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Priti Patel

Priti Patel. Photo: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr, license linked at bottom of article

The hostile policies towards Afghan and other asylum seekers stem from a long-standing anti-immigrant agenda of successive Tory governments, argues Raoul Walawalker

Given the Home Office’s record of trying to make the UK an unwelcome place for asylum seekers, and more recent policies reflecting an anti-immigrant media agenda – human rights groups understandably fear that the government will not play a full part in responding to the crisis unfolding following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.

The Home Office’s response to the situation on Wednesday – announcing its ‘bespoke resettlement route’ – had initially sounded encouraging. But it’s worth remembering that PR is a primary feature of Home Office strategy. A closer look at the scheme reveals it’s far from adequate.

The Home Office pledged to take in 20,000 refugees, which would positively match Canada’s commitment last week to take this amount.

Canada also clarified that it would prioritise those most likely to be targeted by the Taliban: women leaders, human rights activists, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTI individuals, and family members of previously resettled interpreters.

Given the dangerousness of the crisis, it could only have been hoped that the UK would follow suit. But in contrast, the government said will spread its 20,000 quota over an unspecified number of years after taking in 5,000 in the first year.

The pledge is entirely inadequate given the scale of the disaster and danger of what’s happening in Afghanistan and what now looms over millions people. Considering Britain’s central role in creating this catastrophe for Afghan people.

Like the US, the UK government has seemed bewildered by the speed of the Taliban’s takeover of the country and its implications on multiple levels.

Explanations have been expected from families of armed forces that have died in combat over 20 years, those wounded severely, all that have served and the many still suffering from experiences there. There’s also the matter of the tens of thousands of Afghans that assisted the coalition members, who now could face a grim death.

Along with other major criticisms of the government, speculation was rife on Thursday over the possible resignation of foreign minister Dominic Raab after reports that he had put people in jeopardy by refusing to make an urgent call while on holiday to help evacuate translators as part of a different refugee scheme called Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP).

While it’s understandable for the media to focus on the government’s potential failure to protect the thousands of Afghans that served the UK, now seriously imperilled, it remains a serious concern that despite the crisis, the UK could maintain long-term policies that have been rigidly hostile and endangering to other Afghan refugees along with more recent plans that severely restrict scope for them to seek asylum in the UK.

Despite emerging evidence of the Taliban’s rapid resurgence earlier in the year, 76 Afghan nationals have had asylum applications rejected so far this year alone, including ten women and one girl, according to a recent investigation by OpenDemocracy.

The probe revealed that more than 32,000 Afghan asylum seekers have been rejected by the UK since the Coalition’s invasion of the country in 2001.

“Since 2009, around 2,600 Afghan women have had their initial asylum applications rejected. This includes nearly 875 girls under the age of 18, of which six were unaccompanied children,” it said.

Additionally unpalatable has been the UK’s seeming determination to deport Afghans despite the country being too dangerous for them. Five years ago, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that previous Home Secretary Theresa May had won a legal battle to resume deportations of failed asylum seekers to Afghanistan after the overturning of an injunction imposed the previous year because of the level of danger.

The current situation should make it unthinkable for the UK to proceed with further deportations to the country as well as encouraging the government to speed up a backlog of asylum by granting refugee status to the thousands of Afghans in the UK that have lived in poverty and stress, often for years, while awaiting the outcome of their claims (not entitled to working, living on about £37 a week.)

The hostile policies towards Afghan and other asylum seekers stem from a long-standing anti-immigrant agenda of successive Tory governments which has led to Priti Patel’s recently introduced Nationality and Borders Bill, dubbed the ‘anti-refugee bill’ by rights activists. The bill’s aim is to render illegal any attempt to come to the UK seeking asylum by a non-officially approved route – blocking practically almost all claims, adding to a huge claims backlog and making reliance on dangerous travel routes and smugglers all the more likely.

Human rights groups are now more than ever urging the Home Office to put aside the policies largely based on an anti-immigrant agenda that is likely to conflate a human tragedy. This week the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants presented (JCWI) a letter signed by multiple organisations urging it to abandon its plan that would criminalise asylum seekers from Afghanistan outside of the resettlement scheme.

“Resettling 5,000 Afghans this year is woefully inadequate. We and 90 others are urging the Gov't to: scrap the 'resettlement-only' plan that criminalises refugees, grant refugee status now to Afghans in the UK, reunite families, expand the resettlement plan.”

Speed in doing so should be stressed too. At time of writing, and in contrast to a Taliban press conference earlier in the week, reports were emerging from Amnesty of the discovery of the bodies of nine ethnic Hazara men who’d been shot or tortured to death by Taliban last month.

“The brutal killings likely represent a tiny fraction of the total death toll inflicted by the Taliban to date, as the group have cut mobile phone service in many of the areas they have recently captured, controlling which photographs and videos are then shared from these regions,” it said. It’s likely to be just the beginning.

During the parliamentary debate on the crisis in Afghanistan on Wednesday, there was much concern among MPs about the rights and safety of Afghan people. However, apart from the comments of a handful of anti-war MPs including Jeremy Corbyn and Zarah Sultana, this concern was almost entirely expressed as a means of criticising the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A significant number of those same MPs will have voted in favour for Patel’s anti-refugee bill, will have supported deportation flights of Afghan refugees and Windrush citizens, and the government’s past attempt to stop refugees coming to the UK including spending £7m on building a wall in Calais and stopping search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean sea.

If these politicians have any real concern about the Afghan people, they should start by pushing the government to provide safe passage for more than the meagre number of refugees they’ve so far pledged to accept, and to improve the treatment of refugees once they’re here.

Raoul Walawalker, a freelance journalist who also writes for the Immigration Advice Service, a firm of international lawyers

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