Family reunifications are blocked by administrative hurdles, while other safe routes are off to a slow start and a draft bill seeks to criminalise anyone entering outside legal pathways.
UK refugee groups have criticised the government’s approach to refugees from Afghanistan, arguing the majority of refugees remain without support, leaving them with no choice but to seek dangerous routes out of the country.
As the United Kingdom pulled out of Afghanistan alongside the US and other NATO allies in early August, the government announced “operation warm welcome”, targeting Afghans evacuated or relocated as part of efforts to protect those who worked with the British government. This included giving them and their families permanent residence.
But refugee rights groups are concerned the vast majority of Afghan refugees are being met with a cold shrug instead – starting with those who would qualify for the safe route of family reunification in the United Kingdom, but are currently unable to apply due to the closure of the British embassy in Kabul.
“There are obviously practical and administrative problems with family reunifications because there is no administration [in Afghanistan] to process those applications,” Christopher Desira, the director of UK-based migration law firm Seraphus told TRT World.
A policy statement published this week fleshed out details of the government’s plans to relocate and resettle Afghans under two schemes. It includes plans to relocate by the end of the year an additional 5,000 people who worked with the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which was launched in April. It also announced funding for local councils to resettle 20,000 Afghans in the coming years, including 5,000 in the first year.
“We will not abandon people who have been forced to flee their homes and are now living in terror of what might come next,” said Home Secretary Priti Patel when the resettlement scheme, which has yet to take off, was first announced in August.
Afghans falling outside the scope of the schemes will remain bound by existing economic and family migration rules. These include a minimum income requirement of £18,600 ($25,600) per year for any UK citizen or permanent resident who wishes to bring a spouse to the UK, raising with each child.
In addition, the UK requires people filing for family reunification to provide biometrics. While the statement acknowledged that the closure of the British embassy in Kabul made this impossible, it simply discourages people from applying and paying application fees “at this time as they will not be considered until biometrics are provided.”
“The Home Office could have decided to make a decision in principle on people’s case and then allow for biometrics to be taken in a third country,” Beth Gardiner-Smith, head of the refugee charity Safe Passage, wrote on Twitter. “Instead, they’ve effectively closed this safe route when it’s most needed by Afghans because they can’t show one ounce of flexibility,” she said, adding that “hundreds” of UK citizens or permanent residents have contacted her organisation seeking to bring their family members out of Afghanistan.
“We have been speaking to people who say their family members are going to try and relocate to bordering countries to see if they can apply from there,” Desira said, “obviously that presents problems for those families, the risk of travelling to those countries and having an unlawful presence in those countries.”
“This is impacting as it normally does women and children more than anyone else,” Desira said, “because they are usually the ones who are left behind.”
We're urging the Government to re-think and offer hope to the hundreds of Afghans who have contacted safe passage desperate to bring their loved ones to safety.— Beth Gardiner-Smith 🧡 (@BGardinerSmith) September 15, 2021
Large scale displacement
Even before the events that led to the Taliban’s takeover of the country in August, Afghanistan was facing mass displacement compounded by drought and food shortages. Over 3.5 million people have been internally displaced by conflict, including an estimated 630,000 since the beginning of the year.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has registered 2.6 million Afghan refugees around the world, of which 2.2 million are in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan.
“At the moment, it’s not clear how many refugees will try to leave Afghanistan,” Matthew Saltmarsh, a spokesperson for the agency in the United Kingdom, told TRT World.
“We noted that recently there has been some movement towards the borders, but the number of people who have approached UNHCR in neighbouring countries has been limited in the last few weeks,” he added. The agency has yet to receive details of how the government’s resettlement scheme will work once it becomes operational, with some identified by the agency and others according to the government’s own criteria.
“These schemes alone won’t be enough to provide protection to Afghans who arrive in the UK,” Enver Solomon, CEO of asylum support organisation the Refugee Council, said in response to the policy statement. “Through no fault of their own, many Afghans will have no choice but to embark on dangerous journeys to find safety.”
That part above was a genuine question… the following is just raging.— Zoe Gardner (@ZoeJardiniere) September 14, 2021
No concessions on family reunion, you still have to earn an arbitrary minimum even if your family are at risk in Afghanistan. They recognise it’s impossible to apply right now anyway & that’s tough I guess? pic.twitter.com/znEmogS3D8
New bill could criminalise Afghans entering ‘illegally’
Meanwhile, a bill currently going through Parliament could see anyone entering the UK through an illegal route have their asylum claim ruled as inadmissible and risk being jailed for up to four years.
“The warm welcome this government wants to provide to Afghans on the new schemes is in stark contrast to proposals set out in its new ‘borders bill’ which will cruelly slam our door in the face of those who had to take dangerous journeys overland to get to the UK,” Solomon said.
The UNHCR has also criticised the two-tiered system that could end up penalising the vast majority of refugees, who do not have access to legal routes, as against international law.
“I find it ironic, to be honest, that the very same people we felt so affected by when we saw them hanging from planes in Kabul, or those we are now discussing how they should be extracted … if they extracted themselves and made it here, they would, if that bill were law, be liable to potentially four years in jail and then subject to some attempts to return them to some other countries,” said Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UNHCR’S representative in the UK told MPs this week at a home affairs select committee meeting.
“There is something ironic in the way we are so concerned about them while they are there, but we are ready not to consider them when they come to the UK,” she added.