The UK should “immediately” release any Afghans it is holding in immigration detention centres and grant all nationals already in the country leave to remain, a human rights organisation has demanded.
Downing Street has said Boris Johnson will set out a bespoke resettlement scheme for those “most in need” in Afghanistan.
1/ A thread on the UK’s detention and forced removal of Afghans in recent years and what the UK Government must now do.
My organisation @DetentionAction has supported tens of Afghans in detention in recent years. The highly traumatised people we have come across in detention
— Bella Sankey (@BellaSankey) August 17, 2021
Ahead of that announcement, Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, told Sky News that the scheme should be “generous” and “easily accessible” for those “at most risk from the Taliban”, citing journalists, human rights advocates and women as people at particular risk.
Ms Sankey said tens of thousands of Afghans have been removed from the UK and sent back to “dangerous situations” in the country in the last two decades, a move she described as “short-sighted” and “wrong”.
She added that they should be returned if possible, with family reunions prioritised.
According to Home Office figures, there have been 10,341 enforced returns of Afghan nationals since 2004, along with 5,275 voluntary returns and 10,949 people who were refused entry and subsequently departed.
A total of 21,613 asylum applications were made by Afghan nationals between 2008 and 2019, with 9,569 granted asylum or leave to remain in the UK, while 9,946 were either refused or withdrawn.
Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Keeping Afghans in detention centres right now is cruel, unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money.
“The law is clear: people should only be held in detention centres where necessary to remove them from the country.
“Obviously it is not safe to send anyone back to Afghanistan at the moment, so there is no justification for keeping them locked up either.”
The party is calling for the government to resettle at least 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan, while the SNP has called for the UK to take 35,000.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has so far declined to commit to a specific number, saying: “I don’t think a question of numbers at this stage is a helpful discussion.”
He continued: “The first discussion has to be: is there a plan, is there a strategy of safe and legal routes for refugees to come out of Afghanistan, and how quickly can that be put in place?
“That’s the question that I and many people, I think, are going to be putting to the prime minister tomorrow.”
Detention Action is also calling for the government to scrap its Nationality and Borders Bill “in its entirety”.
This legislation, which is working its way through Parliament, will make knowingly arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence.
Ms Sankey described it as an “abhorrent and shocking” bill which “really needs to go”.
She said that under the legislation, “if an Afghan woman decides to get out today with her kids and ends up in the UK and has paid a smuggler, she would not be helped and supported but criminalised and put in a detention centre”.
She added: “That cannot be right.”
Ms Sankey expressed hope that the crisis in Afghanistan can be a “turning point” for opposition to the legislation.
She said opposition parties like Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats are already against the bill, but what needs to change is for Conservative backbench MPs “to realise the implications” of it.
Ms Sankey said she hopes the current crisis will lead to Tories realising “just how problematic the government’s general approach to refugee protection has become”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have been closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and due to the escalations this weekend are urgently updating our information and policies to inform asylum claims.
“We have in the meantime removed our country policy information, and enforced returns have been paused while we consider the situation.”