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Oxfordshire community leaders respond to Afghanistan Crisis: “Surely we can do better.”

In light of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, representatives of Oxfordshire MPs, councillors, Afghan leaders, Afghan newcomers, and community organisations met last Friday, 20th August, calling on the UK government to be proactive and clear in its humanitarian response towards Afghan asylum-seekers. The meeting, attended by more than fifty individuals and organisations, was facilitated by Oxford refugee charity Asylum Welcome.

Released as an outcome of the meeting was a Statement on the Crisis in Afghanistan and Oxfordshire’s Response, signed by local Councillors Mark Lygo, Dr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini, Imogen Thomas, Chris Jarvis, Lucy Pegg, and Sally Povolotsky as well as sixteen organisations that support refugees.

With the meeting taking place only five days after the Taliban occupied Kabul, the pain was fresh for local Afghan leaders, refugees, and representatives of refugee-oriented community groups, who urged international support for and solidarity with the people of Afghanistan. 

Two Afghan clients of Asylum Welcome who had been refugees spoke out about the current volatility and violence in Afghanistan, both recalling how, just two days prior, Taliban fighters had clashed with protestors in Jalalabad, a city in Eastern Afghanistan, after the latter tried to replace newly erected Taliban flags with the Afghan flag. 

“The crisis is bigger than what we see in the media. That’s the reality,” stressed Dr Aziz Barez, Executive Director of the Center for Afghanistan & Central Asia Strategic Studies (CACASS) in London and a former Afghan diplomat. The Taliban takeover, Dr Barez warned, will imperil human rights in the country, especially women’s and girls’ rights, and infringe upon “basic respect for human activity ” such as “girls going to school”. 

“Now, our sisters, mothers, daughters, and aunts are under lockdown for the rest of our lives,” said Shaista Aziz, Labour City Councillor for Rose Hill and Iffley and Cabinet Member for Inclusive Communities, sharing in the meeting what an Afghan woman from Oxford had said to her. 

“All countries need to support us, especially the UK,” appealed one of Asylum Welcome’s Afghan clients, who arrived in the UK as a refugee in 2009 but whose wife and child remain in Afghanistan, “but most of them left Afghanistan when we needed support from them. The UK government needs to help people who are living in Afghanistan. We want peace. We don’t want anything else.”

Evacuation and Resettlement of Afghan Citizens

Councillors, refugees, local Afghan leaders, and representatives of local MPs attend a meeting with Asylum Welcome. Image: Asylum Welcome

The UK government announced shortly after the takeover that it is committing to resettling 20,000 at-risk Afghan refugees over a five-year period. The Afghanistan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, which the Home Office calls “bespoke” and “one of the most generous” in the UK, will see 5,000 Afghan refugees resettled in the first year. 

Councillor Aziz, writing on the Oxford City Council website about how the crisis is affecting Oxford’s communities from those with relatives in Afghanistan to veterans, called the number “a woefully inadequate number that does not reflect the duty of care the UK has to Afghan civilians, to protect lives, or the military role Britain has played in Afghanistan.”

Oxford West and Abingdon MP Layla Moran, whose representatives attended the meeting via Zoom, spoke in parliament last week and urged the government to set a more ambitious resettlement target of 20,000 Afghan refugees per year, or 30 refugees per constituency, saying “surely we can do better” after “twenty years of [military] involvement”

By the end of 2020, before the Taliban takeover, there were 2.8 million Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers mostly living in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran. An estimated 3.5 million Afghans are also currently displaced within the country’s borders, and Dr Barez underlined in the meeting the coming crisis of internal displacement as well as international displacement. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel has said that the new resettlement scheme for Afghans is separate from and in addition to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which launched on 1st April 2021 and offers priority relocation to the UK to locally employed staff under serious threat to life. Meeting attendees cautioned, however, that the scheme must not diminish resettlement opportunities for vulnerable refugees of other nationalities. So far, the UK government has refused to clearly commit to a long-term refugee resettlement target.

Afghan constituents with affected family members are advised to continue getting in touch with their MPs, advised representatives of Oxford East MP Anneliese Dodd. Through their contacts, they said, MPs can ensure that the correct government officials receive and process people’s cases. They also encouraged Afghans seeking to reunite with their families in the UK to get in touch, even if they do not meet the official visa requirements. 

The Statement on the Crisis of Afghanistan and Oxfordshire’s Response calls for the government to “freeze any planned repatriations, grant asylum to Afghan nationals with outstanding asylum claims and release Afghan nationals currently held in detention, given that deportations cannot be safely carried out”.

The Home Office released asylum statistics on 26th August showing that as of June 2021, UK asylum applications have fallen 9% as compared to the year before. But the department is currently handling a sizable backlog of 70,000 asylum applications, which includes over 3,000 citizens of Afghanistan. 

One concern raised by meeting attendees was about Afghan asylum-seekers who arrive on UK shores spontaneously, given that the UK government is currently trying to pass a Nationality and Borders Bill that will criminalise asylum-seekers who arrive by sea or through a “safe third country”.

“The government must rethink the Nationality and Borders Bill in light of the current crisis in Afghanistan”, the Statement asserts, expressing worry that Afghans who take irregular routes “will be treated as illegal and usually refused refugee status”. 

The Statement further calls the Bill “unfit for purpose” and says that “asylum claims should be judged based on the claimant’s fear of persecution, not how they got here”. 

The Home Office has reiterated its intent to criminalise the act of entering the UK through a third country, although those who arrive in the UK via “irregular migrant routes, such as small boats” can still apply for asylum before the Nationality and Borders Bill fully comes into effect. During the meeting, Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini, Labour City Councillor of Northfield Brook, also called for the creation of humanitarian corridors for Afghans to leave safely as well as more funding for local councils, while also stressing that “people travelling to immediate third countries do not automatically find safety there.”

Asylum Welcome has suggested 12 actions to support refugees, which includes signing a petition to increase the pace and number of the UK government’s Afghan resettlement scheme, writing to local MPs to discuss their response to the Afghan crisis, and considering renting out homes to refugee families through Sanctuary HostingOxfordshire Afghan Aid (OAA), set up by Hendreds & Harwell County Councillor Sally Povolotsky in liaison with the Royal Air Force and Red Cross, has been updating regularly on Facebook about the specific in-kind donations that Afghan new arrivals need. At the time of publication, OAA is at capacity and no longer receiving drop-off donations. OAA has recommended that the public redirect their monetary and material donations towards Nowzad,  which reunites soldiers with animals they rescued in Afghanistan; Asylum Welcome; British Red Cross; and the charity shop Changing Lives, located in Didcot and Wantage, which supported OAA in its earlier efforts.

Image: Public Domain

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