Paul Streets: The Afghanistan crisis reminds us of the lack of compassion this government shows to refugees

Charities that remain at the forefront of successive refugee crises continue to work in a hostile environment

The Afghanistan crisis makes for uncomfortable watching, whatever your politics or views on refugees.

But before the current crisis we exercised little compassion for Afghans – even though the Taliban was active and controlled large swathes of the country.

UNHCR data shows Britain accepted just 9,351 Afghan refugees in 2020, compared with Germany, which accepted almost 148,000, and almost 1.5 million refugees arrived in Pakistan.

There is also a stark contrast between the recent outpouring of government and personal largesse we see to support Afghan refugees with that for other refugees.

It’s absolutely right that Afghan refugees are supported: this is a problem we created. But most refugees are responding to a crisis that is just as catastrophic for them: war, persecution at home or natural disaster – whether it’s Afghanistan or Iran, Sudan and Eritrea.

The reasons they need to flee and how difficult it is to leave your home behind just don’t reach our front pages.

The barriers asylum seekers face are both practical and political. They are told they should apply while still in the country they are trying to flee. That they should stay in the first safe country they get to. That they should have the right papers.

But what if you want to apply to the country where you already have family members, as is often the case? Or the one where you at least have some knowledge of the language? What if you have no papers because you left home with nothing, or they were confiscated in an attempt to prevent you leaving?

For many asylum seekers, rather than a warm welcome, you will be subject to a deliberately hostile environment. The UK’s wish to demonstrate deterrence crushes compassion.

In the meantime, charities large and small pick up the pieces, irrespective of how you arrive.

The Red Cross has played an important role, and the RNLI has indicated it doesn’t differentiate when it comes to saving lives.

Small charities, many of which we are privileged to support, are at the forefront of responding to successive refugee crises.

They support refugees on arrival, some of whom come with acute PTSD having witnessed horrific human rights violations, as I heard when I visited Solace in Leeds – a charity that specialises in psychotherapy.

Others provide support to those who have no recourse to public funds, or advocate for their rights, like the Latin American Women’s Rights Service with its #StepUpMigrantWomen campaign.

But we have a government that, whatever its current response to Afghanistan, maintains a hostile environment.

Its Domestic Violence Bill doesn’t protect you if your status is under question – even if you have lived in the UK for years and may have children born in Britain, but arrived on the back of your now-separated spouse’s status.

The Nationality and Borders Bill essentially criminalises refugees who arrive through irregular routes.

Anyone fleeing violence, persecution or war (including those who manage to get out of Afghanistan following the ending of the airlift) could be met with expulsion rather than support.

This is despite the UN Refugee Convention guaranteeing that people have the right to seek asylum no matter how they arrive in a country like the UK.

And once asylum seekers make it to this country, they are denied the right to work and contribute to society and only have access to very limited public funds or medical support.

This government’s attitude to asylum seekers denies us the opportunity to welcome many who could make a significant contribution to our culture and economy.

Our prosperity has been underwritten by waves of refugees fleeing persecution. Notably, the 40,000 to 50,000 Huguenots who also crossed the Channel in boats from France during the reign of Louis XIV between 1660 and 1714.

On arrival they would have constituted one per cent of the British population – equivalent to 660,000 refugees arriving today.

They brought skills as artisans and professionals and enriched our lives and economy, just as the 28,000 Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin did with their business skills 300 years later. The current Home Secretary’s parents were among them.

Wouldn’t it be good if the government’s approach to Afghanistan instigated some wider soul-searching about refugees?

A better understanding of the human tragedy that causes people to leave family, friends and home behind, and of the value they could bring to our rich culture and prosperity – if we put compassion before prejudice.

Paul Streets is chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation

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