a dedicated team from the Home Office, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Ministry of Defence to support her. Assuming the UK wants to ensure that those who need to escape can do so, the FCDO should also work with the UN and World Bank to put in place development and humanitarian programmes that support border countries absorb Afghan refugees without detriment to their own countries’ populations

 

Finally, international civil society needs to organise. Many thousands of former diplomatic, development and military staff and NGOs surged to help our Afghan friends to evacuate in what has been described as a “Digital Dunkirk.” We need to shift to a sustainable footing. We should formalise our efforts by folding our activities into existing or new NGOs. These NGOs should create international coordination mechanisms that promote burden-sharing across the international community. They should establish domestic coordination mechanisms that link with the pro bono legal communities who can support resettlement and refugee applications, and local NGOs and private companies that can help with the economic and social integration of new arrivals.

 

We cannot hope for our partners around the world to maintain trust in us if we abandon our allies in Afghanistan. Building these systems is no easy task for governments and civil society, but by building and continually improving these systems, we will make some headway in fulfilling our moral obligations.

 

Image – UN

By Sarah Hearn

Sarah has previously worked with Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, UK, NATO and UN. She is also an Adjunct Professor at New York University.

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