One year on, the UK must continue to welcome Afghan refugees

A year on from the Taliban takeover, the government must invest in tailored support for Afghan refugees

August 31, 2022
More than a hundred thousand refugees were evacuated from Afghanistan last August. Image: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo
More than a hundred thousand refugees were evacuated from Afghanistan last August. Image: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

We recently marked one year since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, a solemn opportunity for the UK to reflect on its continued responsibility to the people of Afghanistan, especially those who supported the British and allied efforts in the country over the past 20 years.

Tragically, the situation in Afghanistan has only worsened since the Taliban took control, with the economy in freefall, 24m people in dire need of humanitarian aid and a desperate situation for women and girls, who face restrictions on attending secondary school, entering the work force or even leaving the home without a male relative. We owe a massive debt to the many brave men and women who worked to support the allied effort in the country as translators, journalists, and judges, many of whose lives are now at risk.

The evacuation of 15,000 people during Operation Pitting last year was a brave effort and I am pleased we were able to bring so many people to safety in the UK. I recently met two Afghan arrivals to the UK, Wali and Nasir, at an event I co-hosted in parliament with the International Rescue Committee. I was struck both by a huge gratitude that they were able to be resettled in the UK with their families, and by an appreciation of just how much refugees have to offer our communities in terms of skills, experience and talents.

Unfortunately, in the 12 months since Operation Pitting, the programmes set up to help bring people like Wali and Nasir to the UK have stalled. I welcomed the UK government’s commitment to resettling 20,000 Afghans through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) and can only urge that we meet this commitment as quickly as possible. Under ACRS, eligible people will be prioritised and referred for resettlement to the UK through one of three referral pathways. Pathway one is for those who were evacuated or eligible for evacuation last year, pathway two is for vulnerable people who are referred to us by the UNHCR and pathway three is for those at risk due to their work with the UK and international community in Afghanistan.

While I was pleased to see pathways two and three of the ACRS open in June of this year, the UK should be striving to resettle more than the current target of 3,500 people in the next 12 months. We know the number of people who qualify for pathway two will be much higher, and we know that only allowing for 1,500 places under pathway three specifically does not deliver for those who supported the allied effort in Afghanistan—there are many more at risk individuals than there are places. Therefore, the UK government must expand the number of places under pathway three for the most at risk groups and allow for expressions of interest beyond the original deadline of August 15th, as this only gave people a very short window of opportunity to apply.

As well as helping more Afghans to resettle in the UK, there is much that we can do to ensure that those who are able to come here can integrate successfully. Refugees should have access to suitable housing and structured, vocational language training and we should improve our coordination with employers to match refugees to suitable roles and translate qualifications into the UK context. We should also invest in tailored support that meets the needs of refugee women, who are often also juggling caregiving responsibilities. Frustratingly, thousands of Afghan refugees are still in hotels a year since their arrival in the UK and face barriers to entering the workforce, such as delays in receiving the documentation needed to accept job offers and rent accommodation. Remedying this is in the UK’s national economic interests.

I have consistently supported amendments to legislation to allow asylum seekers to work after six months if their application has still not been processed by the Home Office, and I urge my fellow parliamentarians to do the same. This is because we know that 94 per cent of asylum seekers in the UK want to work, and there is strong evidence that investing in refugees’ economic integration will yield significant financial dividends—if the ban on employment for asylum seekers were lifted, it is estimated that the UK economy could gain more than £300m per year. The short-term costs associated with labour market integration—such as language or skills training—would quickly be turned into a significant return for the UK economy.

The UK has a great tradition of helping those in need, and as we mark this sombre anniversary, we must double down on our commitment to support the people of Afghanistan and ensure they can begin a successful new life in the UK. As we welcome new members of our community, we must remember they have so much to offer us in return. It is as much in our interest as in theirs.