Rt. Hon. Boris Johnson
10 Downing Street London SW1A 2AA
August 20, 2021
Re: Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan & Meeting Request
Dear Prime Minister,
We write to ask you to take crucial steps to address the human rights crisis in Afghanistan and to help protect Afghan civilians at particular risk.
In recent weeks, Human Rights Watch increasingly received reports that advancing Taliban forces summarily executed people deemed to be “enemies” or for revenge. We are deeply concerned that such killings and other abuses will escalate under Taliban rule.
Safe passage and international protection for fleeing Afghans
We understand evacuation plans are underway prioritizing British nationals and Afghans who are eligible under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP). While we welcome the government’s efforts to date to secure the safe return of 2,052 Afghan nationals as part of the resettlement programme, we are very concerned that the ARAP falls well short of what is necessary and what others are doing including the US which as you know, has widened its refugee visa scheme to include employees of US-based nongovernmental organisations, US-funded projects and others.
First, we urge the UK Government to immediately amend the ARAP and expand evacuation plans to include all those who were employed by the UK in Afghanistan whether or not they held ‘exposed meaningful enabling roles’, and their families. The distinction currently made in the ARAP between those locally engaged staff (LES) who served in exposed enabling roles and other LES who worked for the UK in Afghanistan is redundant in the current context. LES who served in non-outward facing roles such as administrative and services jobs (i.e. clerical, cleaning, cooking, maintenance, logistics) will more often than not be publicly known to have worked for the UK in Afghanistan and this, like those in outward facing roles, places them at high risk to their lives.
Second, we urge the UK Government to amend the ARAP and expand any evacuation plans to include any Afghans, and their families, who worked with the UK in Afghanistan, including those employed or hired directly and indirectly (as contractors), and those who worked on UK government projects or who would otherwise be perceived as being associated with the UK, including those who worked for the British Council and British media (many of whom had outward facing roles). This includes those who worked as contractors for the UK in Afghanistan including those providing services to and delivering projects on behalf of the UK Government. Such persons are likely to be identified as working for the UK regardless of whether they did so as employees, contractors or if they worked for the British Council. Accordingly, their life is likely to be at high and imminent risk. While the UK Government has said it will consider individual cases for relocation on an exceptional basis, this does not provide the urgent and broad protection needed by the abovementioned persons.
Third, while it is welcome news that the UK Government has acknowledged that there is an avenue to apply for resettlement on compassionate grounds outside the ordinary immigration rules (accompanied by a commitment to resettle 20,000 Afghans in the UK over the coming years), we would urge the Government to formally expand the ARAP to include a Category 5 cohort of eligibility to include all those at heightened risk of persecution from the Taliban. Those civilians feared to be at particular risk include those who have worked to promote human rights, including women’s rights, democracy, and education; academics, writers, journalists, and other media workers; and members of ethnic minorities and Shia Muslims, in particular Hazaras. Expanding the ARAP would create certainty, and provide a degree of transparency, as to the applicable scheme and the criteria that is being applied.
Fourth, we urge the UK Government to borrow from the exclusion criteria for refugee protection set out in Article 1F and 33(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention and relevant UK law that implement these provisions, and urgently amend the ARAP so that the only LES that are explicitly excluded from benefiting from the ARAP are those who were dismissed by the UK for an activity that would constitute a particularly serious crime in the UK, namely criminal offences that attach a possible period of imprisonment of two years or more. We are very concerned that currently the ARAP exclusion provision is too widely drawn and that there is no transparency with respect to how the criteria is being applied nor whether and to what extent persons can appeal determinations. In a letter of 3 August 2021, Home Secretary Patel and Defence Secretary Wallace explained that LES who were dismissed from employment by the UK in Afghanistan are excluded from relocation if their dismissal is for (1) activities that would be criminal offences in the UK or (2) activities or offences which either had or could have had ‘serious consequences’. There is no definition of what constitutes what ‘serious consequences’ are nor how it is determined whether such consequences could have occurred. Given the likely consequences of excluding LES who worked for the UK Government from the ARAP, we urge the UK Government to urgently narrow the exclusion provisions in line with the abovementioned suggestion and provide for due process and transparency with respect to any such decisions.
Fifth, we are concerned that the UK Government has yet to commit to a moratorium on all deportations and forced returns to Afghanistan. We understand from media reports that the Home Office finally announced on 17 August 2021, that enforced returns of asylum seekers from the UK to Afghanistan had been “paused” while the situation is under review. Given the situation in Afghanistan, the UK should immediately commit to a moratorium on deportations and forced returns to Afghanistan, as we have seen in the Netherlands.
Sixth, we urge you to prioritize providing safe passage and travel documents for Afghans at heightened risk of persecution from the Taliban because of their past work or status, along with their immediate family members, whether inside or outside Afghanistan. Many in need of assistance are not at the Kabul airport, but may have already left the country, or are in the process of doing so, and may require documents and assistance in third countries. We urge the UK to ensure that refugees who have already fled Afghanistan to neighboring countries have access to information on pathways to relocation and resettlement in the UK and the ability to make such applications.
Finally, we urge the UK Government to set out how it is working with and through the NATO, G7 and other multilateral institutions to urgently adopt coordinated support and protocols for emergency evacuation, relocation, and resettlement operations for Afghans to their own and third countries (particularly those most acutely at risk) and importantly, provide assistance to neighboring countries that are and will be receiving many Afghan asylum seekers. We understand that there is currently very little to no coordination between countries and this is severely hampering the ability to effectively relocate those most acutely at risk.
In line with the above, we ask you to confirm:
- That the ARAP and evacuations plans will be urgently expanded to include:
- All LES who were employed by the UK in Afghanistan whether or not they held ‘exposed meaningful enabling roles’, and their families.
- All Afghans, and their families, who worked with the UK in Afghanistan, including those employed or hired directly and indirectly (via contractors), and those who worked on UK government projects or who would otherwise be perceived as being associated with the UK, including those who worked for the British Council and British media.
- A Category 5 cohort of eligibility to include all those at heightened risk of persecution from the Taliban in line with the UK’s stated commitment to protecting human rights activists, including those who worked on gender empowerment and justice, as well as media freedom.
- That the UK Government will urgently amend the ARAP so that the only LES that worked for the UK in Afghanistan that are excluded from benefiting from the ARAP are those who were dismissed by the UK for an activity that would constitute a particularly serious crime in the UK, namely criminal offences that attach a possible period of imprisonment of two years or more, and thus could justifiably pose a danger to the UK’s security. We also ask for confirmation that there will be some degree of due process and transparency with respect to exclusion decisions.
- That when determining who is a family member for the purposes of resettlement under the ARAP, they acknowledge the religious Islamic marriage ceremony known as the Nikah. We understand that this has been a reoccurring issue when determining who qualifies as a family member for the purpose of the ARAP.
- That there will be a moratorium on all deportations and forced returns to Afghanistan with immediate effect.
- What plans are in place for providing safe passage and travel documents for Afghans at heightened risk of persecution who have already left the country, or are in the process of doing so, and may require documents and assistance in third countries? For those in third countries, what plans are in place to ensure people have information on pathways to relocation and resettlement in the UK and the ability to make such applications?
- Whether and to what extent the UK is working with partners to adopt coordinated support and protocols for emergency evacuation, relocation, and resettlement operations for Afghans to their own and third countries (particularly those most acutely at risk)? Is the UK Government working in a coordinated fashion with its NATO, five eyes and broader partners?
- What plans does the UK have to provide assistance to neighboring countries that are and will be receiving many Afghan asylum seekers?
Humanitarian assistance and civil society support
We are concerned that the recent announcement of a doubling of humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan still falls short of the £292 million that the UK provided to Afghanistan in 2019 when there was less need. We urge the UK to pledge new support for nongovernmental groups inside and outside of Afghanistan that assist with refugee resettlement, and otherwise promote humanitarian and human rights needs, including for women, children, internally displaced people, and others, as well as education, health care, and other vital needs. The participation of Afghan civil society groups in discussions of assistance and resettlement is vital. We urge you to also increase humanitarian assistance to neighboring countries to which Afghans are fleeing and support those countries admitting them.
The United Nations: strengthening reporting and fact-finding
We welcome the UK’s support for a Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council to address the “Serious Human Rights Concerns and Situation in Afghanistan” on 24 August, 2021, and we urge the UK to press for adoption of a resolution that creates an international mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of violations and abuses by all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan and prepares files to facilitate fair and independent criminal proceedings, with the assistance of the UN high commissioner for human rights.
We ask the UK Government to work with allies at the UN Security Council to immediately adopt a resolution demanding that all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan,
abide by international human rights standards and international humanitarian law, notably the humane treatment of civilians and combatants in custody. It should reiterate that the International Criminal Court, to which Afghanistan is a party, can prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. The resolution should call on the new authorities to ensure that everyone, including internally displaced people, have full and free access without discrimination to humanitarian assistance from UN agencies and humanitarian groups.
As you are aware, the Security Council is set to renew the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in September. UNAMA’s mandate should be expanded to explicitly include collecting information and evidence of serious violations and abuses. The council should instruct UNAMA to publicly report on its findings and share information and evidence with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court as well as other international or domestic bodies investigating war crimes and other abuses in Afghanistan.
We would appreciate an opportunity to discuss the issues raised in this letter at your earliest convenience.
We are looking forward to hearing from you.
Human Rights Watch