It has been a year since the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15th, 2021 and many Afghans remain in grave peril in Afghanistan by virtue of their service alongside the British. This is despite promises by the UK government that they would relocate their Locally Employed Staff (LES) who face an imminent threat. In contrast, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022 and since then, in just under 6 months, the UK has had almost 12 times as many Ukrainian arrivals than Afghan arrivals over the course of a full year. Besides accepting more Ukrainians, the UK government has both dedicated more staff to assist with their arrivals and they have been housed in more satisfactory accommodation than their Afghan counterparts. The reasons for this are many, likely including the factor of relatability, but these may be premised on a colonial, Eurocentric way of thinking that promotes European superiority and thus European lives over non-European lives, despite the fact that Afghan lives remain at risk because of prior, direct British involvement in Afghanistan. This article argues that Afghans are no less deserving of the public’s sympathy, and they should be treated with the same dignity and respect that has been so graciously extended to the Ukrainians and that there is no, and can be no, excuse or justification that validates this existing differential treatment.
More Ukrainian Than Afghan Arrivals
There are three different schemes that the UK government has deployed in relation to Ukrainians. The first is the Ukraine Family Scheme, to which Ukrainians apply if they wish to move to the UK to join their family or to extend their stay. The second is the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, which allows Ukrainians to live with sponsors in the UK who have opted into the Homes for Ukraine Scheme and can provide accommodation for at least 6 months. The third is the Ukraine Extension Scheme, which does not lead to settlement but Ukrainians can switch to this visa if they hold any valid UK visa or one that expired on or after the 1st January 2022. All three routes allow successful applicants to “live, work and study in the UK and access public funds.”
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022 and, as per government data last updated on August 4th, 2022, 107,900 Ukraine Scheme visa-holders have arrived in the UK. As of August 1st, 2022, the same data showed that 32,100 arrivals came via the Ukraine Family Scheme and 75,900 via the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, and the total number of Ukraine Scheme visas that have actually been issued is 171,200, as of August 2nd, 2022. In contrast, the UK’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) was launched in April 2021 to relocate the LES from Afghanistan to the UK, prioritising those under “imminent threat.” But only 9,000 people were relocated between April 2021 and March 2022 and the director of the Azadi charity, Sarah Magill, has suggested there are tens of thousands of eligible Afghans in Afghanistan and across third countries. That means that, in just under 6 months, the UK had almost 12 times as many Ukrainian arrivals through the Ukraine schemes than Afghan arrivals under ARAP over the course of a full year.
Though the UK has committed to taking on up to 20,000 other Afghans “over the coming years” through the additional Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ARCS) from January 6th, 2022, there are tens of, if not hundreds of, thousands of people who applied to be evacuated in the wake of the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Raphael Marshall, who worked on the Foreign Office’s Afghanistan Crisis Response and gave evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s Inquiry in November 2021, estimated that between 75,000 and 150,000 had applied to be evacuated under the UK’s Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) scheme, the eligibility for which is anyone whose life was at risk, including Afghan interpreters. Marshall also estimated that less than 5% of those applicants have “received any assistance,” which amounts to between 3,750 and 7,500 people at most, and that the “vast majority of these applicants feared their lives were at risk as a result of their connection to the UK and the West and were therefore eligible for evacuation,” some of whom “left behind have since been murdered by the Taliban.”
As well as more Ukrainians having successfully been relocated to the UK than Afghans, there are also more staff dealing with Ukrainian visa applications than with ARAP, a reality unveiled by pertinent questions asked by Nusrat Ghani MP to the Secretary of State for the Home Department. As of the 25th July 2022, approximately 450 people were working on schemes relating to the settlement of Ukrainians in the UK. In contrast, as of June 30th, 2022, there were 91 people assigned to ARAP. Therefore, the amount of manpower dedicated to responding to the suffering of Ukrainians is greater than that of Afghans, which displays where the priorities of the UK government lie.
A Two-Tier System
In discussions with Dr Sara de Jong, co-founder of the Sulha Alliance and senior lecturer in politics at the University of York, one of the issues that arose was how Afghans perceive a disparity in the UK’s response their suffering as compared with that of Ukrainians. The Sulha Alliance, a charity which has supported applicants to the UK’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and lobbied for necessary improvements to the policy, along with Afghans support the assistance offered by the UK government to Ukraine, but Dr de Jong said that Afghans do believe that their “own suffering is not always responded to with the same urgency.” Indeed, the Sulha Alliance recently shared a quotation on Twitter on behalf of one former Afghan interpreter, who said:
Boris Johnson should consider seriously relocation of Afghans together with Ukrainians & ignore differences between their situations with no discrimination. Today no one can understand the sorrows of Ukrainian brothers & sisters better than Afghans, because we grew up in war!
So, while there is a great deal of empathy among Afghans towards the Ukrainians, there is a feeling that the UK government is discriminating between Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, in what the Member of Parliament (MP) Nusrat Ghani referred to as a “2-tier system,” and this is certainly exemplified by the priorities of the UK government. More Ukrainians have arrived in the UK than Afghans and more quickly, more staff have been assigned to assist with Ukrainian arrivals than their Afghan counterparts and Afghans have been housed in less satisfactory accommodation than Ukrainians and for longer.
Accommodation and Housing
A UK-based charity has warned about the differential treatment in accommodation, stating that, while Ukrainians have been able to live in the homes of sponsors and have been given refugee status almost immediately, Afghans have been left to live in hotels for months, which has left some feeling insecure and unable to integrate. A report by More in Common and British Future from March 2022, entitled ‘Homes for Afghans,’ lamented how “10,000 Afghan refugees remain stuck in hotels,” where some are trying to raise their families in temporary accommodation, and it costs over “five times the average cost of renting housing for these refugees.” While British sponsors under the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme need only commit to 6 months and can share their house with Ukrainians, the government states that home-owners willing to give housing to Afghans must be “self-contained with no shared facilities” and available for a minimum of 12 months. The latter scheme is less likely to attract homeowners than the former because of the greater restrictions and greater commitment expected.
Dr de Jong has also referred to the level of support offered to Afghans as a “postcode lottery,” based upon whether they are placed in a local authority with a supportive caseworker or not. She mentioned some cases in which Afghans were moved from hotels to permanent housing without notice and others who have not been given the basic necessities, like beds or blankets, for them or their children. Moreover, she remains concerned for those 1,400 Afghans resettled earlier through the Locally Employed Staff Ex-Gratia Scheme launched in 2013, because they do not receive the support from the Warm Welcome Scheme that is exclusively for those relocated later under ARAP. Ultimately, this inadequate approach to accommodating Afghans in hotels until housing is available must be resolved soon, because the Minister for Refugees, Lord Harrington, found that only 100 properties were available in the month of June but they expect around 500 Afghans to arrive each month.
In light of these disparities, experts have recommended that UK policies towards Afghans be brought in line with those for Ukrainians. For example, it was concluded in the ‘Homes for Afghans’ report that the surge of support among the British public should be extended to other groups, especially Afghans, and as an opportunity to revive the Afghan Warm Welcome Scheme. They thus recommended: “Invite those who have volunteered to host a Ukrainian refugee but not matched to join a new Homes for Afghans sponsorship programme” and that a “parallel scheme” to the Homes for Ukraine for Afghans ought to be introduced.
The Sulha Alliance has also made recommendations, published by the British & Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG), including encouraging the establishment of a “family reunion scheme for Afghans who are settled in the UK, on similar terms to the Ukraine Family Scheme, to allow Afghans in the UK (including dual British citizens, those settled in the UK, and those with refugee status and/or humanitarian protection) to bring extended family members over who will be able to live, work and study in the UK and access public funds.”
Reasons for this Discrimination
One is left to wonder why it is that the UK government and the British public have welcomed Ukrainians with greater urgency than Afghans and how this can be justified in shaping such different policies. How the UK relates to Ukraine and Afghanistan and their respective situations must be at the core of the issue. Ukraine is a European country, where Christianity is the most common religion and the population, while multiethnic, is predominantly white, all of which are demographic characteristics that the UK shares. In contrast, Afghanistan is in South Asia with a Muslim-majority, multiethnic but largely non-white population, the largest ethnic group being the Pashtuns. Though it would be a form of discrimination, the UK’s responses to their respective suffering might thus be in part because the country relates more to the people of Ukraine, which is in its more immediate neighbourhood, than Afghanistan.
But the knee-jerk response that many amongst the British public displayed in welcoming and accepting the Ukrainians, albeit a good one, as compared with Afghans is likely a symptom of a more subconscious, or sometimes even conscious, mindset. Indeed, it is difficult to separate the way in which the UK relates to both countries from the colonial, Eurocentric way of thinking that promotes European superiority and thus the greater significance of European lives (i.e. Ukrainians) as compared to non-European lives (i.e. Afghans), not to mention how Islamophobia remains entrenched within former colonial powers, such as the UK. Hence why American and European journalists were so quick to decry the invasion of ‘civilised’ Ukraine, in which ‘blonde-haired, blue-eyed’ people reside, as opposed to the way in which journalists often dehumanise and generalise about non-Europeans as looking ‘more like a refugee,’ perceiving bombings in, by implication ‘uncivilised,’ non-Western countries like Afghanistan or Iraq, as in some way expected or normal. There was even racism and ethnic discrimination experienced by people fleeing Ukraine itself, with white Ukrainians being favoured above black people in terms of access across border crossings and on trains.
While some individuals on social media apathetically respond ‘so what’ to these double standards, discrimination and disparities, Afghan lives remain at risk because of prior, direct British involvement in Afghanistan. As Dr de Jong reminds us, “too many are still left behind,” with applicants to ARAP both in Afghanistan and third countries still awaiting a verdict on their relocation and some awaiting any communication at all. In responding to the announcement on the 27th July 2022 by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that they were “investing in a new system to enable swifter processing and improved communications with applicants” and that their “approach to casework is also changing to identify and process applications from eligible Afghans faster,” Dr de Jong said that, after almost 15 months when ARAP was launched, this “can only be interpreted as an admission” that the “MoD has still not managed to put in place a processing system that is swift, transparent and effective.” She also suggests that delays in decision-making within ARAP also increase “the urgency for the UK government to facilitate routes for (partially) undocumented applicants via Pakistan,” because these delays mean “more passports expire and more children are born for which parents cannot obtain passports.”
In order to avoid further suffering befalling the at-risk groups among the Afghan people, the UK government has a responsibility to expedite existing ARAP applications and treat Afghans equally to Ukrainians across the board, both because of the direct involvement of the British in Afghanistan which has placed many Afghans in this precarious position, but also because it has proved through the relocation of Ukrainians that it is capable of welcoming hundreds of thousands of people and providing them with a better quality of life. Afghans are no less deserving of the public’s sympathy, and they should be treated with the same dignity and respect that has been so graciously extended to the Ukrainians. There is no, and can be no, excuse or justification that validates this existing differential treatment.