UK’s plans for Afghan resettlement ‘too vague and limited’

MPs told that mother of one Afghan trying to reach relatives was shot dead by the Taliban for refusing to reveal son’s location

According to the UNHCR estimated 270,000 Afghans have been displaced due to insecurity and violence in the country since January 2021. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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The UK government’s plans to resettle refugees and other vulnerable people from Afghanistan is still too vague to help them, humanitarians working on the ground have said.

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, Britain’s representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on Tuesday urged the country to keep its borders open.

“Welcome as the plans are, they will never cover the full size of the needs,” she said at a UK Home Affairs committee meeting on resettlement from Afghanistan.

“One of my requests to you is to consider leaving your borders open.”

Ms Pagliuchi-Lor was referring to the government’s announcement on Monday of more details on its plans to resettle Afghan refugees.

They include a pledge to pay local councils more than £20,500 ($28,386) for each Afghan citizen it resettles, as well as increasing its resettlement support by £32 million.

About 6,000 Afghans have arrived in the UK.

Humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan say they lack the support and information they need to help Afghans reach safety.

Under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, Afghans who have worked with the UK government are eligible for resettlement with their families.

But the director of Policy Practice, an international development organisation, told the committee that many eligible people were being inexplicably excluded or had been left behind because of a lack of communication.

“I have a colleague, for example, who should be eligible for Arap but hasn’t heard back about her application for over a month,” said Laure-Helene Piron.

She said many vulnerable Afghans feared for their lives, and that she had recently been told that the mother of someone she had been trying to help had been shot dead by the Taliban for refusing to reveal his whereabouts.

“They’re in hiding and they do not understand the UK system, what to apply to and how. They rely on volunteers like us to help them but we aren’t hearing back from the UK,” Ms Piron said.

She urged the government to increase the number of staff involved in the resettlement process and to provide a single point of contact.

Many Afghans had been sub-contracted to work on UK government projects in Afghanistan.

Ms Piron said it remained unclear if or how Arap applied to them, and that she was concerned that only those with access to “high-profile officials” in Britain were being processed swiftly.

The UN refugee agency lauded the UK’s efforts on the ground during the evacuation process but said the government was now “too slow to respond” to the current and pressing needs of Afghans.

“Resettlement is a complex endeavour and we need systems to be put in place to identify who needs it most,” Ms Pagliuchi-Lor told the committee.

Under another initiative, Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, announced last week, the UK government has committed to resettling up to 20,000 Afghans.

Ms Pagliuchi-Lor welcomed this, but said the scale of the crisis was such that “any number won’t be adequate”.

There are already 2.9 million Afghan refugees registered around the world, the majority in Pakistan.

Ms Pagliuchi-Lor said it was “ironic” the UK government was expressing so much concern over the fate of Afghans while continuing to pursue the controversial Borders Bill, under which migrants who arrive to the UK by “illegal means” could be jailed.

The UNHCR has been critical about the bill and repeatedly said it is against international law.

Concerns for the future extend beyond extracting people from Afghanistan.

A journalist, Kate Clark, warned of an “impending humanitarian catastrophe” if the supply of foreign aid is cut off.

“Afghanistan is a country that has relied heavily on foreign income and aid … which has all gone in at the stroke of a pen,” said Ms Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

A former BBC correspondent in Afghanistan, Ms Clark said the newly appointed Taliban government would not be able to carry on “business as usual”.

The war-torn nation’s banking system is on the verge of collapse and Afghanistan’s banks remain shuttered leaving many people in the country without access to cash. Half of Afghans already live in poverty and there are real fears the political status quo will only worsen daily life.

On Tuesday, the UN said more than $1.1bn had been pledged to help Afghans.

Ms Clark told the committee that the sum would not “cover what has been lost” given the “scale of money that used to go into the country” during the 20-year presence of foreign military.

“If [we] don’t give money then people will die but if you do give money then you’re helping [the] Taliban regime survive,” she said.

With many members of the Taliban regime members subject to international sanctions, there are also concerns about the legality and ease of providing aid.

Many organisations, including the UN, have said they continue to operate freely in Afghanistan.

Updated: September 14, 2021, 3:54 PM