Britain commits to taking 20,000 Afghan refugees, but what will happen to the people left behind?

Written by Amy Beecham

The UK has agreed to take 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country amid growing fears for the rights and safety of women and children.

Crowds pushing and shoving their way on board a packed plane; people clinging to the sides of aircraft attempting to take off; miles of traffic as people try to leave – videos circulating on social media have painted a disturbing picture of the chaotic scenes at Afghanistan’s Kabul airport, and across the country, as thousands of people attempt to flee following the Taliban’s seizure of the capital on 15 August.   

As more evacuees arrive from Kabul, the UK has agreed a new plan to offer 20,000 Afghan refugees a route to set up home in the coming years, but what will happen to those left behind?

The latest news from Afghanistan as the Taliban take control of the country

Afghanistan is once again under the control of the Taliban, a fundamentalist group that ruled the nation for five years before US-led forces ousted them in 2001.

Back in July, US President Joe Biden had called a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan “highly unlikely” after agreeing the withdrawal of all US military forces from the country by 31 August 2021.

However, by 15 August, the Taliban had reversed 20 years of history in Afghanistan, moving into the capital city Kabul following the collapse of the Afghan government and a days-long advance by the militant group.

What’s happening in Afghanistan right now? 

Amid the uncertainty, Afghan citizens, as well as displaced troops and civilians have been attempting to flee the rule, with Al Jazeera reporting on a single flight from Kabul that held over 640 passengers, an image that has now gone viral.

Alongside this, distressing images have emerged from Kabul airport, where witnesses say several people have died, and show people clinging to the landing gear of taxiing planes in desperate attempts to flee.

As the Guardian reports, more than 172,000 lives have been lost in the two decades of war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. As such, their return to power is raising political and human rights concerns, particularly for women and girls, across the world, and sparking fears of a refugee crisis.

According to Reuters, more than 2,200 diplomats and other civilians have so far been evacuated from Afghanistan on military flights. 

People across the world are participating in demostrations demanding safe evacuation for people out of Afghanistan.

As such, the UN has called for countries to halt deportations of Afghan nationals, including asylum seekers, who have had their claims rejected, citing the country’s rapid security and human rights deterioration. 

The UK has also confirmed a new plan to offer 20,000 Afghan refugees a route to set up home in the coming years. But despite criticism that this number is “not enough”, Home Secretary Priti Patel told Sky News that it is “important” that the scheme “delivers” but that the UK “cannot accommodate 20,000 people in one go”.

Instead, the UK government is “prioritising women and girls and vulnerable people first”, who are most at risk of human rights abuses and maltreatment by the Taliban, she added.

US Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted: “We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago. Now, our mission is to get our people, our allies, and vulnerable Afghans to safety outside of the country.”

President Joe Biden also defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, saying, “I stand squarely behind my decision.After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”

But despite claiming the White House was “clear-eyed about the risks”, President Biden admitted that it did “unfold more quickly” than they had anticipated. “So what’s happened?Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country.The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight,” he continued.

The speech was met with a wave of criticism, with the Wall Street Journal describing it as “one of the most shameful in history by a commander-in-chief”.

How will Taliban rule impact women?

The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, guided by a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law, violence, coercive control and terror reigned. As the Washington Post reports: “Men were forced to grow beards. Women were forced to wear burqas, flowing garments that cover the entire face and body. Schools for girls were shuttered. Women who were unaccompanied in public places could be beaten. Soccer was banned. So was music, aside from religious chants. The Taliban government held public executions in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium.”

However, Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman, has promised that things will be different this time around. Speaking in the first press conference since they gained control, Mujahid said that “there will be no discrimination against women.” 

Members of the Los Angeles Afghan community light candles as they hold a vigil for Afghanistan

“We are going to allow women to work and study. We have got frameworks, of course. Women are going to be very active in the society but within the framework of Islam,” he commented, adding that “there will be a difference when it comes to the actions we are going to take” compared with 20 years ago.

However, leading figures and humanitarian organisations widely dispute this and pictures have already been circulating of workers covering up images of women not wearing the burqa outside beauty salons in Kabul. 

“With each and every day, the flaring conflict in Afghanistan is taking a greater toll on the country’s women and children,” commented Unicef in a press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. “UNICEF is calling for immediate and unhindered access to the hard to reach areas, so we can deliver much-needed support to the Afghan population, especially those paying the heaviest price – women and children.”

“Continuing this work, and our support to the women and children of Afghanistan, is as important as ever. Violations must end, hard-won girls’ rights, including access to education, must be protected, and humanitarian support provided to the millions of children who need it.”

Women’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai wrote on Twitter: “We watch in complete shock as the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates. Global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.”

Women for Refugee Women also released a social media statement in solidarity with Afghan women. “As the Taliban retake power, we urge the UK government to do all it can to ensure that women and girls are protected, above all by offering safe passage and asylum to women who need to leave Afghanistan for safety,” they wrote. 

“The government should now abandon its plans for the harmful Nationality and Borders Bill and ensure that those who have to cross borders for safety are protected, not punished.”

How to help Afghan refugees   

UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I expect that we will increase our aid budget for development and humanitarian purposes.”

“We want to try and make sure it won’t go through the Taliban, but make sure that we can alleviate the humanitarian suffering,” he added.

Unicef has also announced an appeal to help protect children in Afghanistan, and the largest women’s group in Afghanistan, Women for Afghan Women, has launched an emergency campaign and says it’s monitoring the situation on the ground. 

Afghan Aid is responding with emergency assistance where needed and supporting families who have lost their homes and livelihoods as a result of the conflict. 

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has also launched a campaign to provide lifesaving aid, provide emergency cash assistance and protection services for internally displaced people in Kabul.

Images: Getty

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