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Afghan refugees are welcome

Afghan refugees are welcome

Afghan refugees are welcome

Horrifying scenes are unfolding in Afghanistan. Taliban forces are reportedly going door to door, making blacklists of anyone who has worked with the former government. Even if Britain had not played a part in what’s unravelling right now, we would have a moral duty to act.

In this context, announcements from some UK regional leaders that they will accept Afghan refugees are welcome. But a years-long wait for resettlement cannot be the only protection we offer. The events unfolding in Afghanistan, with people forced to flee without a moment’s notice, show what it means to become a refugee and call into question an already rotten asylum system, which is due to go from bad to worse if the government’s new borders bill is passed.

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The bill creates a discriminatory two-tier asylum system which falsely differentiates between “good” and “bad” refugees based on how they entered the UK. Instead of assessing need, the government plans to look at refugees’ means of arrival. Anyone found “guilty” of arriving by boat or other means without prior permission (ie the vast majority of people seeking asylum), for example, could be criminalised and face up to four years in prison.

As they have put forward these proposals in the bill, ministers have tended to fall back on a few stock phrases. The UK has a proud tradition of welcoming refugees in need, they say, but the asylum system as it exists today is broken. Radical change is needed.

The UK’s proud history of “welcoming refugees” has not been as consistent as we would like to claim – since 2008, half of the Afghans seeking safety in the UK have been refused protection. However, that other line – that the asylum system is broken – is genuinely true. Radical change really is needed – just not the kind that the government is pushing through parliament.

People who come to the UK to seek protection become subject to a grindingly slow bureaucratic machine. Many wait months to be interviewed, and then longer to get an answer. For those who are refused and appeal, the process can take years – with nearly 50% going on to win their cases. A system in which life-changing decisions are wrong half of the time is a broken one, as is a system that leaves people in limbo for years, without the right to work and without the means to truly feel settled.

The number of people awaiting a decision on their asylum claim is already at an historic high, including – incidentally – almost 3,000 Afghans. New rules brought in at the start of this year will only add to this number. Anyone who has passed through another country on their way to the UK can now have their claim stalled for six months while the Home Office seeks to return them there. The Home Office hopes to return such people on the basis of deals that do not yet exist – in the first three months of these rules, it managed to return a grand total of zero asylum seekers. Yet thousands of people have their protection claims on hold under these rules.

While they wait, many live in so-called “dispersal” accommodation, sometimes in remote rural areas and often in some of the most deprived parts of the country. Asylum seekers housed in places where local authority budgets have been slashed and which are already struggling to stay afloat all too often become scapegoats, and a mobilising target for the far right.

The fate of asylum seekers arriving into the UK is too often decided by housing costs, with the private contractors who largely run asylum accommodation accused of privileging profit over the wellbeing of those whom they are charged to house. The problem is aggravated by many of our wealthier local authorities opting out of the dispersal system, even though the scheme was introduced to distribute housing responsibility more evenly throughout the UK.

The government’s borders bill, which has reached the committee stage in parliament, would take us out of the frying pan and into the fire. Under its provisions, asylum seekers could be housed in large asylum camps while their claims are processed. A pilot for this system launched last year was not exactly a roaring success: the Home Office set up an asylum camp in ramshackle army barracks, ignoring advice from Public Health England against keeping people in dormitories as a deadly pandemic raged. The Covid outbreak that followed was, a high court judge later said, “inevitable”.

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