Extremist Taliban ideology penetrates the country of Afghanistan, destroying livelihoods and restricting access to vital resources such as food, clean water and healthcare. Located in Central Asia, neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, the country has been entrenched in conflict for over thirty years. It is subject to growing poverty due to its economic and political instability, and the humanitarian situation has been dire for decades – a situation that worsened when Taliban forces gained control of Kabul in August 2021. The necessity for schemes such as the UK’s ACRS (Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme) and ARAP (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy) is greater than ever. Raphael Marshall, Desk Officer for the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Offices, submitted in written evidence that around 75,000 - 150,000 people applied for evacuation in August 2021. The schemes work to provide safe, legal ways into the UK for Afghan citizens fleeing Taliban persecution. Whilst these schemes have succeeded in relocating over 11,000 Afghans to the UK since August 2021, the government’s pledge to welcome 20,000 refugees has not yet been met. Further, although these schemes help to remove Afghan citizens from Taliban persecution, they do not always help with the reintegration processes that refugees must undergo upon entering a new country. There are many aspects of the post-migration experience: how the government deals with refugees’ access to education, work, and the English language can impact the success of integration. Many initiatives help to aid the integration processes, but this is not consistently the case. If the Illegal Immigration Bill were to pass, the neglect of human need following migration could worsen.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, “the integration of refugees is a dynamic and multifaceted two-way process which requires efforts by all parties concerned, including a preparedness on the part of refugees to adapt to the host society without having to forego their own cultural identity, and a corresponding readiness on the part of host communities and public institutions to welcome refugees and meet the needs of a diverse population.” It is this “corresponding readiness” that deserves assessment, starting with refugees’ access to education. The UN notes that less than 2% of humanitarian aid goes towards education worldwide, meaning that displaced children are deprived of the resources needed to build stable lives in their new counties, but also of vital social spaces. Classrooms can provide safe spaces for children: they keep them safe from violence whilst providing them with basic knowledge about their host communities, meaning that they can better assimilate into society. ‘Operation Warm Welcome’, an ARAP scheme launched by the UK government in September 2021, offers bursaries to Afghan refugees accessing higher education, and the charity Refugee Education UK (REUK) has also played a vital role in enabling children to access education. In their recent situation summary, they state that “by offering a sense of routine, normality and welcome, schools will play a key role in supporting Afghan children to adjust and settle into their new environments”, reaffirming the importance of education for refugees.
However, the drive to help Afghan refugees access education has not been consistent: there have been instances in which Afghan students have missed vital exams due to government enforced relocation; some families have even taken the government to court following their evacuation. An inability to provide consistent education exacerbates the already detrimental trauma suffered by Afghan refugees, creating more obstacles for Afghan children trying to assimilate into UK society. It is important that stable education is provided for refugees attempting to rebuild their lives and reestablish a sense of community in the UK.
It is not only education that is vital for the integration of refugees: adult refugees should have access to the workplace, so that they can make a living, build social relationships and fully contribute to UK society. Further, the UK workplace can be enriched by the unique skills Afghan refugees possess, and so the benefit of enabling access to the workplace goes both ways. The UK workforce consists of great plurality in nationality, with 220,000 out of 1.4 million NHS workers being of non-British nationality, for example. Waheed Arian, an Afghan refugee and NHS doctor, spoke to The Guardian about his contribution to British society following the proposal of the Illegal Immigration Bill. He argued that “the punishment of “irregular” refugees can only exacerbate the widespread mental health problems we routinely see in the NHS among asylum seekers, while denying them the right to study and work would bar them from performing a useful role in society.” The passing of the Bill would make it all the more difficult for Afghan refugees to build a new career in a safer society. It would also negatively impact the UK workforce by blocking skilled refugees from joining already understaffed sectors such as the NHS. It is thus vital that refugees are afforded the right to work: both for their assimilation into UK society, and for the society itself.
One of the greatest obstacles that refugees face in their host countries is learning the new language. Given the nature of their immigration, Afghan refugees were likely unprepared for a life in the UK, and thus may not be capable of speaking English. This is not only an issue on a practical level. It also negatively impacts their impression of their own selfhood: language is an integral part of personal identity, and if refugees are alienated from the native language of their host country, they cannot be expected to feel as though they belong. Gavin Williamson, Conservative MP, tweeted in September 2021 that the government would be “providing English lessons and specialist teachers for those who need extra support settling in” under Operation Warm Welcome, and there has also been an effort by UK citizens, such as Veteran Mark Hill, to support refugees in learning English. The Darlington & Stockton Times reported that Hill’s invention of the “digital Afghan Buddy Box” supplemented the language learning of refugees both in the UK and internationally. These initiatives to help Afghan refugees learn English are vital in helping them to feel welcomed and comfortable in the UK. However, it is important that this effort to introduce them to English does not forcibly erase refugees’ connections with their native languages. Upon entering the UK, refugees should not be expected to identify as fully British: they are just as entitled to a dual-nationality as they are to a single one. Losing a home is hard enough, and this trauma would be exacerbated were refugees expected to abdicate their roots. Thus, the translation of vital documents into Pashtun and Dari, such as the ARAP application form on the government website, is a vital way of not only making immigration more possible for those who cannot speak English, but also of making refugees feel more comfortable by affording them the option to speak their native language.
Immigration is only half of the story for Afghan refugees: the trauma of fleeing Taliban persecution cannot be understated, but their suffering does not end when they enter the UK. The process of assimilation is a difficult one, as refugees must immediately navigate an alien society whilst still bearing connections with their lost homes. Through access to education, work, and the English language, the integration process can be made easier. Although there has been some effort on behalf of the government and citizens, the UK has not always successfully paid attention to post-migration human need, and the proposed Illegal Immigration Bill raises further concerns not only for refugees seeking asylum in the UK, but also for refugees who have already migrated. It is vital that the UK continues to fund initiatives such as Operation Warm Welcome that make it easier for refugees, who have already suffered enough, to assimilate into a new and unfamiliar society.
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Freya is a second year English Language and Literature student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.