UK’s efforts to help Afghans are 'moving at snail's pace'

Amnesty calls Britain's resettlement schemes too vague and slow to help the most vulnerable

The UK government’s drive to help vulnerable Afghans has been criticised for “moving at a snail’s pace” by a global human rights organisation.

About two months after refugee airlift operations in Afghanistan ended, those left in the country face formidable obstacles in seeking safety overseas, Amnesty International said.

A report from the NGO last week criticised the UK’s “slow” efforts to assist Afghans in danger and said many people still trapped in Afghanistan were at “acute risk” of persecution from the Taliban.

In August, the UK announced a resettlement scheme for Afghans in danger of persecution but the government has yet to launch the scheme amid growing frustration and fear among vulnerable Afghans and human rights organisations.

About 8,500 people were brought to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme. But months after arriving, the vast majority are still living in temporary 'bridging hotels' pending permanent settlement.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, director of the refugee and migrant rights programme at Amnesty International in the UK, told The National the government's efforts to help Afghans were “unsatisfactory”.

Poland has been reinforcing its border with Belarus – also part of the EU's eastern border – after thousands of migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere tried to enter the country. AP

“Many of them find themselves still in temporary hotel accommodation, with little idea as to what their future will be. It’s not good enough. This country promised to respond properly and well to what is a crisis situation — they’ve made a lot of fanfare and they haven’t delivered,” he said.

He said the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill included “draconian new anti-asylum measures”.

“All the effort is going into excluding people, even to the detriment of the people the government has said it is determined to protect,” he told The National.

The legislation introduced by Home Secretary Priti Patel is making its way through Parliament and aims to curb English Channel crossings and change how asylum claims are processed.

Called the “anti-refugee Bill” by campaigners critical of the plans, it intends to make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK unlawfully. Mr Valdez-Symonds said the Bill made the government’s promises to help Afghans “ring hollow”.

“The Bill is going to make vulnerable people even more vulnerable and set a terrible example for other countries who may similarly attempt to shut the door to those seeking asylum,” he said.

The closure of borders in neighbouring countries to Afghans without travel documents along with pushbacks, detention and deportations across Europe and Central Asia have left few routes to safety for those trying to flee Afghanistan.

“Trying to get out of Afghanistan right now is like an obstacle course,” said Francesca Pizzutelli, Amnesty’s head of refugees and migrant rights.

“Instead of finding safety and protection, Afghans who fled the Taliban end up trapped in makeshift camps at border zones or detained while they await deportation to an uncertain fate,” she said.

According to details provided in the report:

  • Since August 20, 150 people have been returned to Afghanistan from neighbouring Uzbekistan
  • Between August 27 and September 9, 58,279 undocumented Afghans were deported from Iran
  • Since August 19, 32 Afghans have been stranded on the Poland-Belarus border after they were moved from Poland to Belarus in a suspected pushback. Belarusian border guards have kept the group trapped on a small strip of land on the border, without adequate shelter, clean water, food or access to health care
  • Bulgaria, Croatia and Greece have continued to carry out pushbacks, which are illegal under international asylum law, against Afghans

Last week the UK’s Ministry of Defence said there have been two evacuation flights carrying more than 100 Afghans out of a neighbouring country by the Royal Air Force to the UK since August.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the flights marked the beginning of more rescue missions to help those in need.

Members of the Royal Air Force welcome Afghan citizens being flown from a third country to the UK. AFP

While repatriation flights and relocations have been taking place since the end of August, the two airlifts were the first military relocations since the end of the evacuation of Kabul, known as Operation Pitting.

The department said those on board — vulnerable Afghans who fall under the Arap are eligible for relocation to the UK, and British citizens — will now receive support if needed.

Mr Valdez-Symonds said the recent evacuations, while welcomed, did not make up for the government's shortfall.

“The UK ministers announced a resettlement scheme months ago and it still hasn’t started,” he said.

Updated: October 25, 2021, 1:08 PM