AS THE Home Office expedites flights out of Kabul, Afghan refugees are already being supported by churches, it was reported this week.
On Wednesday, the Vicar of St Mary the Great, Ilford, Canon Gareth Jones, who is the diocese of Chelmsford’s refugee co-ordinator, said that within 24 hours of the diocese’s issuing a statement pledging to do “all that we can to serve and support refugees in our parishes”, he had received more than 100 offers of help, from financial donations to offers of houses and flats as accommodation.
“People have really stepped up within this diocese already,” he said. “I am hopeful. We are not going to be able to meet every need as it arises, but we can put a big dent in it, and working with our partners in Essex and east London we will be able to make a difference.”
Through its resettlement arm, Essex Integration, a Fresh Expression, the diocese has already resettled 115 Afghans — largely interpreters and their families — in addition to Syrian families. While Syrians had been resettled as part of a long-term programme, the current situation was a “crisis”, he said. “We need to meet that need where it is, without thinking too much about the long term, as we don’t know what the long term will be until the Government decides.”
The immediate need was to “put the word out that we are here”, and to resource parishes to help refugees when they arrived, from providing financial support to signposting them to other agencies. “We didn’t expect this; we aren’t prepared; so we need to come together and meet the need wherever we find it,” he said. What the Government offered was “very basic”.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said that 9000 British nationals — Afghans who had worked for British forces, and those at risk, including journalists — had been evacuated from Afghanistan since 15 August. Under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy programme (ARAP), any current or former locally employed staff who worked in Afghanistan for the UK embassy and are “assessed to be at serious risk of threat to life” are offered priority relocation. More than a quarter of councils are involved in the scheme, and the Government has promised a £5-million fund to help them to provide housing and support.
The Government has also announced a scheme to resettle up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, although it has spoken of only 5000 this year. Priority is to be given to “those most in need due to the current crisis — including women and girls, and religious and other minorities, who are most at risk of human rights abuses and dehumanising treatment”.
On Tuesday, Dr Krish Kandiah, the director of Afghan Welcome, urged churches to register with Welcome Churches: a charity that seeks “for every refugee in the UK to be welcomed by their local church”.
He continued: “The wonderful thing is that the Church is in every town and city. We have churches full of people with the desire to help, and what we need is to know where those churches are that are keen to help. All they need to do is identify themselves, and it’s free then — they can start accessing training.” This would include advice about culturally appropriate support and safeguarding.
Many of the Afghans arriving in the UK are being housed in hotels. Last week, the five-year-old son of an Afghan embassy worker died after falling from a ninth-floor window at a Sheffield hotel.
“The main challenge is a lack of available social housing to accommodate larger families,” Dr Kandiah said. He is trying to find Christian conference centres willing to help meet the need. “Afghans normally have two adults and six children in one family group.” He expected families to be housed in hotels for months. “What we are trying to do is provide a conduit for churches and other community groups to offer support to those hotels without flooding them with too many strangers.”
While some charities were organising collections of clothes and other donations, Welcome Churches currently favoured money, which was “agile” and could be used to respond to refugees’ specific needs, he said. “We want to treat this group of people with all dignity and respect they deserve.”
Having already met about 100 Afghans, he reported that they were “incredibly happy to be here, and grateful for the reception they are getting — the fact that the Church has stepped up and let them know that they are welcome”. Already, one church leader had organised a cricket match.
AlamyMembers of the Jewish community in Watford, Hertfordshire, prepare to deliver donated items to families evacuated from Afghanistan, on Monday
Last Friday, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, and Canon Jones issued a joint statement: “As a diocese committed to serving Christ in the downtrodden, persecuted and oppressed, and to witnessing to the transforming presence of Christ in the midst of the seemingly impossible, we continue to stand ready to do all that we can to serve and support refugees in our parishes across East London and Essex, and those communities seeking to walk alongside displaced people.”
The same day, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, Shabia Mantoo, warned that “those who may be in danger have no way out. UNHCR is calling on countries neighbouring Afghanistan to keep their borders open in light of the evolving crisis in Afghanistan.” Individual states have been organising evacuations, and these were “lifesaving”, she said. “But the main message is that a broader international response is needed.”
The UN estimates that 550,000 people have been displaced inside Afghanistan this year, in addition to 2.9 million already displaced. It has issued an urgent appeal for $62.8 million. Iran and Pakistan continue to host more than two million registered Afghan refugees.
Last week, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said: “We should prevent people from heading towards the European Union through unsafe, irregular, and uncontrolled routes run by smugglers. . . At the same time, we cannot abandon people in immediate danger in Afghanistan. Journalists, NGO staff, and human-rights advocates in Afghanistan are amongst those who are most at risk, women in particular.”
The French President, Emmanuel Macron, spoke of the need to “anticipate and protect ourselves against significant waves of irregular immigration”.