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The Unsettling Reality of a ‘Warm Welcome’ for Refugees

Martha Davies explores the complex issue of accepting refugees into the UK in the wake of the crisis in Afghanistan.

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Photo by Christian Lue

Every day, people are forced to flee from conflict and persecution that occurs across the world. Today, such displacement is more of an issue than ever before. COVID-19 has added another terrifying obstacle to the lives of refugees, with lockdowns exacerbating already perilous and impoverished conditions, while the looming threat of climate change means we can expect increasing numbers of people forced to leave their homes to escape dangerous weather conditions such as floods and heatwaves.

The matter of wealthier countries accepting refugees has always been a point of contention for politicians and citizens alike, not to mention the refugees themselves. Due to concurring conflicts in the Middle East, 2015 saw a sharp escalation in the number of people seeking refuge in European countries; consequently, hostility to refugees began to grow significantly, ushering in the so-called migrant crisis.

Compounded by the vitriolic xenophobia of both the Trump and Brexit campaigns, such hostility is becoming a serious issue, as people facing violence and persecution continue to require support from countries ever more hesitant to provide it. The issue crystallised after Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban in August, creating an unprecedented wave of refugees. The UK has pledged to resettle a target number of 20,000 Afghans in the wake of this emergency, but are we doing enough?

The UK’s Resettlement Scheme

On April 1st 2021, the UK launched its Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme, which was designed to resettle Afghans who worked with the UK government. After Afghanistan was seized by the Taliban, however, an additional programme called the Afghan Citizens' Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) was announced. The government has pledged to welcome 20,000 Afghan refugees into the UK, with 5,000 resettled in the first year. Those in particular danger from the Taliban, such as women, children, and minority groups, will be prioritised. 

Dubbed ‘Operation Warm Welcome’, the government’s new plan for integrating the refugees will be overseen by Victoria Atkins, the new Minister for Afghan Resettlement. The plan will support refugees in matters of education, housing, healthcare and employment, and it involves a £5m boost for local authorities in order to assist with finding and renting properties. 

Previous Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has stated that almost all those in Afghanistan who hold single UK nationality and required documentation have returned to the UK, but exact numbers are difficult to estimate, and it is unclear how many dual-nationality Britons are still stranded in Afghanistan. It has been reported that many Afghans who worked as contractors on UK aid projects were not granted resettlement by the government or simply did not receive a response after sending off their applications.

In fact, criticism has arisen over the government’s creation of the resettlement schemes in favour of traditional routes of asylum, which are better equipped to accept people entering the country unexpectedly. With such formal methods of resettlement, many Afghans are unable to seek asylum in the UK, while others who have already made the journey have had their applications put on hold.

A Rocky Start to Resettlement?

A serious issue affecting the UK’s intake and integration of Afghan refugees is Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which has been put forward as part of the government’s new approach to immigration. The stated aims of the bill are to deter illegal entry to the UK and remove those with no right to live here, ultimately reforming the ‘broken’ asylum system and theoretically making it fairer.

However, multiple aspects of the bill are extremely alarming; crucially, people entering the UK via illegal routes, such as crossing the Channel in small boats, could have their asylum claims rejected and receive a jail sentence of up to four years. This could create a situation in which Afghans forced to undertake illegal journeys to escape the Taliban will be treated as criminals simply for attempting to seek refuge in the UK. 

The Bill also sets out the aim to divert boats carrying illegal migrants in an effort to prevent them from entering the UK, and it has been revealed that Border Force officials have been trained in turning back vessels in the Channel, sending them back into French waters. This tactic is reportedly only allowed with the permission of the Home Secretary herself, but it remains deeply troubling.

French politicians have expressed extreme concern, saying that the tactics breach maritime law, which states that anyone at risk of losing their lives at sea must be rescued. With such fervent attempts at driving migrants away from British shores, the government’s promised ‘warm welcome’ seems almost ironic - nothing more than a hollow promise. But accepting refugees is not simply the duty of more developed countries like the UK, it also boasts huge cultural and economic advantages.

How Refugees Can Help Us

Taking in refugees may feel like an immense challenge, but many countries have created extremely successful resettlement and integration schemes, and reaped the rewards. Germany is perhaps the most prominent example: as huge numbers of people fled terrorism and war in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in 2015, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the country would take in an unlimited number of refugees. Although such a brave decision was met with apprehension, policymakers worked to overhaul the asylum processing system and streamline its procedures. Infrastructure, housing and integration courses were also improved in order to aid resettlement. 

Such improvements, it seems, would be hugely advantageous for the UK, which is already concerned about taking in a fraction of the number of refugees now successfully settled in Germany: over a million currently reside in Germany, and over half are employed in stable jobs. Refugees have helped to boost the country’s aging labour market; in general, they are a vital addition to the national workforce, and an overwhelming number are highly skilled even if they have received no formal education. Combined with the cultural enrichment provided by refugees, such advantages cannot be overlooked.

We must do what we can, then, to foster an environment of both tolerance and generosity as Afghans start their new lives in the UK. Fighting back against nationalism and xenophobia is vital if we are to help those simply taking up their right to seek asylum and pursue a better life.


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