Monday 15 August marks a year since the fall of Kabul and subsequent evacuations. Here, our CEO Duncan McAuley reflects on the human cost of conflict
On the anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, it seems fitting to take time and reflect. I won’t pretend to offer an informed opinion on the state of Afghanistan under Taliban rule or the future prospects for freedom of speech and gender equality within a strict religious system such as they practise. But as I remember the desperate scenes at Kabul airport I am reminded of the human cost of war and the individual lives at stake, some of whom have ended up on our shores and even at our door accessing the services we offer to those in the North East.
Moved to tears
Earlier this year I attempted an English Channel crossing to raise awareness of the journeys migrants face when fleeing conflicts and oppressive regimes like those in Afghanistan. As part of my preparation and alongside my training, I spoke directly to people seeking asylum and was moved to tears by the lasting impact their journeys to the UK have had. I also read ‘The Lightless Sky’ the true story of Gulwali Passarlay’s journey to the UK as a 12-year-old Afghan refugee and was struck not only by the horror of his year long journey, but the sheer complexity of the global criminal networks profiting from the proliferation of human misery.
The media focus and attention only on the English Channel and our own borders feels like we’re turning a blind eye to the larger, global problems we’re facing.
In the first three months of 2022, the latest for which there are published figures, 24 per cent of those attempting to cross the Channel to reach safety in the UK were Afghan, they represent the highest number of any nationality recorded. This is set against the context of thousands who were evacuated during August 2021 spending more than six months in ‘holding’ accommodation rather than being resettled into communities and the thousands still in temporary accommodation.
Given that 90 per cent of applications for asylum from Afghans were approved, we are clearly recognising there is a ‘well found fear of being persecuted’, but are we doing enough to welcome them?
I’ve already mentioned the lengthy delays in rehoming those who were evacuated a year ago, but some might argue that the government commitment to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees over the ‘coming years’ is more significant. However, comparing it to the 100,000 Ukrainians who have been welcomed in the last six months, this illustrates the difference in the attitude of the British public as, unlike the Afghan scheme, the number of Ukrainian arrivals is shaped by how many of us – the general public – are willing and able to give up our time, energy, money and ultimately space in our homes for refugees. I wonder what the response would be if we were given the same option to welcome Afghans? Perhaps we’d be welcoming more than 20,000!
What’s more, the commitment to resettle 20,000 Afghans is a fraction of the estimated 2.6 million Afghan refugees, 85 per cent of whom are in India or Pakistan. A telling reminder of the scale of human misery conflict causes and a punctuation mark emphasising the fact that many of the refugees arriving in the UK are fleeing conflict themselves.
In fact, many of the countries topping the list for asylum applications in the UK are subject to ongoing conflicts. On this note and picking up on my earlier thought about our role in the global picture, I was moved to read the comments of one of our fundraisers James Fairman who, having served in the military in the Middle East, said this about his motivation for supporting Action Foundation: “considering the amount of turmoil Britain has caused internationally over the last couple of hundred years, the very least we can do as a country is provide asylum to the needy and persecuted.” (You can read the full blog post by James here.)
Lamenting the global picture may be helpful and cathartic but it also can lead to despondency and disillusionment. As I’ve been reflecting, it’s been important to remind myself of the success stories we’ve been a part of as an organisation. Whether it’s one of our volunteers being granted leave to remain in the UK, a refugee attending our Action Language classes getting a job for the first time or even a tenant in our Lettings project being reunited with his family after years apart, these moments remind me why we do what we do. They are the reasons we come to work and I know for many others it is this tangible difference which makes the voluntary contribution to organisations like ours worthwhile and rewarding.