Refugees fleeing Taliban face being locked up and sent back – charity boss

Refugees escaping the Taliban face being criminalised, locked up and sent back to Afghanistan, according to the head of a charity who fled the country himself.

Sabir Zazai, CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council, left Afghanistan in 1999, arriving in the UK in the back of a lorry.

He said refugees who come to the UK via similar “irregular routes” – such as crossing the Channel – should not be criminalised or locked up and must not face the threat of being sent back to the war-torn country.

He called on the UK Government to make a commitment not to return refugees and to take more people hoping to settle in the UK.

soldiers in a plane
16 Air Assault Brigade arrive in Kabul as part of a 600-strong UK force (Leading Hand Ben Shread/MoD/Crown Copyright/PA)

The UK Government has announced plans to resettle 20,000 vulnerable Afghans – particularly women and girls – with 5,000 arriving in the first 12 months.

But Mr Zazai said the scheme should not disadvantage those who “arrive at our shores” who risk being criminalised for fleeing the Taliban.

“Maybe a woman with a child arrives through the resettlement programme and they get all the right support and everything … but if that same woman arrived with a child from Afghanistan in Dover we don’t want her to end up with a criminal record or to end up in detention or prison,” he said.

He added: “Fast forward a few weeks or months and certainly next year many attempting dangerous sea crossing will be Afghans because over three million people are internally displaced and this will include unaccompanied children and families.”

He said the crisis in the country will get worse as “people don’t cross international borders as soon as the crisis hits” while life in a refugee camp is “not sustainable”.

“It’s already a dreadful humanitarian crisis but I think there is one on the verge, a worse one,” he said.

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Mr Zazai said local support was crucial to his own settlement in the UK.

“I arrived in the UK in the back of a lorry in December 1999 in Dover and the local communities in the UK invested in me, in my integration, which I’m extremely grateful for,” he said.

“And if it wasn’t for the community integration and that community dispersal and that local community support I wouldn’t have been able to make the contribution that I made today and I wouldn’t have been able to integrate to society or learn the language.

“Sadly the new (Nationality and Borders Bill) talks about putting people away or locking them away from communities and I think that’s another huge concern because integration happens within communities, it doesn’t happen in barracks, in detention centres or in remote islands.”

He said he was deeply concerned that the Bill is “talking about locking people away from communities and criminalising people” who are fleeing persecution.

Mr Zazai said that every year the UK has sent people back to Afghanistan who fled the country.

He said the way the new immigration Bill is structured “people will have no choice but to then be deported back to where they come from”.

“So if they arrived through the irregular routes then they could end up being deported back either to their country of origin or a third country,” he added.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We have been closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and due to the escalations this weekend are urgently updating our information and policies to inform asylum claims.

“This will be updated as soon as possible and we have in the meantime removed our country policy information, and enforced returns have been paused while we consider the situation.”