Preston councillors reject 'random cap' on Afghan refugees coming to UK as city mulls how many it can help

Preston City Council has called on the government not to set an “arbitrary limit” on the number of Afghan refugees that it will welcome to the country in the wake of the Taliban resurgence.

Saturday, 21st August 2021, 1:54 am
Updated Saturday, 21st August 2021, 11:22 am

Ministers have announced that the UK intends to resettle 20,000 Afghans over a five-year period – with 5,000 of them set to arrive before the end of the year.

However, during a full council debate on a notice of motion which resolved that Preston should “express solidarity” with the people of Afghanistan and their right to live “free lives” – put forward by Preston Rural East ward councillor Graham Jolliffe – concerns were expressed both at the notion of a cap and any delay in helping those who will ultimately be eligible to come to the UK.

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How many Afghan refugees should Preston pledge to help? (image: Google)

Lea and Larches councillor and planning cabinet member David Borrow said that the current proposal suggested that “15,000 [people] will be left somewhere”.

“We left quite a lot of people for years in Syria. Leaving refugees that we want to welcome [here] somewhere else to be forgotten is really dangerous.

“I’m sure we can find the capacity…they are better staying here where it’s safe than the airport at Kabul for the next few years in a refugee camp,” Cllr Borrow added.

Meanwhile, Plungington representative Cllr Pav Akhtar reflected on how many Afghans have been brought to the UK since western forces entered their country to rid it of the Taliban 20 years ago – and how many have not.

“Since 2001, our government has rejected 32,000 Afghan asylum applications under the government resettlement scheme. People who are terrorised [whom] we will not accept are traumatised and terrorised by what’s happening in Afghanistan.

“One hundred and forty-eight thousand Afghan refugees have arrived in Germany, 32,000 have moved into France – and 9,000 have come to the UK [in that time]. Twenty years of brutality – and we only have the heart to allow 9,000.”

The motion stated that the UK should, if necessary, accept "substantially more" than the 20,000 Afghans which the government has so far indicated will be permitted to come to the country.

The debate was staged as district councils across Lancashire were asked to pledge how many families they could accommodate under an existing scheme specifically designed to accommodate Afghans who had been employed by the British Army during its operations in their homeland.

In Central Lancashire, South Ribble has agreed to offer 10 places and is currently searching for suitable properties. The Post understands that a previous commitment by Chorley to provide the same number of places for refugees in general could now be used for Afghans. It is understood that Preston is currently considering how many it can help.

Lancashire County Council, which is co-ordinating the work, says that it has not yet been given details by the government of any scheme to resettle civilians currently fleeing Afghanistan.

Preston leader Matthew Brown said that the city – which achieved City of Sanctuary status in 2017 for its efforts to welcome and support people escaping persecution and violence – should take its “fair share” of Afghan refugees.

He added: “Refugees should be welcome in our community – these are people fleeing circumstances where they could very easily be killed through no fault of their own."

However, Cllr Brown stressed that the government must provide the necessary infrastructure and support for refugees arriving in places like Preston.

Speaking to the Post after the meeting where his motion – amended by the ruling Labour group, amongst other reasons, to stress opposition to any kind of limit on numbers of refugees – Conservative Cllr Jolliffe said it showed that “refugees from persecution in Afghanistan will be welcome and supported in our great city”.

“It doesn’t matter what political colour you are, you just see people suffering – and really feel for them and want to help. Those people at the airfield who are trying to get out are just desperate.

“Because there are problems in so many parts of the world, we will never be able to say we have done enough – but that doesn’t mean we should sit on our hands. Hopefully the little we can do will make a difference to individual families.

“We thank both the Labour and Liberal groups for offering amendments to, and then voting in favour of, our resolution,” Cllr Jolliffe added.

The Labour amendment also condemned the government’s nationality and borders bill, which could see some people making claims for asylum in the UK processed in other countries – a proposal which cabinet member for communities and social justice Nweeda Khan called “draconian”.

Liberal Democrat Cadley ward member Debbie Shannon told the debate: “We have a responsibility to help people in need in whatever way that we can – and I know the people of Preston will support all the measures that are taken in terms of trying to alleviate the need of this vulnerable population.”

Meanwhile, Cllr Borrow – who sat on the defence select committee for a time during his stint as South Ribble’s MP between 1997 and 2010 – said the impact on veterans of the Afghan conflict of the Taliban retaking control of the country should not be forgotten.

“Many of those veterans are struggling to come to terms with whether their service was valued – and I think those of us who haven’t served have a duty to say that it was and to give [them] our support.”

Lancashire County Council's cabinet member for community and cultural services, Peter Buckley, said in a statement: "Lancashire County Council has agreed to co-ordinate the county's response to the Afghan LES [Locally-Employed Staff] Relocation Scheme.

"The scheme aims to find homes for people who were employed by the army to support British troops in Afghanistan, as well as their families.

"Councils across Lancashire have been asked to make a pledge about the number of families they can help, and so far confirmation has been received from Lancaster, Wyre, South Ribble and West Lancashire.

"Between them, they will be able to house 30 families, with our first family having arrived in Lancaster a few weeks ago.

"We are also set to hear back shortly from the county's other district and borough councils - and expect this number to grow.

"When the families arrive, the Home Office will provide funding to help support the families while they integrate over the next 12 months," County Cllr Buckley added.

The government's Afghan relocations and assistance policy (ARAP) began back in April, as a replacement for previous resettlement arrangements for those who have helped UK forces over the past two decades. It offers three routes to the UK - including urgent relocation, by priority, to those assessed to be at risk of serious threat to life due to their work with the UK. That channel is open to all current or former staff employed directly by the UK government in Afghanistan since 2001, regardless of their role, job, length of service or reason for leaving.

Also available is relocation, by default, to a specific group of directly-employed current and former employees in what are deemed "exposed roles", such as some embassy support staff, those in political or counter-terrorism functions, as well as cultural advisors and interpreters. Finally, ministers can also approve, at their own discretion, relocation of people considered special cases because of their work in highly sensitive roles.

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