Refugees wait to be processed after arriving on an evacuation flight from Afghanistan at Heathrow Airport in London on Aug. 26. (Dominic Lipinski – AFP / Getty Images)
By C. Douglas Golden October 11, 2021 at 6:01am
When the Biden administration airlifted 124,000 people out of Afghanistan in the chaotic withdrawal from that country, we were initially told it had mostly gotten our Afghan partners and allies. Kind of. Sort of.
The administration was never particularly specific about who we got out and how they were vetted — and for good reason.
On Sept. 3, Bloomberg first reported that “a small percentage of the Afghan citizens who got out are the ones the U.S. pledged to place at the top of its priority list: the thousands who had worked for the U.S. and its allies as well as employees of nongovernmental groups and media organizations.”
“Instead, initial findings suggest that while some who escaped were locally employed staff, many got out because they were part of the initial crush of people who made it to Kabul’s airport as the city fell to the Taliban or secured passage through airport gates thanks to luck or help from people in the U.S. or elsewhere,” it said.
That was another failure — but at least they’d been saved from oppression at the hands of the Taliban, right? That was something. The airlift itself may have been a failure when you look at its original objectives, but we saved people from the iron heel of theocracy. That’s something, you have to agree.
Unfortunately, if what happens here bears any similarity to what’s happening over in the United Kingdom, we can’t necessarily count on that reaction from Afghan refugees, either.
According to a Saturday report from The Guardian, some Afghan refugees who fled the country and entered the U.K. as part of Britain’s resettlement program are demanding to be sent back, citing their confinement to hotel rooms.
The Guardian framed the issue as only the left-wing newspaper could: If refugees airlifted out Afghanistan by British forces wanted to go back to the Taliban-controlled country, the fault must lie with Operation Warm Welcome, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resettlement scheme.
Johnson launched it promising support for refugees to “rebuild their lives, find work, pursue education and integrate into their local communities.”
Was the Afghan airlift a failure?
“For those who have left their homes with no more than a small bag of belongings, and in fear for their lives, coming to the UK will no doubt have been a daunting experience, but also one of hope for the future,” the prime minister said in an Aug. 29 statement on the U.K. government’s website.
“I am determined that we welcome them with open arms and that my Government puts in place the support they need to rebuild their lives,” he said. “We will never forget the brave sacrifice made by Afghans who chose to work with us, at great risk to themselves. We owe them, and their families, a huge debt.”
However, because of the exigencies of the situation, 7,000 Afghan refugees are being housed in hotels as temporary accommodation. Officials with Britain’s Home Office, which is responsible for immigration matters, say some of the refugees might be in the hotels for months.
“We can’t at the minute put a date on when we’re going to get people out of hotels. I think we all really just want to do it as quickly as possible,” said Patricia Hayes, the second permanent secretary in the Home Office, according to the Guardian.
Being in a hotel for months can be an unpleasant situation, but if someone is an Afghan who’s made a “brave sacrifice” to work with the U.S., the U.K. or their allies “at great risk to themselves,” it beats going back to the Taliban.
Guess where some of the refugees want to go, however? You guessed it — according to the Guardian, straight back to Afghanistan.
“I’ve had a few patients telling me they want to go home,” an Afghan doctor who’s been working with the refugees told the outlet.
“One guy, who was 67, kept saying: ‘I can’t take this anymore. I have to get out of this [hotel] room.’
“Another said: ‘I just want my freedom from the hotel.’ I had to put him on medication, and his wife, because they were so upset.”
“The Afghan GP added that initially when Afghan arrivals were placed in hotels there was ‘inadequate’ medical provision,” the report said. “She described one incident at a hotel where she found a malnourished disabled child who had not been registered with the medical authorities.”
Other nongovernmental organizations expressed their concerns.
“The Home Office has a legal duty to provide at least minimal support to otherwise destitute asylum seekers, but arrangements by the Home Office and its contractors to house those waiting in interim publicly funded accommodation are medically dangerous,” a Medact representative said.
If this were a long-planned program that had gone terribly awry, that’s one thing. However, the U.K. government pointed out why the situation has gotten to this point.
“The UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history helped over 15,000 people to safety, and hotels remain a temporary measure to help accommodate those we brought here,” a Home Office spokesman said. “It is going to take time to find permanent homes for everyone, but we are working urgently with our partners to do so.”
For obvious reasons, the sudden evacuation couldn’t have been predicted. The housing scheme, while not ideal, should be better than being returned to a country where these refugees would face privation and oppression — unless, of course, they wouldn’t be facing privation or oppression, but instead merely took advantage of a chaotic situation to resettle elsewhere in the world.
That, needless to say, wasn’t what troops, contractors and civilian pilots risked their lives to accomplish.
If the refugees’ situation in their native country is less dire than a hotel room in Great Britain, it’s neither the obligation nor the prerogative of the U.K. government to resettle them.
The United States has had similar issues, with hundreds of refugees complaining about conditions here or simply walking off military bases instead of awaiting resettlement.
That’s far from the strange, next-level hypocrisy of fleeing the Taliban only to find the brutal Islamist regime preferable to hotel life in Merrie England.
The disaster and misplaced priorities of the Afghan airlift will be with us for years to come — and what’s happening in the U.K. is only one of the symptoms.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the administration responsible for the Afghanistan airlift. We regret the error.