More on Afghan refugees here.
The Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan threatens the rights and lives of millions. The most immediate duty for the left and the workers’ movement in Britain is to fight to force open the borders for every refugee who wants to come here.
By the time we go to press, the US, UK and allies will have pulled out of Kabul airport. Their shoddy operation has left behind even many of the Afghans they had promised to help, after their work with Western militaries or embassies put them at risk.
Not only those workers, but millions more will face violence and curtailed rights under the Taliban’s misogynistic, sectarian, LGBT-phobic and theocratic regime. We have a duty to champion their cause, and fight for them not to be quietly abandoned and forgotten. Doubly so after the wretched episodes of late August, in which political and logistical attention were diverted away from human lives in favour of 200 cats and dogs.
It is outrageous that the UK government’s longer-term plan is to welcome only 20,000 Afghan refugees, including just 5,000 this year. Against this miserly “offer”, activists must push the Labour Party and our trade unions to speak up and organise around the demand to open the door for every person who wants to escape here, without caps and without a limited focus on just those who worked with British forces.
The government’s targets pale in comparison to historical examples. In 1972, Britain accepted 27,000 Ugandan Asians in just four months, after Idi Amin drove them out. From 1933 to the outbreak of World War Two, Britain admitted 70,000 Jewish refugees.
Though even that was mean-spirited: behind those 70,000 Jewish refugees were hundreds of thousands more who wanted to come to Britain but were locked out and left in the Nazis’ hands. The vaunted Kindertransport only arose because Britain’s antisemitic government could not be persuaded to relax its restrictions against Jewish adults.
And from 2008 to 2020, the UK deported more than 15,000 people to Afghanistan – more than any other European state. Though homosexuality remained illegal under the Western-backed government, in 2017 the UK government issued guidance that gay men could be deported to Afghanistan, claiming they would be safe if they moved to Kabul and stayed in the closet.
Even as the Taliban swept across the country, the UK Home Office continued to insist that refugees could be refused and sent safely to Kabul.
The refugee emergency concerns not only the 123,000 people evacuated by the US and its western allies from Kabul airport. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reckons on around 500,000 fleeing over land borders in the next four months.
Many of those will be unable to settle securely in the countries neighbouring Afghanistan. The labour movement must call for them to be given refuge in Britain and other richer countries, not fobbed off with the claim that they are now in “safe” countries.
Pakistan has been building a fence on its long border with Afghanistan since 2017, and says it is now “almost complete”. Pakistan says it will admit only people with proof of residence in Pakistan or urgent medical needs. But the Guardian reports that 20,000 a day are crossing the border.
Iran also has millions of Afghan migrants there already, but on 18 August, after the Taliban took Kabul, it “ordered border guards to turn away refugees trying to cross the border”.
Over the decades, fewer Afghans have fled north, since they suffer a worse reception there than in Iran and Pakistan. According to UNHCR official Caroline Van Buren (26 August), “the borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are closed for the movement of people”.
Uzbekistan has said that “more than a thousand” refugees have been let in since the fall of Kabul, but on 30 August declared that it would “not accept Afghan refugees on its territory”. Tajikistan said in late July it was ready to shelter up to 100,000 refugees – but has offered no further comments after the fall of Kabul.
Once escaped from Afghanistan, and hoping to get further, Afghans face further obstacles. The Turkish government, which already has maybe four million Syrian refugees blocked from further flight into the EU, says that “it is out of the question for us to take an additional refugee burden”. It started a wall on the border with Iran in 2017, and now plans to extend it and cover the rest of the border with ditches, wire and security patrols.
Greece has completed a fence on its border with Turkey.
Migrants’ rights organisations have raised calls for emergency measures as an immediate response. We need to mobilise the labour movement to the front lines of the battle to win those measures, including:
• Immediately regularise the status of all Afghans already in the UK: grant all outstanding asylum applications (the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants says that “in the year to March 2021, over 3,000 Afghan nationals had asylum claims pending in the UK, over two thirds of whom have been waiting longer than six months”); reverse all rejected asylum claims; grant permanent status to undocumented migrants; cancel all deportations and removals (whether to Afghanistan or to third countries); release all those currently in immigration detention.
• Ensure fresh claims from Afghan asylum seekers are swiftly approved, and in the meantime guarantee no Afghans will be evicted from asylum accommodation or denied asylum support.
• Expand the family reunion route, so that Afghans already here can quickly and easily bring the rest of their family to join them, including parents and siblings.
• Dramatically expand the insultingly inadequate plans that the UK government has announced for resettling Afghan refugees – so far, they have only planned to resettle a minuscule 5,000 this year.
• Internationally-coordinated emergency resettlement schemes. Pledge to accept asylum claims from Afghans who make it to neighbouring countries, and abandon policies that attempt to limit refugees to the first country they reach on escaping.
More broadly, such measures are the least we could demand for all refugees, not just those from Afghanistan.
But, as the same campaigners have also pointed out, official resettlement schemes are not enough.
No ‘sitting and waiting’
The official evacuation via Kabul airport is over. For many Afghans in different situations and different parts of the country, that route was never feasible in any case. It would be inhuman to tell them, as the Home Secretary Priti Patel has done, to sit and wait for her to announce official resettlement schemes.
Like refugees throughout history, those who choose to flee will understandably do so by any means necessary. Because our governments restrict safe routes and place harsh obstacles in their way, this often means undertaking dangerous sea crossings, dodging violent border guards, placing themselves at the mercy of smugglers, and other desperate actions.
Patel’s instruction is part of the Conservatives’ broad drive against refugees arriving by irregular routes. The Nationality and Borders Bill that they are currently pushing through parliament is an extreme assault on their rights. If it passes, only those arriving through the extremely limited “official” resettlement routes will be allowed permanent residence and the stability to rebuild their lives.
The two-tier system will penalise refugees who had no choice but to flee by irregular routes. They may be imprisoned in offshore camps for processing. The government may seek to deport them to third countries, and at best, they may get limited and temporary status. They will have reduced rights, and even those rights will be subject to repeated review, so that the possibility of refusal and deportation hangs over them for life.
The crisis in Afghanistan therefore demands that we seek not just emergency measures, but also redouble the campaign against the Borders Bill. And ultimately that we fight for a welcome and support for every person fleeing persecution, violence, destruction, and destitution.
We stand for open borders and solidarity, against the inhumanity, racism and division of capitalism’s bordered world.