British government details plan to settle 20,000 Afghan refugees in heated emergency debate

The British government said it would take in 5,000 Afghan refugees this year, primarily women and children, as lawmakers packed Parliament Wednesday for a heated emergency debate on the U.K. response to the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has come under fire for the chaotic turn of events in Afghanistan, said a new “generous” refugee settlement program would allow up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghans to seek sanctuary in the U.K. in the coming years. That number is over and above the 5,000 or so Afghan allies the U.K. is trying to evacuate from Kabul’s international airport.

The refugee plan, which is similar to a package for Syria in 2015, came under immediate attack from lawmakers, who said it fell short of what was required, both in terms of speed and numbers.

“The government has said 5,000 will be brought to resettle in the U.K. this year,” Chris Bryant, a Parliament member from the main opposition Labour Party, said. “What are the other 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait to be executed?”

Johnson said British officials were doing all they can to evacuate U.K. and Afghan citizens who helped the British forces based in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban have not sought to disrupt the operation.

What are the other 15,000 meant to do? Hang around and wait to be executed?”– Chris Bryant, Labour MP

“The situation has stabilized since the weekend, but it remains precarious, and the U.K. officials on the ground are doing everything that they can to expedite the movement of people,” he said. “At the moment, it would be fair to say that the Taliban are allowing that evacuation to go ahead.”

Johnson told Parliament that events in Afghanistan have “unfolded faster than even the Taliban predicted,” but the prime minister denied that his government had been caught unawares.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said the Conservative government had to take its share of the responsibility for the crisis in Afghanistan.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a debate in Parliament on Wednesday on the situation in Afghanistan. (Roger Harris/UK Parliament/Reuters)

“There’s been a major miscalculation of the resilience of the Afghan forces and a staggering complacency from our government about the Taliban threat,” he said.

‘Global Britain’ absent: Theresa May

Perhaps the most pointed interventions during the debate came from Johnson’s Conservative ranks, notably his predecessor, Theresa May.

“We boast about global Britain, but where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” she asked. “A successful foreign policy strategy will be judged by our deeds, not by our words.”

Like U.S. President Joe Biden, Johnson is facing criticism over Britain’s hasty retreat from Afghanistan and its chaotic evacuation of British citizens and the thousands of Afghans it has employed over the past two decades. Criticism has been particularly acute from veterans and the families of the 457 British troops who died in the country while fighting there as part of the U.S.-led NATO military operation.

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Johnson said he had little choice but to follow Biden’s decision to take American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of August.

“The West could not continue this U.S.-led mission, a mission conceived and executed in support of America, without American logistics, without U.S. air power and without American might,” Johnson said.

“I really think that it is an illusion to believe that there is appetite amongst any of our partners for a continued military presence or for a military solution imposed by NATO in Afghanistan,” he added.

May retorted: “What does it say about us as a country, what does it say about NATO, if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the United States?”

The former prime minister said nations such as Russia and China will pay close attention to the lack of solidarity among NATO allies and the West’s willingness to “defend its values.”

Canada promising to resettle 20,000 Afghans

Canada has set up a special immigration program for Afghans still in the war-torn country and has several evacuation flights to date, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has said. It also has a separate stream for refugees who’ve made it out of Afghanistan, and is promising to resettle up to 20,000 people.

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As civilians try to flee a Taliban-held Afghanistan, Canadian veteran Ryerson Maybee reflects on our country’s historic role there, and what our government’s responsibilities should be to the Afghans who risked their lives to help Canadians during the war. 22:54

Johnson said the U.K. would work to unite the international community behind a “clear plan for dealing with the Taliban.”

The prime minister, who is the current president of the Group of Seven leading nations, said he was looking to convene a meeting of leaders in coming days.

“We are clear, and we have agreed that it’d be a mistake for any country to recognize any new regime in Kabul prematurely or bilaterally,” said Johnson. “We will judge this regime on the choices it makes and by its actions rather than its words.”

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