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A Happy New Year to all our supporters. Your encouragement and help has been so important to us over the past 12 months. Thank you
During 2021, York hosted probably the largest number of refugees it has ever received since the 2nd World War. They were housed in a hotel on the outskirts of the city, never less than 85 at any one time. Over the full year that the hotel was occupied, around 140 refugees passed through the doors and were accommodated there.
The Home Office announced Operation Oak. This pledged that the 8500 refugees in hotels across the UK would be moved to ‘other more suitable accommodation’ by April 30th. As of 1st June – the numbers at the York hotel remained at 85. However, as the end of the month came, with little notice, all the residents were gone, and the hotel re-opened on July 1st for the usual paying guests. Some of those being moved away were deeply disappointed to find themselves in yet another hotel, in a city unknown to them. It proved to be not so much Operation Oak as Operation Twig. Still, it appeared to indicate that the Home Office responded to criticism, and understood that hotels are not the ideal accommodation for refugees for months on end. Perhaps the Home Office was listening and learning.
The Government invited applause for the tremendous work which the RAF and Army did in a very short space of time, in airlifting 15.000 Afghans out of Khabul to the safety of the UK. The military operation deserves praise. However, the picture also emerges of the incompetence of the Foreign Office in their role of evacuating ‘at risk’ Afghans, who had been working for the British Embassy, or for the UK military.
The first group to be evacuated out of Khabul in July 2021 were most of the British Embassy staff who dealt with visa applications. A skeleton staff stayed behind alongside the Ambassador, to deal with the paperwork which was mounting from desperate Afghans. Embassy staff were told to work their usual office hours and a group of soldiers with nil experience of handling applications were drafted in to assist in sorting through the thousands of names. As the final RAF plane left Kabul, there were hundreds of emails unanswered and applications left unread. When the Taliban entered the Embassy, they found these documents, containing details of the applicants. They used the information to track down relatives left behind, and those sheltering from the new masters of Kabul. Many arrests, detainments, beatings, tortures, and summary executions have been carried out by the Taliban since September 2021. These are largely unreported due to the media shutdown.
During the critical month of August, both the Foreign Secretary (Dominic Raab) and the Chief Civil Servant within that Government department went on holiday. It is difficult to imagine what they thought was happening in Afghanistan. The British Embassy was clearly beleaguered, TV news conveyed the chaos at Kabul Airport, and yet the leadership of the Foreign Office appeared to consider it not a humanitarian crisis worthy of their full attention.
16,500 Afghans were now in the UK, under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). They were initially accommodated in hotels, despite local councils and refugee support groups repeating concerns about the long-term suitability of hotels for families and large numbers of children. (See paragraph ‘February 2021’. The concluding sentence is now withdrawn, and replaced with ‘Perhaps the Home Office neither listens nor learns.’)
As of the last day of the year, 12,000 Afghans remain in hotels. They wait to be allocated to housing voluntarily offered by local authorities. The City of York Council made such an offer at the end of September. Though the Afghans have the status of refugees, and therefore have the right to work, their temporary address in a hotel is a bar to employment, and in any case they face being moved at short notice to live in another part of the UK. Many children have started schools in their localities, and they face being uprooted and starting afresh in a new community.
Migrant Yorkshire has given notice that York will be allocated 38 Afghans who may arrive towards the end of January. The precise figure is based on housing availability in the city. We expect these will be family groups, who have been in hotels for nearly five months. York will once again prove it is a place of Sanctuary. They have come to rebuild their lives in a new country, after a disaster, not of their making, which saw them give up their homes, possessions, extended families and friends, status and careers. They fled in order to save their lives. York will be safe and secure, and their home. We will welcome them.
The Home Office promised in September last year that 5,000 Afghans a year (over 4 years) would be able to apply for resettlement in the UK. The scheme is called ACRS. The scheme has yet to open, and when it does, it is announced that referrals must have sponsorship from relief organisations. That will reduce numbers significantly, since many relief groups have now closed their activities down in the face of threats to their staff and have left Afghanistan.
The Home Office states, ’The ACRS programme is one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history. We are working at pace to open the scheme.’ It is astonishing that the statement uses the words ‘generous’ and ‘at pace’. Neither of those words describes any current policy or action by the Government towards refugees and asylum seekers.
We are in danger of forgetting the huge catastrophe which the Taliban takeover poses to Afghanistan. It slips away as’ last year’s story’. 23 million people there now face starvation. The withdrawal of western aid has been a disaster for them. Many will leave their homes and journey to countries which offer hope of life. Some will travel to the UK, by whatever means and by whichever route they can. That is their right under international law.
For 20 years the UK, in partnership with the US and a number of European countries has engaged in an ambitious and costly programme of nation building in Afghanistan. Healthcare, schooling for girls, enabling women to fulfil their potential within the workforce, development of democracy and human rights, freedom of speech in media and journalism, and tackling poverty, were on the agenda, and progress was made. Then, the US decided to leave the project. As part of the exit plan, they struck deals with the Taliban which undermined all that had been done in the previous two decades.
We left in panic and disarray. Those Afghan people who embraced and assisted the nation building project may feel that we owe them a place of refuge from the barbaric Taliban, who in four months have undone 20 years of work. Perhaps history will judge that we abandoned Afghanistan and turned our backs on our allies and supporters there. Perhaps a different judgement will be made if we act with generosity and compassion. Neither of those words currently describes any Government policy towards refugees and asylum seekers.
Events this month
York Holocaust Memorial event- ‘600 Candles’; Wednesday 26th January; 6.30pm
This annual event takes place at York Minster in the Chapter House. Tickets are required, and to be compliant with Covid regulations, numbers are limited. Please visit the York Minster website and go to the events page to book your ticket.
York Holocaust Memorial Day Civic Event; Thursday 27th January; 6.30 – 7.45pm
The event will be online, and includes a keynote speech from the author Lucy Adlington. Her work includes ‘The Dressmakers of Auschwitz’. The International theme is ‘One Day’. It is inspired by the following quotation;
‘I did not think about yesterday. Tomorrow may not happen. It was today, one day, that I coped with, and I got through it as best as I could.’ Iby Knill (Holocaust survivor.)
To order a ticket for the online event, google ‘York Holocaust Memorial Day Civic Event’