Sadly, due to time constraints in Parliament, I wasn’t able to speak during the debate today. But here is what I was planning to say:
The war and intervention in Afghanistan has lasted for as long as I’ve been politically active. Alongside the invasion of Iraq, it has been one of the defining military actions in the so-called “war on terror”. For many my age, opposition to those wars was our political awakening. Our withdrawal marks the end of that episode in British foreign policy.
It was completely unimaginable to me then that I would be in this Chamber discussing this 20-years on.
The Prime Minister said that history is yet to be written. Well, I warn the Government that it will be judged on what comes next – on how they respond to the humanitarian crisis and support refugees now fleeing the country.
The situation in Afghanistan is devastating and even before the withdrawal the statistics were stark.
- 18.4 million people – nearly half the population – require humanitarian aid.
- 30.5 million people – over three quarters of the population – require some form of assistance from the state or NGOs.
- 19.1 million people – again, nearly half the population – live below the poverty line.
- An estimated 4.8 million people who have fled their homes remain internally displaced.
This year, the UK cut 76% of its contribution to the Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan. Bilateral aid to the country has been cut almost in half. And the crisis reserve fund cut from £500m to £30m.
The Prime Minister said this morning that this situation has been “known about for a long time”. If that’s the case, why has he made such deep cuts to aid?
This morning we have heard more aid will be committed but I would like to hear concretely that this is new money, not taken from other projects.
Now that the Taliban have swept through the country, we are already seeing large numbers of refugees fleeing the violence and persecution of the new regime. We need the Prime Minister to step up. The 5,000 figure seems to have been plucked from thin air.
But Ministers should also take stock of their record on extending protections to refugees from Afghanistan before the troop withdrawal. The figures I quoted on poverty, reliance on aid and displacement did not fall out of the sky – they are the product of processes that have been unfolding for decades. That has created its own stream of refugees and asylum seekers.
Shamefully, between 2008 and 2020, the UK deported the largest number of Afghan asylum seekers in Europe, sending over 15,000 people back to Afghanistan. Many of these young people had built their lives here in the UK, coming here as children.
There are many in Afghan civil society who have been protecting and promoting rights, including trade unionists, fighting for the rights of women in workplaces, against corruption and for rights we take for granted. They fear for their lives for their actions.
Women who have taken up public positions will also be fearing for their lives.
And LGBT people will also have concerns for their safety.
We have a duty and an obligation to those who seek asylum and refuge in the UK.
The Government should be leading the effort to address the refugee crisis and create safe and legal routes to the UK for refugees fleeing the country – and it should withdraw its disgraceful anti-refugee bill.
There is no better illustration of the Government’s failure to provide the support it is duty bound to offer than the rejection of asylum applications from Afghan interpreters.
Now the war has ended, Ministers have a duty to the people of Afghanistan – it’s time they reversed their record, took their fare share of refugees, and extended the aid necessary to meet the humanitarian crisis now unravelling in the country.
My thoughts are also with those service people who will be affected by the news at the moment and with the families of those who lost their lives serving in Afghanistan. The Government urgently needs to provide more mental health support for veterans and bereaved families.