This essay, on the Afghan crisis and Home Office refugee policy, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 22 August 2021, under the headline “Britain’s offer to Afghan refugees is not ‘generous’. It’s blindly inhumane”.
Boris Johnson and Priti Patel believe that Britain’s “bespoke scheme” for Afghan refugees is “one of the most generous in our country’s history”. That says more about their ignorance of British history than it does about the scheme itself. The government has promised 5,000 refugees to be resettled this year, in addition to the existing ARAP scheme for locally employed staff and 20,000 in the coming years. It is not possible to take in any more, Patel argued.
That’s not what previous governments thought. Between August and November 1972, Ted Heath’s Tory government took in 27,000 Ugandan Asians who had been expelled by Idi Amin. This despite the fierce opposition of 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 so-called Vietnamese “boat people”, fearing “riots on the streets”. Nevertheless, more than 19,000 eventually came to Britain. Even this was tiny compared with other countries. France accepted 95,000, Australia and Canada both 137,000 and the US 822,000. From the First World War, when 250,000 Belgians fled the German invasion, including 16,000 in a single day to Folkestone alone, to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, after which Britain took in 11,000 refugees, there have been many instances of it accommodating large numbers of refugees in a crisis.
In truth, Britain has a tarnished history when it comes to welcoming refugees, but even by those standards the current response to the Afghan catastrophe is hardly “generous”. The idea of setting a fixed quota for refugees in such emergencies is meaningless. The figure of 5,000 is one that meets the government’s political needs rather than the needs on the ground in Afghanistan, allowing it to mediate between two conflicting aims. The first is to be seen responding to a crisis, the second to be keeping to the narrative the government has been pushing, that Britain is facing an invasion of migrants and we need tough measures to keep them out – 5,000 is probably the product of an attempt to triangulate those opposing aims. It is, though, no more meaningful that telling the people of Haiti devastated by the earthquake: “We’ll help 5,000 of you, and only 5,000.”
The argument for a more open refugee policy is usually met with two kinds of pushbacks. The first is the claim that “we can’t let everyone in”. That’s true, but not everyone is coming here. Only a tiny proportion of Afghan refugees come to Europe. More than 80% are in Pakistan and Iran – around 2.3 million registered refugees and another 2.5 million who are unregistered. Compare that with Britain: 1,336 asylum applications from Afghans last year, of which just 454 were accepted. The “we can’t let everyone in” excuse is simply denying reality.
The second pushback is that the British public won’t stand for a more open approach. The public, however, appears more liberal than government ministers. A poll for the Daily Mail suggests that a majority of Britons think the government should be doing 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 government’s hands are tied by a reluctant public has little basis in fact.
The real problem is neither that Britain is about to be overwhelmed 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, the then home secretary, David Blunkett, told Afghan refugees he had “no sympathy” for those who did not “get back home and rebuild their country”. It has become British policy to enforce that sentiment.
Between 2008 and 2020, Britain repatriated more than 15,000 refugees to Afghanistan, largely on the grounds that it was a “safe country”. This is far more than any other European country and three times as many as will be allowed in this year through Patel’s “bespoke scheme”. It was only last Monday that the Home Office 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 did not “face a real risk of suffering serious harm” if she was sent back to Kabul. Another was deported despite a court order stopping his removal.
Even those who have put themselves in danger by aiding British forces have been shabbily treated. A 2018 Parliamentary Defence Select Committee report condemned the government for having “dismally failed to give any meaningful assurance of protection” to Afghans working with the military and called on it to “abandon its policy of leaving former interpreters and other loyal personnel dangerously exposed”. And today, many Afghans, such as embassy guards, who were hired through subcontractors, are being left to fend for themselves. Britain’s responsibility is not just to those who worked with British forces. But when it cannot meet even those responsibilities, there is 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 seek ways of rejecting them. It is the same mentality that has led to such outrageous decisions in the Windrush scandal. So ingrained is that frame of mind that, even faced with an immediate crisis, officials find it hard not to be mean-spirited.
The bunker mentality is perhaps best expressed in the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill now passing through parliament. This seeks to criminalise those who arrive here without proper papers. But as Afghanistan has so graphically revealed, that is often an impossibility for many seeking refuge. That the Home Office cannot see this even now shows how profound is its blindness.
Britain’s Afghan refugee scheme seems “generous” only because of the way “generosity” has been redefined from within the Home Office bunker. Beyond the immediate issue of Afghan refugees, we need a rethinking of the whole Home Office approach to asylum seekers and, more broadly, to immigration. And a rethinking, too, of what the Home Office is for.