Yesterday in the House of Commons Fiona spoke in a debate on the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme. Fiona's full speech can be read below.
"I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her statement today and also for her dedicated hard work on this really challenging but very important issue. I also commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate.
I very much support what he said, particularly regarding targeted religious minorities, which I want to focus on in my speech, particularly because I am concerned about those in my role as the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion or belief.
In the penultimate Prime Minister’s questions before Christmas, I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether the promised gift of resettlement for Afghans who are members of religious minorities would be available by the end of Christmas. If I am right, last night was Twelfth Night, so, being generous, may I give the Minister the benefit of the extra day and say thank you for getting the ACRS up and running now? I note, however, that it is only from the spring that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will refer refugees to the scheme, based on assessments of protection need. That sounds more like a Coptic Christmas timeline to me, but, more seriously, the delay in providing refuge and support for vulnerable religious minorities concerns me, and I know that it concerns many of my colleagues in the organisation of which I, as the Prime Minister’s envoy, am a member. That is the 33-country alliance of envoys, which is called the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.
The alliance issued a statement in support of vulnerable individuals being targeted in Afghanistan because of their faith or belief. I commend that statement to the Minister, not least because it demonstrates that there are international partners who most seriously do share our concerns about the vulnerable situation of those being targeted for their beliefs in Afghanistan. I will just read out a little from it:
“We hold grave concerns for…members of religious minority groups who are at risk, including Shi’a and Ismaili Muslims, Hazaras, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, non-believers, and others. We call upon all parties and international agencies to recognize the vulnerabilities of these individuals being targeted because of their faith or belief.”
The statement goes on to call for, among other things,
“a renewed humanitarian effort by the international community.”
I was interested to note today in the Minister’s statement her reference to the scale of the challenge and the need to co-ordinate closely with international partners, as indeed the alliance has done. It was very encouraging that, during the preparation of its statement, two alliance countries, the US and Brazil, got together; one supplied a plane and the other supplied the visas, and they were able to fly out 193 members of religious minorities from Afghanistan. It is that kind of international co-operation that I am sure the Minister is speaking of, but could I ask her, please, for more information as to how the UK is doing this and how we can fulfil the IRFBA statement’s intent?
I have of course spoken directly to members of several religious communities, as I know many colleagues have, so I will not go into detail as to the concerns that I share about the risks to these communities, but I am pleased that the Government have, rightly, included religious minorities in the criteria for eligibility for the ACRS, and I was pleased today in the House to hear the Minister’s assurance that the scheme is open now to vulnerable religious minorities and that that could be combined with community sponsorship. I will say a little more about that shortly.
First, with regard to the UNHCR refugee referral scheme starting in the spring, could the Minister clarify that it is based on the Government’s announced eligibility criteria, which specifically include minority groups, and that it is not wholly delegated to the UNHCR’s assessments of protection need? In terms of protection services, the principle of non-discrimination prevents the UNHCR from specifically targeting minority groups, so it means that arguably members of the LGBT community, who were rightly evacuated under the ARAP—Afghan relocations and assistance policy—scheme, might well not have been eligible under the UNHCR scheme. A further concern about the scheme is that religious belief is not a specific UNHCR eligibility criterion or an automatic indicator of need in its own right. In the past, that led to criticism of the operation of the Syrian resettlement scheme when it came to resettling religious minorities—specifically Christians—in the UK.
I hope that Members will bear with me as I cite some figures that bear that out. In 2017, the Barnabas Fund obtained data that revealed that in 2015, of the 2,637 individuals recommended to the UK by the UNHCR for resettlement, only 43 were Christians, even though Christians are widely accepted as constituting 10% of Syria’s pre-war population; only one was Shi’a, who were estimated to be 1.5% of the population; and only 13 were Yazidis. The following year, 2016, of the 7,499 individuals recommended to the UK by the UNHCR for resettlement, only 27 were Christians, 13 were Shi’a and five were Yazidis. Interestingly, it is estimated that Syria’s pre-war population was 74% Sunni Muslim, 13% Shi’a and Alawite, 10% Christian and 3% Druze, and that there were 70,000 Yazidis.
In the ACRS, the Government have made membership of a minority group a specific eligibility criterion, consistent with the new plan for immigration. Let me quote the wording of that plan for the record, because it is good and clear. It states:
“We will also ensure our resettlement offer encompasses persecuted refugees from a broader range of minority groups (including, for example, Christians in some parts of the world). We know that across the globe there are minority groups that are systematically persecuted for their gender, religion or belief and we want to ensure our resettlement offer properly reflects these groups. We will strengthen our engagement with global charities and international partners to ensure that minority groups facing persecution are able to be referred so their case can be considered for resettlement in the UK more easily.”
Although the Minister’s response to my question earlier today gave me hope, I would like more information about how the new plan is to be implemented, particularly because, to date, I am not aware of the evacuation to the UK of any individuals who have been targeted specifically because of their religion.
Despite good intentions, there is real concern that religious minorities will still not be included in the ACRS in the spring, or indeed in the first year of the scheme’s operation, if it is based solely on the UNHCR protection criteria. The Home Office does not have to rely solely on the UNHCR for resettlement assessment; it could conduct such assessments itself. It is clear that, in the case of Afghans in Afghanistan, the UNHCR does not have a mandate to deal with their situation; it can do so only if they arrive in Pakistan, for example, which is risky and causes many other challenges. The assessment could be done by the Home Office in house, as it is currently for some asylum applications, and it could be assisted by trusted partner organisations.
As I said I would, I come to the community sponsorship scheme. I suggest that one way to harness the Government’s commitment to the scheme, which is welcomed by the UNHCR and would provide a bespoke legal route of resettlement for religious communities, is to look at the Canadian scheme of community sponsorship for resettlement. Very substantial numbers of refugees have been resettled as a result of that scheme, which involved close to 2 million adult Canadians supporting local community sponsorship of Syrian refugees, many of whom were survivors of violence or torture whose life, liberty, safety or other fundamental rights were at risk. Many were vulnerable women or girls. Two thirds of the resettled refugees coming to Canada were privately sponsored by Canadian citizens under that scheme. Recent research suggests that comparative data emanating from that programme over the past 40 years demonstrates that sponsored refugees have better and quicker integration outcomes than refugees settled through more traditional Government schemes.
I suggest to the Minister that we consider the main elements of the Canadian community sponsorship model and see how we could adopt them in the UK. May we meet to discuss this issue?
Finally, I place on the record my commendation of the volunteers in my constituency, the Welcome Churches in Sandbach and the LOL Foundation in Congleton, which have done so much to support the Afghan refugees in Sandbach.