Where can those fleeing the Taliban go?
Tens of thousands of Afghan citizens are trying desperately to leave the country after the Islamist fundamentalist group seized control of the presidential palace in Kabul 12 days ago, capitalising swiftly on the American military withdrawal ordered by US president Joe Biden.
The Taliban last held the mountainous south Asian nation between 1996 and 2001, imposing an authoritarian rule defined by the oppression of women, the persecution of minorities and the brutal punishment of its opponents, a reign that was brought to an abrupt end by the US-led invasion in December 2001 at the outset of George W Bush’s War on Terror in retaliation for 9/11.
The last week has seen harrowing scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as crowds of refugees strive to secure spots from themselves and their loved ones on evacuation flights, fearing violent reprisals from the militants, utterly unconvinced by the more moderate face the group has attempted to present to reassure the watching world.
More than 18,000 people have already left, seeking sanctuary overseas, but Shabia Mantoo, spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has warned that the “vast majority” have “no clear way out”.
As for potential host countries, the US government is reportedly planning to relocate 30,000 Afghan refugees and visa applicants to American military bases across the country, including Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, with some settling in temporary shelters beforehand in Albania, Kosovo or northern Macedonia, according to Politico.
Canada has pledged to take 20,000, Australia 3,000 and Uganda 2,000, the latter Africa’s largest commitment.
In Europe, Germany has offered to accept 10,000 asylum seekers but France has yet to put a round number on it and Russia, Austria and Switzerland have all flatly refused to get involved. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has reluctantly agreed to accept “a few dozen” families but otherwise says his position is: “Let’s send assistance there, not bring trouble here.”
Hungary has airlifted 540 people out of Kabul, according to its defence minister Tibor Benko, but will stop evacuations on Thursday, as will the Netherlands, while France will follow suit on Friday. Denmark has already done so, with defence minister Trine Bramsen bluntly warning: “It is no longer safe to fly in or out of Kabul.”
Among Afghanistan’s neighbouring states, Tajikistan has pledged to take in up to 100,000 asylum seekers while Iran - which already houses 780,000 registered Afghan citizens - has set up emergency tents in three of its provinces. Turkey and Pakistan, however, have said they would work together to stop the displaced spilling out over the border.
What is the UK’s stance?
Britain has a tangled history of imperial involvement in Afghanistan and took part in President Bush’s anti-terror crusade under Tony Blair and as such has pledged to take up to 20,000 Afghans over the next five years.
Priority will be given to women, children and those facing persecution like the Hazara people, hated by the Taliban as followers of Shia Islam, but just 5,000 are expected to be granted asylum within the next year, a number campaigners and MPs on both sides of the aisle argue must be substantially increased.
Among those putting pressure on Mr Johnson to do more is Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who wrote to him this week to say: “We are concerned that the commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees in ‘the long-term’ and just 5,000 in the first year is not sufficient in the context of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding.”
The SNP leader added: “We believe a commitment to a substantial increase in numbers is required and urgently seek further details of how civilians, especially women, girls and others in need of refuge will be protected.”
The Independent has backed calls from MPs and charities for No 10 to expand its plan to resettle Afghans at risk of losing their lives in the Taliban takeover.
Our Refugees Welcome campaign is calling for the government to offer sanctuary to as many Afghans as possible - and for local authorities and charities devoted to their welfare to be given the strongest possible support.
The Home Office is meanwhile being urged to grant asylum to thousands of Afghans who have already reached the UK but now find themselves stuck in a “nightmarish limbo”, as Refugee Action CEO Tim Naor Hilton put it.
Government statistics show 2,881 Afghan asylum seekers are awaiting an initial decision on their claim and a further 236 cases are under review. The majority have been waiting for more than six months.
Why are we asking this now?
With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan set to go ahead as planned on 31 August - and calls to extend that deadline, including from Mr Johnson at an emergency G7 session, going unanswered - those seeking to leave the country and the potential wrath of the Taliban find themselves in a race against time.
The RAF has so far airlifted more than 12,279 people out of Afghanistan but there are fears hundreds more could be left behind.
What happens afterwards to those unable to get out is unknown but UK armed forces minister James Heappey warned on Thursday that those congregating at Kabul airport could face a “highly lethal” terror attack from Isis Khorasan (or Isis-K), the regional affiliate of Islamic State comprised largely of disaffected Taliban fighters who believe that group’s leadership is insufficiently ambitious in its wider aims.
“I can’t stress the desperation of the situation enough - the threat is credible, it is imminent, it is lethal,” Mr Heappey told BBC Breakfast. “We wouldn’t be saying this if we weren’t genuinely concerned about offering Islamic State a target.”
He later told LBC: “Daesh, or Islamic State, are guilty of all sorts of evil. The opportunism of wanting to target a major international humanitarian mission is just utterly deplorable, but sadly true to form for an organisation as barbarous as Daesh.”
UK defence secretary Ben Wallace was meanwhile reported to have told MPs that Afghans hoping to seek asylum in the UK would be better off now heading for the border and trying to make their way to a third country such as Pakistan or Iran, rather than seeking a place on a flight.