Yesterday, 18th August 2021, Parliament was recalled to debate the situation in Afghanistan. I was not able to speak but followed the debate closely all day.
This is possibly one of the most significant moments for UK foreign policy for decades. It is turning into a humanitarian crisis of massive proportion, on top of the struggles faced by many Afghan people already.
In a demonstration of our British values, the overwhelming majority of views being expressed publicly are that we as a country must help the Afghan people. The government has let down our armed forces, the Afghan people and many Brits working in Afghanistan by failing to properly plan and prepare for the withdrawal of the remaining NATO forces personnel in Afghanistan.
Some MPs who have served in Afghanistan spoke movingly about their experiences and that of their colleagues and their feelings of hurt and betrayal at what they see as the Government throwing away all that had been achieved over the last twenty years.
Many MPs spoke about the specific consequences for women and children. For two decades, after years of awful restrictions and use of physical and sexual force and threats to coerce and control them, women and girls were able to go to school and work, to train for professions, to be elected to office and to make changes in their own communities. The average age in Afghanistan is now 18, and the relative freedom they grew up with is under threat. The extreme misogynist ideology of the Taliban based on their own interpretation of the Qu’ran- by no means a universally held one puts this freedom, the safety and indeed the very lives of women and girls at risk.
We’ve heard of women activists trying to stay open and speaking out but fearing for their lives. We’ve heard of women journalists being told to stop work. We’ve heard of incredible bravery. The push for equality was not imposed by Western forces but was supported by them, as Afghan women led the changes for themselves over the last twenty years. It has been difficult and was by no means perfect, but Afghanistan needed longer for these massive changes to be sustainable against a violent onslaught from the Taliban. As it is, many or perhaps all the changes and gains for women and girls are now under threat.
I noticed that although speakers came from all parties including many from the Government, no MP had any positive words to say about the UK Government’s actions.
Many felt that the President of the United States had stepped way over the line in describing the Afghan people and armed forces as not trying to defend their country. People spoke of the immense sacrifices thousands of Afghan civilians, politicians, educators, and members of the developing armed forces have made over the last decades to try to rebuild their country after the last Taliban rule. People pointed out that after such a period of despotic rule which all but destroyed civil society and any semblance of human rights, twenty years is a very short time to have rebuilt sustainably, but that the Afghan people were making good progress at building their own democracy, civil society and framework for human rights- particularly women’s rights.
Many spoke of their own constituents and their families, such as those I represent who have found refugee status here because of persecution by the Taliban over the last few years. They had applied in good time for their families, who are also at risk, back in Afghanistan to join them safely, but are now in needless danger. They could have been here if the Home Office documents had arrived in time. My caseworkers and I have been pushing the Home Office for weeks, knowing the situation was worsening by the day. I’m appalled by the fact that my constituents’ families could have found safety here if only the Home Office had done what they should have months ago and issued the required documentation. I’m also in touch with some former Afghan MPs to find out what support they need.
I’ve pushed the immigration minister for information on what the processes should be for these families and also for those who hadn’t yet applied for family members to join them but are now fearful for their safety.
The government made great store by its announcement yesterday of 5,000 refugee resettlement places for this year, but it appears to be a number plucked out of the air and doesn’t include those like my constituents’ families who are already in the process. I am pushing the government on this and on how they plan to get people to Kabul airport in the face of Taliban checkpoints or to the border, including NGO workers and others at specific risks. They refer regularly to ‘people who worked for the NATO/UK forces’ and they absolutely do need our help, but so too do the NGO workers, the teachers, the women’s rights campaigners, the elected representatives and journalists who have spoken out against the Taliban, the LGBTQ people and those who are HIV positive who face appalling treatment as well as women.
I will keep pushing the Government on this as will my colleagues. It was clear from the debate yesterday that most MPs from all sides of the House of Commons are more or less united on this and are pushing the government to do more.