David Burrowes was MP for Enfield Southgate 2005-2017, and now serves as adviser to Fiona Bruce MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief,
Six years ago almost to the day, I like many saw the horrific image of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless young body washed up on a Turkish beach. It was projected across global news channels as a visible tragic example of Syrian refugees risking their lives for sanctuary in Europe.
Today we have the no less tragic images of Afghans seeking refuge. Have we learned the lessons of 2015?
My immediate response to the death of Kurdi and his family was just to tweet that we need to show compassion to child refugees and provide more places in UK. I then woke up to the Today news headlines that a Tory MP had called for more refugee places for Syrian refugees! After a few gulps of coffee, and seeing lots of missed calls and messages, I realised that it was my tweet which had generated the headlines.
A media wave grew which I decided to surf during the day, calling on David Cameron to increase the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement scheme from 200 to thousands. Despite Home Office reluctance, Number Ten captured the public mood for compassion and agreed to extend the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme to 20,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees.
Back in 2015, there were very few Conservatives publicly calling for more support for refugees. I recall Tom Tugendhat and Jonny Mercer amongst only a handful of Conservative MPs joining me in being vocal. Fast forward to 2021 and they are joined by numerous Conservatives recognising the urgent plight of Afghans and the moral duty on the UK to provide refuge and resettlement. The Government has commendably not needed cajoling to set up the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) for around 20,000 vulnerable people, especially women and girls and religious minorities.
Some may see the Government’s pledge to increase support for refugees as inconsistent with a tough New Immigration Plan. However it is in line with Chapter 2 which sets out:
“We will also ensure our resettlement offer encompasses persecuted refugees from a broader range of minority groups (including, for example, Christians in some parts of the world). We know that across the globe there are minority groups that are systematically persecuted for their gender, religion or belief and we want to ensure our resettlement offer properly reflects these groups. We will strengthen our engagement with global charities and international partners to ensure that minority groups facing persecution are able to be referred so their case can be considered for resettlement in the UK more easily.”
The Government now has the challenge and opportunity to make good on its plan to provide refuge for the persecuted, as well as its manifesto commitment to implement the Truro Review, and ensure the Afghan resettlement encompasses those at risk including religious minorities. There are hundreds of Hazaras, Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus today desperately seeking safe passage who are looking to Britain for help.
Earlier this year the UK delivered on its pledge to provide refuge for over 20,000 Syrian refugees. However there were significant flaws in the Syrian scheme because the very groups which were most at risk – Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a (all three groups the US State department officially stated were facing “genocide”) were very under-represented in UNHCR referrals to the UK. Whilst other countries, for example with stronger family links, took more religious minorities, the UNHCR’s vulnerability criteria for resettlement does not explicitly refer to people’s religion (even when being targeted because of their faith). In 2021 the ACRS and the UNHCR must not be blind to religion being the reason for persecution and need for resettlement.
Aside from the huge issue of getting refugees out of Afghanistan, the big challenge is to provide integrated support for Afghan refugees already here and those to come. Hotel or hostel accommodation literally does not fit large Afghan families. In 2015, the Government wisely appointed a Minister for Syrian Refugees. Richard Harrington did a fine job in co-ordinating across government and bringing local government together with faith groups, charities and businesses.
Today, we need a similar co-ordinated approach. A Minister for Afghan Refugees should be appointed. I would suggest an MP like David Simmonds, who has been active in refugee and immigration issues since being in the House, drawing on his extensive local government experience. He knows the challenges facing Councils having headed up the LGA brief for Children and Families in 2015.
My alternative would be Baroness Stroud, who has also been vocal on the plight of refugees and has a wealth of experience with the CSJ and Legatum, utilising the forces of civil society and business for good.
Finally, we all need to learn lessons from 2015. How welcoming have we been to refugees settled in the UK? A couple of weeks ago I was visiting an Iranian friend and refugee in a house in the Wirral. His neighbours are hostile and have made it clear they don’t want him and his Iranian and Afghan fiends living next door. My friend who is struggling with trauma related mental illness questioned the value of his life and whether he should go back to Iran and face execution. In 2021 we must be more hospitable and follow the lead of charities like Welcome Churches with their Hospitality Pledge.
As we now and in the coming months respond to the crisis in Afghanistan internationally, nationally, and in our neighbourhoods let’s learn the lessons of 2015.