Afghan refugees: can I make a difference?

Guest blog by James Thellusson

My daughter suggested Unicef. My son was for donating to Care4Calais, a refugee charity he has volunteered for.

‘At least, we know they make a difference,’ he said.

It was Thursday morning, the day after the BBC Question Time Special on Afghanistan. The programme had made us feel ashamed and angry at what was happening there. Like thousands across the country, we were asking ourselves: what we can we do to help?

There was no shortage of options to do something. There were several appeals already up and running from charities and international agencies to help Afghans trying to evacuate from this dangerous and chaotic situation. Charities were fast to launch campaigns. A cynic might say they were more fleet of foot than the government.

But I was hesitant to jump in and respond to the first charity appeal I saw. Sure, it would be a perfectly reasonable way of quickly translating empathy into action. But would it be the best thing to do?

‘Hasn’t an Instagrammer in the US just raised $4m but been exposed as having no experience in helping evacuees?’ said my daughter.

‘That’s exactly what I’m worried about,’ I said. ‘There are lists on Twitter a mile long of organisations to support. But how do we know they’re any good?’

I called an old friend Richard Williams, who worked in Brussels for the European Council for Refugees & Exiles and is now a consultant in the asylum field. I wanted to get his view on what to do.

‘There are lots of organisations doing great work but in different areas. So, there’s no right or wrong decision,’ he said. ‘You just have to decide what is important to you. For example, do you want to help people who are heading here or those who remain in Afghanistan?’

It hadn’t occurred to me there was anything I could do to help those who remain in the country. But there is. The International Red Cross have 1800 staff there who are staying in Afghanistan to support the Afghan Red Crescent running local aid, hospital and other humanitarian projects. The UNHCR in Iran and Pakistan is helping Afghans to flee into these countries. Maybe supporting them would help mitigate the mess we are leaving behind?

Images above: Afghan refugees in Pakistan

Helping refugees within the UK

‘What about helping those in the UK?’

A lack of decent housing is one of the biggest problems which Afghans coming here will face. The Refugee Council has reported on several cases of poor housing and the mistreatment of asylum seekers by landlords and hoteliers.

‘Many asylum seekers will find themselves put up in disgraceful conditions. Cramped, damp and unhealthy accommodation where most people wouldn’t keep their dogs.’

Which is why charities like Refugees At Home who find people homes or rooms in decent homes, are worth supporting, and West London Welcome, which supplements the pitiful help newly arrrived refugees receive from the state.

READ MORE: About Refugees At Home

But according to Richard there’s an underlying problem, which this new crisis will expose. If we want to look.

‘There’s a lack of quality housing, especially in London and the South East. On top of that the Housing Allowance is not enough to allow people to live in decent accommodation, though this isn’t a problem just for migrants. It’s a problem for thousands of ordinary British folk: single parents, the homeless, the poor.’

I asked Richard who else he would recommend locally. He knows the Afghan and Central Asian Association (ACAA), which is based in Feltham.

‘Organisations like them will be critical in helping Afghans settle and integrate,’ he said.

I spoke to Dr Nasimi, founder of the Afghan and Central Asian Association. Although they are based in Feltham, their work reaches beyond the boundaries of Hounslow. His organisation is keen for help. Lots of it.

‘The situation in Afghanistan is shocking. But people shouldn’t feel paralysed by the scale of the situation. We need your help now to help the Afghan people. There are lots of ways you can help – donating money, time or other resources like clothes. You can make a big difference to helping Afghans settle and integrate in this wonderful country.’

His biggest worry is resource.

‘Our biggest challenge right now is staff. We are inundated with calls from the Afghan community and from people wishing to help. But I need ten people right now to manage the demand we are facing. Volunteers with experience in administration, fund raising, immigration issues and advocacy are especially welcome.’

Image above: Afghan refugees

I wondered what the local authority were doing about the crisis. Hounslow Council lists a set of charities with experience of helping refugees and asylum seekers on its website. There are useful contacts there if you want to follow Hounslow’s guide.

Ealing Council has a central contact point. Several charities said to me it is really helpful if you don’t just send them stuff willy-nilly. Contact them first to make sure they need what you have. They don’t want to put people off donating but neither do they want to be swamped with material which they don’t need.

The Conservative Group on Hounslow Council have welcomed the government’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme which was announced on August 18th. It has urged Hounslow Council to do their bit in supporting the government with this programme. Their housing spokesperson rightly highlighted housing as a key need to be addressed. However, at the time of writing, the Government had not yet published any details about the resettlement scheme, its size and how it would work.

The Refugee Council recognises this as an important first step, but emphasizes that that is all it is:

‘It’s important to recognise, however, that a new scheme alone is not sufficient because there will be many Afghans who are already having to take dangerous journeys to reach safety in the UK so this government must also immediately expand eligibility for family reunion enabling family members who have relatives in the UK to travel safely to join their loved ones.

‘The Home Office must suspend any returns of people to Afghanistan, and also quickly decide all asylum claims from Afghans who have arrived in the UK independently, including reviews of those who have previously been refused, as the country is clearly not safe for them right now’.

The scale of the challenge

So, did any of this research help? Yes and no.

Yes, because it clarified where I wanted to make my small contribution. I would support a charity dealing with the fall out on the ground in Afghanistan, who might help the people there over the longer term. And I would support another helping the challenges of integrating newcomers coming here.

No, because the more I’ve learnt (which is not much, I admit) the more I’ve realised we are conning ourselves if we think taking in 5,000 Afghans this year is warm hearted and generous. It isn’t. Ruth Cadbury, MP for Brentford & Iselworth, says:

‘The refugee resettlement programme does not go nearly far enough and the 20,000 over five years … does not meet the scale of the challenge.’

This position is supported by other opposition parties. The closer you look at the ‘hostile environment’ we’ve created over the years and the way we currently treat asylum seekers the more cruel and heartless it looks. Last week Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, said we have ‘a failed asylum’ system. From what I’ve learnt in the last few days, I’d agree.

The way to change that is ultimately political, though I am also tempted to support a charity like Detention Action which helps some of the 20,000 people held in indefinite detention fight back against a larger and more powerful state.

So much for ‘big picture’. There’s a pressing need now. One of the greatest fears for the charities and agencies dealing with the new Afghan arrivals is maintaining the interest and support of the British people. Tragedies come and go. Interest wanes. So, I leave the last word to Dr Nasimi.

‘The British people have been very generous so far. But please don’t stop. We will need your help and generosity over a much longer period: to help integrate and settle people here.  This takes time and needs on-going support.’

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