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UK unveils scheme to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees over coming years

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By Euronews with AFP
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Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021.
Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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Britain is to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees over the coming years, the government has announced.

"We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have worked with us to make Afghanistan a better place over the past 20 years. Many of them, especially women, now urgently need our help," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a Home Office statement.

He said he was "proud that the UK has been able to put in place this route to help them and their families live safely in the UK."

5,000 Afghans will be eligible for the programme during its first year, with priority given to those "threatened by the current crisis", in particular women, girls and religious minorities, Johnson told lawmakers in parliament after it was recalled for a special session.

Johnson said that past the scheme will then be "under review for future years with the potential of accomodating up to 20,000 over the long term."

A similar scheme for relocate 20,000 Syrian refugees ran over seven years, from 2014 to 2021.

It comes on top of the Resettlement Scheme for Afghans who worked with the British embassy or army. According to the Home Office, 2,000 Afghan employees and their families have so far been resettled since June 22.

Johnson also told MPs that the country will double its humanitarian contribution to Afghanistan to £280 million (€328 million).

Overall, he said that the country will commit "half a billion pounds" (€586.6 million) in humanitarian funding.

'Woefully inadequate'

The latest scheme has however already been criticised by lawmakers.

Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party's (SNP) leader in Westminster, branded it "woefully inadequate."

"The UK government shares responsibility for this crisis in Afghanistan. They must now step up and welcome at least 35,000-40,000 refugees to the UK," he wrote on Twitter.

Layla Moran, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Development for the Liberal Democrats, said "20K should be the starting point of this scheme, not the target."

NGOs assisting refugees and asylum seekers in the UK have welcomed the scheme but also called for more.

"The government must also immediately expand eligibility for family reunion to enable family members who have relatives in the UK to travel safely to join their loves ones," the Refugee Council said on Twitter.

"The Home Office must also suspend any returns of people to Afghanistan and quickly decide all asylum claims from Afghans who have arrived in the UK independently, including reviews of those who have previously been refused, as the country is clearly not safe for them right now," it added.

Refugee Action said that although the scheme is "truly life-changing", it "cannot act as a mask to hide this Government's real intentions to effectively end the asylum system through the #AntiRefugeeBill."

"Under the bill, Afghan refugees arriving in the UK through other means would be met with punishment, not protection," it said.

'We must judge Taliban by their actions'

Johnson also told lawmakers that it would be "a mistake" for any country to recognise the new Afghan regime "prematurely or bilaterally".

Instead, countries that care about the future of Afghanistan "should work towards common positions" and consider the conduct of the new regime.

"We will judge this regime based on the choices it makes and by its actions, rather than its words; on its attitude to terror, to crime and narcotics, as well as humanitarian access and the rights of girls to receive an education."

Opposition parties have however criticised Johnson and his government, accusing him of "complacency".

Keir Starmer, leader of the UK opposition Labour Party, said that as the military withdrawal deal was struck between US and the Taliban in February 2020, the government had "18 months to prepare and plan for the consequences of what followed" including the resettlement of refugees and "securing international and regional pressure for the Taliban."

"The lack of planning is unforgivable," Starmer said, saying the government should have used its seat in NATO, the UN's Security Council and the G7 to prepare and build consensus.

"Did the Prime Minister use those platforms in those 18 months to prepare? No, he didn't. What did he do instead? He cut the development budget that was key to the strength and resilience of democracy in Afghanistan," he went on.

He branded last year's cut in the development fund to Afghanistan as "short-sighted, small-minded and a threat to security."