I am grateful to the hundreds of constituents who have contacted me in recent days about the appalling events unfolding in Afghanistan.
An urgent priority for me and my small team is, and will continue to be, supporting constituents who are stuck in Afghanistan or desperately worried about family and friends who are there. If you or a family member needs help, please email [email protected] and I will do everything I can to support you.
I was in the House of Commons Chamber yesterday for the full seven hours of debate on Afghanistan. I had hoped to speak, but the debate was oversubscribed, and I was very disappointed not to be called. I have therefore set out below my thoughts on the current situation and the issues on which I will continue to press the government in the coming weeks and months.
The situation in Afghanistan is appalling and devastating. It is clear that there have been multiple failures of judgement over many years, which are now proving utterly catastrophic. I support the calls for a judge-led public inquiry into UK intervention in Afghanistan so that the lessons from this conflict and the long engagement of UK troops over 20 years can be learned and mistakes not repeated.
At this difficult time, I know that the thoughts of residents across Dulwich and West Norwood will be with the people of Afghanistan, with the UK and overseas workers in Afghanistan, with the families and friends of the 457 UK service personnel who lost their lives in Afghanistan and with those who were wounded. My thoughts are particularly with my constituent Margaret Evison whose 26 year old son Mark was killed in Helmand province and whose work in his memory to support local young people through the Mark Evison Foundation is inspiring.
The outcome of the withdrawal of US and Allied troops was entirely predictable – and it was predicted – but the unfolding disaster was not inevitable. The decisions and judgements of the US and UK governments are deeply implicated. That means that the UK government has a duty and a responsibility to help on many different fronts, and there are three immediate areas in which action is urgently needed.
The first is an immediate reversal of the Conservative government’s disastrous decision to retreat from its commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) on international aid. The crisis in Afghanistan has already resulted in more than 18 million people in desperate need of immediate assistance, and in recent weeks, thousands have fled to neighbouring countries. There is a humanitarian disaster in the region, which is worsening dramatically as a direct consequence of the withdrawal of US and UK troops, and the UK government must respond with humanitarian assistance. This cannot be done at the expense of other vitally important aid programmes elsewhere in the world - the international aid cuts must be reversed.
The second, is that the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan must be an urgent and central priority. The Prime Minister said yesterday that he will judge the Taliban on their actions not their words, but the Taliban has a decades-long track record of denying and violating the rights of women and girls. This is the same organisation so determined to deny education to girls that they tracked down and shot 15 year old Malala Yousafzai because she blogged about the importance of girls’ education. This is the same organisation trafficking girls as young as 10 and 12 to be raped and abused as so-called ‘brides’ to Taliban fighters. And this is the same organisation that 20 years ago had succeeded in making women all-but invisible in every area of public life in Afghanistan.
Already there are reports from Afghanistan of women journalists being refused entry to their workplaces, sickening accounts of executions and so-called ‘kill lists’ being drawn up. Women are terrified, and it is heart-breaking to hear accounts such as that of the former captain of the Afghanistan women’s football team telling her players to burn their kit before it is discovered by the Taliban.
Boris Johnson must not wait for evidence of the Taliban’s actions – they are clear to see – the UK government must work urgently with international partners in the UN, NATO and G7 to uphold the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, and the safety of women and girls, including providing emergency support to those who have suffered sexual violence, must be a priority for UK humanitarian aid in the region. They must also listen to and engage with women leaders in Afghanistan. There are 69 women MPs in Afghanistan, now all fearful for their lives. I am proud to have joined women MPs from across the House of Commons in signing a letter of support for them, which you can read here. Their experience will provide vital insights into what can be done to support women and girls, and the wider communities they represent in Afghanistan, and the UK government must listen.
Third, the UK must offer an open and generous resettlement scheme, on the basis of need, to people who are fleeing for their lives from Afghanistan. That includes anyone who has worked to support UK armed forces – interpreters, drivers and other staff whether they were directly employed or employed via contractors. It also includes local staff working for the British Council, people at risk because they have set up and run girls’ schools, and public servants who are now at risk. The Taliban also has an horrific record of persecution and killing of LGBT+ people, who are now in fear of their lives and must be offered asylum. The government must also confirm that they will stop all deportations back to Afghanistan, and grant asylum to all those Afghans currently awaiting a decision from the Home Office. This situation further underlines the unacceptability of the Conservatives’ Nationality and Borders Bill which will risk criminalising people feeling for their lives from Afghanistan. Labour will continue to oppose this Bill.
The policies of the current Home Secretary are entirely inadequate to this task. Where we need generosity, welcome and properly funded support, the current Home Secretary responds time and again with meanness and hostility. The thin and inadequate offer of 20,000 refugee places in the UK, only 5,000 to be provided this year, is completely unacceptable. Afghans – many of whom worked to support UK armed forces or worked in fields such as women’s education – are fleeing for their lives, and in withdrawing the support on the ground in Afghanistan which helped to keep them safe, the UK government now has a responsibility to provide a safe haven.
I am so proud that our communities in Dulwich and West Norwood and more widely in Lambeth and Southwark stand ready to welcome refugees from Afghanistan and to help with resettlement, and we have a proud record to draw on. Both our councils have made clear their commitment to the resettlement of Afghan refugees. You can read the statement from Lambeth here and Southwark here. The government must support this work with funding for housing, mental health support and English language classes – our communities want to help.
The UK government is deeply implicated in the crisis in Afghanistan, the consequences of which will be far reaching for human rights and global security. I will continue to hold the government to account in the coming weeks and months for the consequences of their actions and the magnitude of their response.