In a packed church hall in my constituency, I recently held a meeting for Lewisham’s Afghan residents following the Taliban takeover of their country.
Four times as many people turned up as had booked slots, a telling sign of the despair currently gripping the Afghan diaspora.
The stories I heard were devastating: loved ones desperate to flee due to their sex, religious beliefs, or links to foreign governments, often with family members having already been killed by the Taliban.
One constituent told me of her eight cousins, most of them minors, who have been left abandoned after their mother, father, and grandmother were murdered by the Taliban.
Such a dramatic and fast-moving situation was always going to be difficult to handle.
But with the US announcing their withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 2020, it is clear that much of this Government’s response could have been done differently, and better.
And while various ministers have vaunted their handling of the crisis, for my constituents and staff working on the issue, the reality has been more about unanswered emails and long phone calls to unresponsive Government lines.
Over the past month, me and my team have worked long hours, sacrificing evenings and weekends in order to process all the cases we have received.
The response has been near-total silence: to the many hundreds of emails I have sent to various Government departments, I have received only a half dozen replies.
All were template rejections, and none with my constituents’ names attached.
To make matters worse, three Lewisham East residents with British National status are still stuck in Afghanistan, having been unable to leave with their families before the completion of the UK withdrawal.
With no clear Government advice on crossing into third countries like Pakistan, my constituents have been left in limbo.
A lack of clarity has characterised much of the Government’s response, as demonstrated by the shifting parameters of the ARAP scheme for Afghans employed by the UK Government, as well as the question of whether MPs can expect replies to their enquiries.
The Government’s handling of the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme – which is still not yet open – has also been found wanting. While I welcome their commitment to accept 20,000 refugees over the coming years, that number is clearly woefully inadequate to the scale of the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan.
Only 5000 refugees are scheduled to arrive in the first year of the resettlement scheme – roughly seven per Parliamentary constituency.
We can, and must, do more.
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