The British offer to Afghan refugees is not “generous”. It is blindly inhuman | Kenan malik
BOris Johnson and Priti Patel say Britain’s “tailor-made program” for Afghan refugees is “one of the most generous in our country’s history”. It says more about their ignorance of British history than the project itself. The government has pledged the resettlement of 5,000 refugees this year, in addition to the existing Afghan assistance and relocation policy program for local staff and 20,000 in the coming years. It is no longer possible to absorb more, argued Patel.
This is not what previous governments thought. Between August and November 1972, Ted Heath’s Conservative government took in 27,000 Ugandan Asians who had been expelled by Idi Amin. This despite fierce opposition from Enoch Powell and the reactionary right. At the end of the 1970s, Heath’s successor, Margaret Thatcher, was more reluctant to give refuge to the Vietnamese “boat people”, fearing “riots in the streets”. Nonetheless, over 19,000 eventually came to Britain. Even that was tiny compared to other countries. France accepted 95,000, Australia and Canada 137,000 and the United States 822,000.
From World War I, when 250,000 Belgians fled the German invasion, including 16,000 in a single day in Folkestone, to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, after which Britain took in 11,000 refugees, there have been many instances where it has taken in large numbers of refugees in crisis.
In truth, Britain has a tarnished history, but even by these standards the current response to the Afghan catastrophe is hardly “generous”. The idea of setting a fixed quota of refugees in such emergency situations does not make sense. The figure of 5,000 is the one that meets the government’s political needs rather than the needs on the ground in Afghanistan, allowing it to mediate between two conflicting objectives. The first is to respond to a crisis, the second is to stick to the narrative the government has been pushing that Britain faces an invasion of migrants and we need tough measures to keep them out. – 5,000 are probably the product of an attempt to triangulate these opposing goals. However, that makes no more sense than saying to the people of Haiti devastated by the earthquake: “We are going to help 5,000 of you, and only 5,000”.
The argument for a more open refugee policy generally comes up against two types of pushback. The first is the claim that “we cannot let everyone in”. It’s true, but not everyone comes here. Only a tiny proportion of Afghan refugees come to Europe. Over 80% are in Pakistan and Iran – around 2.3 million registered refugees and 2.5 million unregistered refugees. Compare that with Britain: 1,336 Afghan asylum claims last year, of which only 454 were accepted. The “we can’t let everyone in” excuse is simply to deny reality.
The second setback is that the British public will not be in favor of a more open approach. The public, however, appears to be more liberal than government ministers. A survey for the Daily mail suggests that a majority of Britons think the government should do more to help Afghan refugees. According to YouGov, 41% want Britain to admit either “tens of thousands” or “hundreds of thousands” of Afghan refugees. The idea that the hands of government are tied by a reluctant public has little basis in fact.
The real problem is neither that Britain is about to be inundated with Afghan refugees, nor that there is a hostile public. Rather, it is that Britain has a long history of betrayal when it comes to asylum seekers. In 2002, then Home Secretary David Blunkett told Afghan refugees he had “no sympathy” for those who “did not return home to rebuild their country”. It has become British policy to impose this sentiment.
Between 2008 and 2020, Britain repatriated more than 15,000 refugees to Afghanistan, mainly on the grounds that it was a “safe country”. This is far more than any other European country and three times more than what will be allowed this year thanks to Patel’s “tailor-made program”. It was only last Monday that the Interior Ministry changed its ruling that there was no “real risk of harm” to asylum seekers returned to Afghanistan. A businesswoman targeted by the Taliban was told she “faced no real risk of serious harm” if returned to Kabul. Another was deported despite a court ruling prohibiting his deportation.
Even those who put themselves in danger by helping the British forces have been mistreated. A 2018 Parliamentary Defense Select Committee report condemned the government for “woefully failing to give any meaningful assurance of protection” to Afghans working with the military and called on it “to abandon its policy of leaving the former performers and other loyal members dangerously exposed “. And today, many Afghans, like the embassy guards, who have been hired by contractors, are on their own. Britain’s responsibility is not just to those who worked with the British forces. But when he can’t even take on those responsibilities, there’s something rotten in the system.
What has developed over the years is a bunker mentality in the Home Office, in which the starting point is to view asylum seekers – and migrants more broadly – with suspicion and look for ways to reject them. It’s the same mentality that led to such outrageous decisions in the Windrush scandal. This mindset is so ingrained that, even in the face of an immediate crisis, those in charge find it difficult not to be mean.
The bunker mentality is perhaps best expressed in the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill which is currently passing through parliament. This aims to criminalize those who arrive here without proper papers. But as Afghanistan has revealed so well, this is often an impossibility for many people seeking refuge. That the Home Office cannot see this even now shows how deep its blindness is.
Britain’s Afghan refugee program only seems “generous” because of the way “generosity” has been redefined from the Home Office bunker. Beyond the immediate issue of Afghan refugees, we must rethink the entire approach of the Ministry of the Interior vis-à-vis asylum seekers and, more broadly, immigration. And also rethink what the Ministry of the Interior is for.