According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is defined as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Over 140 countries, including the United Kingdom (UK), are signatories to this Convention.
There are two main pathways to be recognised as refugees. In both cases, the process if often long and arduous. The first path to refugee status is to seek asylum in a host country. To claim asylum, and thus request to become recognised refugees, applicants have to be physically present in the host country – the application cannot be made from abroad. Those who have applied for such recognition known as asylum seekers. They remain asylum seekers as long as their application is pending. Once their application is accepted, they become recognised refugees. If it is refused, they are not recognised refugees. They may then appeal the decision (in the UK, almost half of the cases challenged after a refusal are overturned on appeal), they may seek another way to stay in their host country, or they may be returned to their home country.
Most refugees, however, are not able to travel far beyond the borders of their home countries, if they manage to leave the country at all. Often, they get stranded in refugee camps in bordering countries, where they often remain stuck for years. Some of these individuals who are highly vulnerable (e.g. due to their age, high risk of harm, exploitation, or health conditions) are selected by the UN for resettlement. This means that the UN identifies them as refugees abroad, and then transfers them to their new host country through bilateral agreements with those countries. This is the second way in which refugees can become recognised refugees and start new lives in host countries.
The UK is currently setting up a refugee resettlement scheme for the thousands of Afghans fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country. The Taliban’s rule is likely to rule Afghanistan with an iron fist, with a risk of returning to the human rights abuses and repression that led to a stream of Afghans leaving the country when the Taliban was last in power in the 1990s. Broadly, the government promises to resettle 5,000 Afghan refugees during the scheme’s first year, with more to follow, up to a total of 20,000. This seems to be along the lines of the Syrian resettlement scheme which was implemented in 2014. Under that Scheme, the UK resettled close to 20,000 refugees between 2016 and 2020, most of which fled Syria at the height of conflict in 2014 and thereafter. 20,000 people represent only a fraction of those who, at the time, were in need of relocation. In fact, just 0.6% of Syrians (or 80,000 out of 13 million people) who fled their homes found refuge through resettlement schemes worldwide after being referred by the UN. The Home Office has not devolved all the details of the Afghan resettlement scheme yet, but Home Secretary Priti Patel has hailed it as “one of the most generous” schemes in the UK’s history.
Calling the UK “generous” to asylum seekers and refugees fleeing war-torn countries on that basis alone is, in all senses of the word, a stretch. This is especially the case in light of government efforts to criminalise asylum seekers who enter the UK irregularly, and making their life in the UK more difficult after they arrive. Additionally, the UK does not receive that many asylum applications in the first place. In 2015 and 2016, Germany received and accepted over ten times as many asylum applications (the vast majority from Syrians) as the UK, even though they are countries with roughly the same population size. This relatively low number is partly explained by the UK’s geography - as an island, the UK is harder to reach than European mainland, and as we have seen, asylum applications can only be made from within the host country. Refugee resettlement schemes are one way to balance out the unequal reception of refugees. Proposing to take in 20,000 people, however, is merely a drop in the ocean.
The resettlement scheme for Afghan refugees is necessary, but it is not enough. The thousands of Afghans currently navigating their way through the UK asylum system need their status to be guaranteed. The same is true for the tens of thousands who will undoubtedly follow in the months and years to come.