Afghanistan: FCDO Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:03 pm on 7th September 2021.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 9:03 pm, 7th September 2021

My Lords, the events in Afghanistan have shown the absolute best of United Kingdom diplomatic staff and British forces. We can all take immense pride in what they have achieved, especially in their efforts as part of Operation Pitting, yet, as my noble friend highlighted earlier, the Government’s mismanagement has meant that many Brits and Afghans who have worked alongside us have been left behind.

Our focus now must be on two priorities: first and most immediately, helping and protecting the people who remain in Afghanistan and those who have been able to escape, and, secondly, protecting the gains of the past 20 years, particularly those relating to women and girls and education.

The first priority means helping those who are stranded in Afghanistan to leave via a viable and safe route and—as I mentioned earlier today—focusing support for those who are at most risk of persecution, such as women and LGBT people as well as the Hazara Shias. Can the Minister clarify exactly how many British nationals remain in Afghanistan? For the Afghan nationals who have made it to the United Kingdom, there must now be long-term support for those rebuilding their lives and engagement with local authorities to agree a long-term strategy. Details for the Afghan refugee resettlement programme have been incomplete and delayed, and the Government must urgently clarify how they will help fund the scheme and what the overarching strategy is.

The Minister will be aware that Members of both Houses have taken up the cases of Afghans and British nationals who have been desperate to leave. I know the Minister has personally intervened in many of these cases, but the response of both the Foreign Office and the Home Office has been slow, with many MPs’ emails remaining unanswered. The Prime Minister promised that all emails would be responded to by the close of play yesterday, so can the Minister explain why this deadline has now been missed, with hundreds—I repeat, hundreds—of emails still not being replied to?

As we heard earlier in the debate on the previous Statement, there is a very real prospect of a humanitarian crisis in a country of almost 40 million people, and the consequences could be catastrophic. The country is already experiencing its second drought in three years. One in three Afghans is now facing severe hunger, and almost half of children under five are in need of life-saving nutritional support over the next 12 months—something I have constantly raised in this House, particularly as a consequence of the terrible cuts to development support.

The Government must use multilateral institutions in conjunction with aid agencies to monitor the situation and deliver aid directly to those in need. Steps must also be taken to keep land routes open for the safe delivery of food, medicine, water and other supplies, and preparations need to be made for the people being displaced. UN agencies such as the World Food Programme are planning for this possibility, with responses being explored in Pakistan, Tajikistan and Iran. The Foreign Secretary said he had spoken to Jean Arnault, the special representative on Afghanistan, acknowledging that the relationship with the United Nations will be one of the critical factors we consider in shaping the resettlement scheme. What other discussions have taken place to plan support for these UN agencies?

The second priority must be to protect the gains of the last 20 years, and the only way we can do this is with a clear diplomatic road map for the way ahead. We must use every lever we have to prevent Afghanistan becoming, once again, a safe haven for international terrorism. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 2593 is a welcome first step in affirming the international community’s expectation and requirement that the Taliban should follow through on the assurances they have given. The Foreign Secretary said that the UK is pressing for further discussions with the UN Security Council P5. Will these discussions also explore the means to hold the Taliban to their word?

Regional partners will also be central to preventing security threats arising from Afghanistan, and I am pleased that the Government have been engaging with Pakistan. Yesterday the Foreign Secretary claimed to have engaged with all relevant partners. Can the Minister confirm which states the Foreign Secretary was referring to? Can he set out the steps which were agreed during the Foreign Secretary’s meeting with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister on combating terrorism?

Given the importance of protecting human rights when exerting pressure on the Taliban regime, can the Minister detail the steps we are taking multilaterally, including at the UN Human Rights Council? The Leader of the House and the Foreign Secretary said that the UK plans to host an event at the UN General Assembly later this month. Can the Minister tell us what the objectives of this meeting are? The noble Baroness failed to give us an answer on that; I hope the Minister can set out a better context for it. I believe it is the right thing to do, but we must have very clear objectives.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan poses a threat to us all, not only from its past relationship with international terrorism but from the conditions it is now creating in the region. It is in everyone’s interest that the United Kingdom step up and support the people of Afghanistan.