Refugee crisis: “I fled Afghanistan with nothing and made a life in the UK – now the government says I’m a criminal”

“I fled Afghanistan with nothing and made a life in the UK – now the government wants to criminalise people like me”

Protests are being staged against the government’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill that would criminalise asylum seekers forced to enter the country through “irregular routes”.

Leading activist groups have warned that Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban before rebuilding their lives in the UK could have been turned away under the government’s proposed new plans.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, which is sponsored by Home Secretary Priti Patel and entered committee stage in Parliament last week, would create a two-tier asylum system where those forced to take irregular routes while seeking safety could be refused help, or even criminalised. 

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Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of Safe Passage International, said: “It’s unacceptable that this Government plans to punish Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban who arrive in Britain seeking our protection.

“Since the end of the evacuations, Afghans are forced to make a dangerous journey to flee their country, and like most refugees, many will have no option to reach the UK other than the back of a lorry or on a dinghy across the Channel. Instead of pushing ahead with their cruel plans to punish refugees, we urge the Government to offer welcome and open safe routes for refugees.”

The government’s own advice on the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, which is yet to open, states that “Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, it will become a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK illegally without permission to be here”.  

Bahar, whose family were killed by the Taliban, fled the country in 1996 and spent several years trying to find safety. She arrived in the UK in 2000 while heavily pregnant, in the back of a lorry.

After being granted asylum, Bahar settled in Leeds, where she learned English and tried to recover from the trauma she had experienced as a child. She set up the Bahar Women’s Association to support her fellow refugees, and works tirelessly to improve the lives of Afghan women in the UK.

However, she remains fearful for her sister, who served as an Afghan policewoman, and is now in hiding from the Taliban. She was in the process of applying for a visa to escape when Kabul fell, and no longer has access to any travel documents, even if the airport was to reopen. Bahar is desperate to find a safe route to help her remaining family escape the country. 

Bahar, who is identified by her first name only for security reasons, said: “I came here as an asylum seeker behind a lorry. I was eight months’ pregnant at the time – many others who took the same journey died along the way. I was a child when I left Afghanistan, and I came here as a mother and a wife.

“Right now, my sister in Afghanistan is hiding and we can’t talk. She has no passport because her papers were at the embassy and then everything happened. All she’s left with is her national ID card.

“Many, many families wanted to escape before the Taliban came to Kabul – everyone was applying for visas to go to India, Pakistan, or Iran. All of a sudden, the Taliban arrived and nobody had a chance to get their documentation. They couldn’t even go to the bank.”

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“Someone who worked with the UK might have been flown out legally, but their brother, who worked for the Afghan government, and whose life might also be in danger, could be treated as ‘illegal’ under this new law. Every workplace needs to have a policy on diversity and equality, and a policy on health and safety, but what about human rights? What’s the point of having these policies if they don’t follow it when it comes to asylum seekers?

“Afghans deserve better – it’s not their fault they have to claim asylum. The UK government started everything, along with the US, and now they need to support us.” 

Bahar left Afghanistan as a child after her family were killed and came to the UK in 2000
Bahar left Afghanistan as a child after her family were killed and came to the UK in 2000

Currently, over 38,000 people have signed the petition to stop the anti-refugee bill and “refugees welcome” protests have been staged outside parliament and across the UK over the past weeks. 

Mariam Kemple Hardy, Head of Campaigns at Refugee Action, said: “Priti Patel’s extreme anti-refugee bill means Afghan families forced to flee Taliban terror will be criminalised or abandoned by the Government simply because of how they arrived here. Ministers must tear up this cruel, unworkable and unlawful bill and create a refugee protection system that is just and compassionate and designed to keep people safe, not keep people out.”

Alphonsine Kabagabo, director of Women for Refugee Women, added: “When your life is threatened and you have to quickly uproot, you rarely have a choice about how you travel. It is the same for the women who I work with now, who have survived rape, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, domestic abuse, trafficking and other extreme violence. Women fleeing gender-based violence are sometimes forced to escape through informal routes, but they will be punished for that under the Nationality and Borders Bill. This Government is shutting the door on them too.”

“Instead of this Bill that will actively harm women, I want to see provisions for an asylum process that enables women to be heard, protected and to rebuild their lives with dignity.”

Bahar* is identified by her first name only for security reasons.

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Images: Getty/Bahar