When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in the summer, my inbox was flooded with messages from desperate people trying to find a way to escape persecution, torture and murder. My caseworkers and I were able to help some. Many others were left behind due to incompetence at the Foreign Office. All we could offer them were promises, from the UK government, that they could apply to the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) when it opened.
This scheme has now “opened”, five months later than promised, though there is no application process and even those eligible may be waiting many more months.
What we were expecting
I was expecting a resettlement scheme which built on the experience of other resettlement schemes, whereby refugees are assessed as close as possible to the country they are fleeing from (in the case of Syria, this was Lebanon) and then brought to a third country with their status already confirmed.
This type of resettlement scheme is the best way of ensuring desperate people do not feel forced to make dangerous journeys. When the government says they want to protect people from the exploitation of traffickers, this is what they should be doing. When they refer to legal alternatives to people making their own, usually very dangerous way, to a country like the UK, there are actually very few such alternatives.
Resettlement and family reunion – whereby a refugee is reunited with a close family member who has already been granted refugee status in a third country – are the only legal alternatives and they are very difficult and currently limited. I’d hoped we would see a proper expansion of both routes for Afghans fleeing persecution.
The reality falls short
However, the announcement will be a bitter disappointment for the people it promised to help. Indeed, it won’t offer any new places for those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan for many more months. My caseworkers and I feel that the people we have been trying to help and give hope to have been let down badly by the government, who had said they would protect Afghans.
First, it is not clear who will be given a place or how people can get on the list or even how they will be able to leave Afghanistan if they are selected. As the Home Office announcement states, “there is no application process for the ACRS [the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme],” with places either offered by UK government or the United Nations Humanitarian Commission for Refugees.
Second, those who worked with the UK, including contractors on security and aid projects, won’t be included until at least next year, despite the risk to their lives as a result of the work they did. And there is still no working route for the family members of British citizens trapped in Afghanistan.
Perhaps most cynical is the way the scheme may help far fewer people than promised. It promises to help 20,000 people in the next few years, but it’s not clear whether these people are British citizens who have already left Afghanistan. I have requested a meeting with a Home Office minister to urgently clarify these points.
What I am doing
More than 100 families with links to Bristol West have asked me for help. My caseworkers and I are continuing to help them where we can and get them the latest information.
Since the start of this crisis, Labour has called for an application process for the Resettlement Scheme. I’ve had meetings with various ministers and repeatedly written to the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary, asking for advice and help. I also repeatedly asked when the resettlement scheme would open in Parliament.
Tragically, the answers I received have been evasive and irrelevant. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is escalating and there is no co-ordinated international plan to address it.
Delays getting these programmes in place will mean more lives are at risk and more desperate people vulnerable to exploitation by criminal traffickers as they try to make dangerous journeys by themselves.
Labour would move faster and make good on promises on refugee resettlement. Those who have helped our armed forces in Afghanistan and others who tried to make their country a better place and whose lives are now at risk shouldn’t be forced onto flimsy dinghies in a cold English Channel. They helped us when we needed them, and we should do the same.
I will keep demanding answers and improvements to this scheme. Many of the people who contacted me in the summer are now desperate. Some have been killed or captured. If they have to wait many more months, I fear that it will be too late for many of them.