Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Thursday, September 2, 2021
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, McVitie’s Factory Glasgow (Proposed Closure), Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Supporting the People of Afghanistan, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- McVitie’s Factory Glasgow (Proposed Closure)
- Point of Order
- Portfolio Question Time
- Supporting the People of Afghanistan
- Decision Time
Supporting the People of Afghanistan
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-01003, in the name of Angus Robertson, on supporting the people of Afghanistan.14:56
I will speak today about the situation in Afghanistan and particularly about what Scotland can do to support the Afghan people. I will take a moment to reflect on every life lost, every family displaced, every girl denied an education and every minority group now living in fear. The tragedy of Afghanistan is a tragedy of countless individuals and millions of families.
I will make three fundamental arguments, addressing first the humanitarian challenge, secondly how Scotland can play a full role in the resettlement of refugees and finally what Scotland, as a good global citizen, is and will be doing to support the people of Afghanistan and those who served in Afghanistan.
Over the course of the past 20 years, the United Kingdom has been instrumental in supporting the Government of Afghanistan both militarily and in building the civil society that improved the lives of so many people, but especially women and young girls, by supporting projects to improve education, healthcare, local governance and economic growth across the country. We must work together to protect what gains were made. The economy in Afghanistan was already fragile and the state was heavily dependent on foreign aid. That international assistance now hangs in the balance as we see the economy collapse.
As we can also see on our television screens every day, the human rights situation is extremely worrying. Women and girls and those who worked for foreign Governments or aid agencies are all threatened. The Taliban have a history of brutal discrimination against minority ethnic groups across Afghanistan, religious minorities, the LGBT community and others. More than 120,000 people were safely evacuated in recent weeks, thanks to the international effort at Kabul Airport. Scotland is forever grateful to all the service personnel of all nations who worked tirelessly and sacrificed so much in the service of their countries. Scotland also wants to recognise the dedicated work of diplomats and those in the humanitarian and aid sector who have worked to bring Afghanistan a better future.
Now that the flights have ceased and there is no western presence in Afghanistan, we must ask ourselves: what can Scotland do now? We have heard this week that hundreds of people eligible for relocation remain in Afghanistan. The UK Government is speaking of dual nationals as if they were second-class citizens and has said that any Afghans who flee to neighbouring countries and later make the perilous journey to the UK, via the Channel, for a better life would still be subject to the Government’s crackdown on boat crossings—as if the people of Afghanistan had not suffered enough.
The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government wrote to the Home Secretary yesterday to make clear our opposition to the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill. People who come to Scotland to seek sanctuary must be treated with dignity and respect at all times. Extremely vulnerable people, such as children or the victims of human trafficking, deserve a system that enables access to support rather than one that erects barriers. Not a system that, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is a violation of the 1951 refugee convention and will damage lives.
Today, millions of Afghans throughout the country are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, with 3.5 million internally displaced persons. As a result of decades of conflict, drought and the impact of the pandemic, 14 million people are food insecure.
I will address how Scotland will play a full role in refugee settlement and I start by looking back at how Scotland welcomed and supported Syrian refugees. Six years ago, Scottish local authorities led the way in welcoming refugees who were fleeing the horror of conflict in Syria. The first flight bringing refugees to the UK for resettlement landed in Glasgow on a dark and dreich day in November 2015. At that time, few local authorities in Scotland had experience in supporting refugees, but that is no longer the case. I am proud to say that, in the intervening years, every local authority of every hue in Scotland has welcomed and supported refugees. More than 3,500 people have arrived and have been rebuilding their lives in their new communities, bringing with them skills and cultures from which we all benefit. I thank local authority teams who have made that possible, as well as the many third sector, community and faith organisations and members of the public who have worked tirelessly to provide the friendship and support that people need as they settle in their new home country.
Therefore, today, Scotland is standing by to play a full role in providing a home for Afghans. In principle, I welcome the UK Government’s announcement of the new Afghan citizens resettlement programme, as well as operation warm welcome.
First, I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, as a non-executive director of the Reduce Explosive Violence Increase Victim Empowerment—REVIVE—campaign, which was set up to advocate for victims of explosive weapons.
With regard to operation warm welcome, will the cabinet secretary note that recent statistics, which were exposed by Byline Times, show that, of Afghans who have been given refugee status in the UK since 2009, only 18 per cent were women and girls and, of the under-18s, only 15 per cent were girls. Therefore, will the cabinet secretary join me in noting that the rights of women merit some attention? Will he commit to asking the Home Office to ensure that equitable proportions of women and girls are given refugee status?
Yes, I entirely agree with my colleague. There is a lot more work to be done on that, and I will come on immediately to talk about the scale of the challenge, as well as the opportunity and responsibility that we have to maximise the support that we give to Afghans, especially women and girls.
We understand that the current commitment to take 20,000 people over five years in the UK, with only 5,000 in the first year, is nowhere near enough. We have all seen the devastating scenes at Kabul airport.
Will the cabinet secretary give way?
I will, and then I will have to make some progress.
Will he join me in pleading with the European Union for its member countries to accept Afghan refugees at least on the same scale of numbers that will accepted as part of the plan that the UK Government has promoted?
Of course, I am pleased to call on all countries to play their part. I remember the contribution that was made in relation to Syria. Proportionately, the countries that accepted most refugees from Syria were Sweden, Austria and then Germany; somewhere further down the list was the United Kingdom.
We have more to do, but I am pleased that we can aspire to taking in more Afghans and I hope that we can agree on that point. Mr Kerr can perhaps join with other parties in this Parliament in calling for the numbers to be raised.
The Scottish Government is also deeply concerned about the fate of Afghans who contributed to British aid efforts and supported western efforts to enhance human rights, but are not prioritised for resettlement. We must support those who supported us, but have been left behind.
We will continue to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Home Office, local authorities and other partners to provide the safety and security that refugees need to rebuild their lives. The new Scots refugee integration strategy, led in partnership with COSLA and the Scottish Refugee Council, provides a framework for welcoming refugees in Scotland. It ensured that Scotland was prepared for resettlement in 2015 and continues to underpin our approach. We believe that integration begins from day one and that everyone in our communities has a part to play.
Scottish local authorities have been welcoming Afghans who worked for British forces or other UK Government institutions, along with their families, for a number of years now. That experience, along with that which has been gained through the resettlement of refugees from the conflict in Syria, will be invaluable in welcoming people into our communities.
I am pleased to be able to give the following update on Scotland’s offer to Afghans resettling here. Before June 2021, five Scottish local authorities had already welcomed nearly 400 people under the Afghan locally employed staff scheme, since 2014. From the point when arrivals were stepped up in late June 2021, until the end of August, a further 43 families—around 160 individuals—arrived in Scotland across eight local authority areas. A further 20 families, comprising approximately 70 individuals, are expected to arrive in the first weeks of this month. Scottish local authorities have offered a further 40 properties thus far—we are at a very early stage—which are ready to be matched to 40 more families who have recently arrived in the UK.
To date, 18 local authorities have confirmed their commitment to resettlement going forward. Others are still going through internal processes to confirm their position. Scottish council leaders have unanimously agreed that Scottish local government should support the locally employed staff and refugee resettlement schemes. Local authorities need more detail, however, on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and operation warm welcome, to enable councils to make further decisions on longer-term commitments and participation. [Interruption.] I must make progress, because of an announcement that I will make to the chamber.
The Scottish Refugee Council set up the new Scots connect network in 2019. The network now brings together 195 community and voluntary groups from across Scotland, working to support and welcome new Scots in their communities. Some 145 groups have already registered their willingness to participate in an Afghan support network, which will outline the services and support that they are able to provide. The SRC has received over 250 inquiries from individuals offering practical skills and donations. The SRC is currently directing offers of clothing, children’s toys and household goods to organisations in the new Scots connect network. People, including anybody watching this who wishes to do so, can register their offers of support online. The SRC is working closely with COSLA and the local authorities that are responsible for accommodating and supporting new arrivals.
I stress that the Scottish Government’s support for Afghan refugees is significant. That is why I announce to the Parliament that the Scottish Government has made £250,000 available from our humanitarian emergency fund to provide critical help to the people of Afghanistan. That is additional to the financial commitment that the Scottish people have already made to the UK’s aid budget through tax contributions. We are in close contact with our humanitarian partners on the fund’s panel to explore ways in which that funding can be delivered safely and effectively to support those on the ground.
As we debate today how best to support the people of Afghanistan, I ask that we all remember that a person’s right to live in peace, dignity and security should not depend on what they can offer the economy of another country. We must ask ourselves, if those were our mothers, daughters, sisters, brothers, sons and fathers, what would we want another country to do to help? I believe that Scotland is ready to help, and we will act.
I commend the motion to all members. I hope that there is cross-party agreement on this important day.
That the Parliament records its alarm at the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Afghanistan following the return of the Taliban; further records its deep concern about the threat to life, liberty, equality, and human rights to all in Afghanistan and, in particular, for women and girls and minority communities; commends the Armed Forces, service personnel, and humanitarian agencies involved in supporting people during the evacuation; notes the UK's long history of involvement with, and intervention in, Afghanistan, and, in consequence, the obligation that the UK has to assist and support all those who are at risk of persecution or mistreatment as a result of the current crisis; recognises the lead role internationally that the UK Government must play in ensuring that aid continues to reach those who need it most and condemns the reduction in international aid by the UK Government from 0.7% of Gross National Income to 0.5%; urges the UK Government to ensure that those Afghans who have worked to provide critical aid assistance, uphold democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Afghanistan, can be allowed to settle in the UK alongside those who are at risk of violence and persecution as outlined in the UN Refugee Convention, and recognises that Scotland has a duty to play a full role in assisting the resettlement and relocation of Afghans at risk and providing humanitarian assistance, and that anyone settling in Scotland will be welcome members of the community.15:08
I appreciate the opportunity to open for the Scottish Conservatives in this timely and important debate. It is also the first time that I have appeared in a debate in the chamber with the cabinet secretary. I very belatedly welcome him to the Parliament and to his post.
I begin my remarks by paying tribute to our armed forces, and particularly those members of them who have served in Afghanistan since the beginning of the conflict, who have given so much in order that the people of Afghanistan could live in relative stability over the past 20 years. I especially pay my respects, and those of my party, to the 457 UK armed forces personnel who lost their lives in the pursuit of democracy for the Afghan people. We remember them today, we think of their families and we thank them for their unswerving courage in the service of our country in making the ultimate sacrifice.
I also acknowledge the 2,200 personnel who sustained injuries during the conflict. As an aside at this point, I note that we welcome the announcement that the UK Government will be investing a further £2.7 million in mental health support for our veterans as part of the wider operation courage programme.
I know that I speak for everyone on the Conservative benches—and, I hope, for others across the Parliament—when I say that we are all indebted to our armed forces, who strive to keep our country safe and work so hard to help others. Not only must their achievements in Afghanistan over the past 20 years be commended, but the ability of our armed forces and diplomatic services to swiftly evacuate some 15,000 people to the UK in extremely difficult circumstances and a very tight timeframe, as we saw in recent weeks, was second to none.
I note what Donald Cameron is saying about the swift removal of the services. However, does he agree that the hardware left for deployment by the Taliban—by the US military, it is suggested—including 22,000 Humvees, 64,000 machine guns, 350,000 assault rifles, 33 Blackhawk helicopters, 176 artillery pieces and 126,000 pistols, can only be considered a cause for concern for global security?
I agree that that is a cause for concern, and I will address elements of the withdrawal in due course.
I acknowledge the sacrifice of the Afghan people—particularly those who worked with our armed forces to try to make Afghanistan a better place in which to live. The long involvement of the UK and, it should be said, 50 or so other nations who participated in Afghanistan over the past 20 years allowed free elections to take place, women and girls to receive an education and an international effort that began to stabilise that part of the world following the brutal attacks on the USA in 2001.
In spite of those achievements, it is depressing and deeply regrettable that, following the exit of American and British military personnel, Afghanistan has spiralled so quickly back to where it was some 20 years ago. The rapid return and rise to power of the Taliban has clearly taken the world by surprise. Despite the promise of more leniency from the new Taliban regime compared with its first time in power, the initial signs are not good. We watch and wait.
It is right that questions are asked of every national Government involved about what went so wrong in Afghanistan. The recent US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, which we have seen played out in the media, should make us consider the sense and worth of our involvement in that country and of policies pursued by successive Governments at home and abroad up to and including the past few months.
In particular, we should query why the Biden Administration pursued its policy of complete military withdrawal and what assumptions were made about the ensuing consequences, and what our future foreign and diplomatic policy should be when it comes to Afghanistan and the surrounding areas.
There are many questions to ask, but we are here this afternoon principally to discuss Scotland’s role in supporting the 25,000 or so Afghan civilians whom the UK will be welcoming over the coming years. It is notable that the UK had already taken in some 36,000 Afghans before the current crisis developed. As a country, we have a proud history of welcoming refugees to our shores, and we have a truly diverse and multicultural society as a result.
Does Mr Cameron believe that consideration should now be given to providing indefinite leave to remain to Afghans already living in the UK so that genuine refugees are not forced to return to Taliban-run Afghanistan?
I will come to that point. I will consider various issues under it, so I will return to it.
We welcome that proud history, even in the dire circumstances that lead some people to seek refuge in our country.
There is much in what the cabinet secretary has just said that I support, especially in terms of welcoming refugees to Scotland. However, I register my profound disappointment that, in the debate and in his motion, he directly “condemns ... the UK Government” in relation to international aid. That makes it very difficult for Conservative members to support the motion as it stands. If there was ever a moment for the Scottish National Party to resist—just once—the temptation to score a political point, this was it. If there was ever a moment for the SNP to allow the Scottish Parliament to come together at an important and, indeed, tragic time, this was it.
Let me touch briefly—[Interruption.]—I am afraid that I have to crack on.
On the topic of international aid, for decades, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of helping some of the poorest and most vulnerable people from around the world. The Scottish Conservatives have long supported the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on international aid, and, although we acknowledge the reasons behind the temporary reduction to 0.5 per cent, we call on the UK Government to reinstate its long-term commitment to 0.7 per cent as soon as is practically possible. Personally speaking, I hope that that moment comes very quickly indeed.
There is, of course, more to international aid than questions of funding. Recently, the UK has led the world in this regard, and the pandemic has shone a spotlight on what we can do. Our contribution includes the UK being the biggest bilateral donor to the Global Partnership for Education, which is the largest fund in the world that is dedicated to improving education in developing countries. Then there is our contribution to the COVAX advance market commitment, the international initiative to support global and, more importantly, equitable access to vaccines. At £548 million, we have made one of the largest donations, which is helping to support the roll-out of 1.8 billion vaccines doses by early 2022 for up to 92 developing countries.
I turn to the issue of refugees. The cabinet secretary has welcomed operation warm welcome, which was announced yesterday and which seeks to ensure that Afghans who are arriving in the UK receive the vital support that they need to rebuild their lives, find work, pursue education and integrate into local communities across the country. I strongly welcome that, and I am encouraged by the detailed and varied forms of support that are on offer to ensure that those who are coming to the UK from Afghanistan can seamlessly become part of our society.
We welcome the commitment to invest £200 million to meet the costs of the first year of the Afghanistan citizens resettlement scheme and the further commitment to ensure that Afghans who worked closely with the UK armed forces and Government in Afghanistan, often at great personal risk, will receive immediate and indefinite leave to remain. To address Kenny Gibson’s point, the UK Government has also confirmed that the 8,000-plus people who have relocated to the UK under the new Afghanistan relocations and assistance policy will be able to apply to convert their temporary leave to remain into indefinite leave. In my view, that is the right and proper course of action to protect Afghans who put themselves and their families in danger by assisting our military and diplomatic endeavours, because it is our duty to provide safety and protection for those who come to the UK from likely persecution.
Will the member give way?
I am in my final minutes. I must move on.
The UK Government has announced a raft of additional social measures to support Afghan citizens who come to the UK, including £12 million to provide additional school places and an additional £3 million to support access to the NHS. I hope that the Scottish Government will make a similar commitment. Perhaps the Government will return to that point when the cabinet secretary closes.
I will sum up by reinforcing the point that the Scottish Conservatives will support the efforts of Scotland’s Governments in welcoming Afghans to our country. We believe that the package of measures that the UK Government has put together will ensure that those who are coming to the UK will be able to build a new life here. We must also ensure that we properly support our veterans, our serving personnel and the families of those who lost their lives serving their country as a result of this tragic conflict.
I move amendment S6M-01003.2, to leave out from “, in consequence” to “UN Refugee Convention” and insert:
“acknowledges the significant effort and sacrifices made by the UK armed forces, including the 457 personnel who lost their lives and the 2,200 personnel who were injured, and the Afghan people, in ensuring relative stability in Afghanistan over the course of the last 20 years; welcomes the announcement of Operation Warm Welcome by the UK Government, which seeks to ensure that those arriving from Afghanistan to the UK have the opportunity to rebuild their lives, find work, seek education and become part of their local communities; acknowledges that the UK Government has committed £200 million to meet the cost of the first year of the Afghanistan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, which aims to welcome up to 20,000 Afghans; understands that the UK Government has also committed £2.7 million to additional mental health support for veterans as part of Operation Courage; calls on the UK Government to reinstate its long-term financial commitment to international aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income as soon as is practicably possible”.15:17
I welcome the opportunity to debate what we can do now to support the people of Afghanistan. The debate must be about our responsibilities to the people of a country that we have been involved with for 20 years, and today we need to unite as a Parliament and show our support for humanitarian action, the civil rights of the Afghan people and women’s rights, in particular.
We do not have time to debate the wider lessons that need to be learned from the 20 years of our involvement in Afghanistan. For that reason, I welcome the call for the restoration of UK spending on international aid to be reinstated by the Tory Government in the amendment that Donald Cameron has moved today. However, that cut should never have been made. It demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the vital nature of international aid and support in Afghanistan and across the world.
I hope that everyone who is in the chamber is thinking about the women who are now being denied the opportunity to live their lives without fear, of all the young girls who benefited from education in the past 20 years but might never get the chance to show the world their contributions to society, of the work of our armed forces and all those who worked incredibly hard to keep those who were seeking to flee Afghanistan the best chance to get to the UK, of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country and in the belief that they were building something better, and of those in charities and development organisations who are still in Afghanistan, helping people on the ground and putting their own lives at risk.
We now have a crisis of global proportions and one that requires a joined-up international response. As an immediate priority, people who are fleeing Afghanistan need to be able to cross the border into neighbouring countries, NATO should be called on to offer logistical assistance where that would be helpful, and western democracies must offer financial support to those nations. European countries need to support that effort by opening their borders, and we, in the UK, must play our part in that. It is especially urgent that the UK Government steps up to ensure that people who have the right to British citizenship are supported and that those who claim asylum are helped. We must honour the work of everyone who has been involved in our diplomatic and military operations in the country.
I stand with my Labour colleague Lisa Nandy MP in demanding that the UK Government does not abandon the thousands of people who have been left behind in Afghanistan and that it increases the resources that it is deploying to help refugees to reach safety in the UK. The stories from MPs about the failure to connect with people who have been getting in touch are appalling. In that respect, the Lib Dem amendment’s call for the UK Government to lift the overall cap on the number of people we should be supporting is important and needs urgent action.
I thank the Scottish Refugee Council for the work that it has done and for its excellent briefing, which highlights the need for a change of direction from the UK Government and calls on all of us to share responsibility in our actions to address the scale of the situation and the number of Afghan refugees who need our support.
The Labour councillor for Roxeth in Harrow, Peymana Assad, came to the UK as a refugee from Afghanistan at the age of three. This week, she spoke passionately about our collective sense of duty to a country that is living in fear. It is vital that refugees are given the opportunity to work when they settle in our country so that they can contribute their skills to our economy and our communities. Across the UK, we have witnessed the benefits that refugees bring to our communities when they are allowed to participate in our society. That has been evident most recently in the number of successful businesses and community groups that have been set up by Syrians who fled the civil war and persecution in their country.
In turn, we, in Scotland, need to welcome refugees and, in doing so, support local community groups such as the Welcoming Association here, in Edinburgh, which make the transition to life in Scotland successful for everyone.
It is vital that our councils are properly funded so that they can welcome those people who choose to settle here. In the past few days, I have spoken to my Labour colleagues on the City of Edinburgh Council. They have previously raised the need for funding to assist them in addressing the issue of homelessness in our city. They estimate that there is already a gap of £9.5 million, which should have been received during the Covid emergency. The Scottish Government must not short change people in Edinburgh who need help to find a home, including the people who are arriving here from Afghanistan, whom we all need to help. I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
I call on the Scottish Government to provide the targeted support that our councils need to ensure that refugees who arrive in Scotland are given the life and the opportunities that they deserve and not just rhetoric, however good it is. Our amendment highlights the importance of our local authorities, community organisations and individual citizens in ensuring that every refugee is given the support that they need, now and in the future, to ensure that their new lives in Scotland are successful.
Afghanistan is divided, it is suffering economic collapse and its people are living in fear. The Taliban say that they have changed, but most commentators very much doubt that. The world is watching. Aid and support that have been pledged from countries across the world need to be delivered to the people who need them instead of going into the pockets of warlords. As well as supporting people to come to Scotland and the UK, we need to play a progressive role in speaking up for humanitarian assistance and support for human rights—especially women’s rights—and for democracy.
I move amendment S6M-01003.3, to insert at end:
“, and recognises the importance of Scottish local authorities, community organisations and individual citizens in helping ensure a successful transition for every refugee.”
We have a little time in hand, so I encourage members to make and take interventions. Those who take interventions will get the time back.15:24
I am very grateful to the Government for the motion that we are debating and for the tone of the speeches of the parties that we have heard from so far, which underlines the humanitarian catastrophe that we are witnessing in the part of the world in question.
I will start my remarks by reflecting on an aspect of my life that I do not often talk about in the chamber—that is, my Quakerism. I am slightly agnostic when it comes to religion, but I am a Quaker by choice rather than birthright.
I have always grappled with military intervention and I have marched against it and against wars, but two weeks ago I found myself in the strange position of actively hoping that our troops would remain on the ground in Afghanistan.
As the Taliban advanced across the country towards Kabul, the images and individual stories were absolutely harrowing. I was reminded of the words of the author Warsan Shire, who said:
“no one leaves home
unless home is the mouth of a shark”.
Babies were passed over walls by parents making the hardest decision they will ever have to make. People waded through a sewage canal to get to the gates of an airport, holding documents that they would never have the chance to show to anyone. British passports and letters of invitation to the UK were ignored and left to fall apart in the sewage. People stayed at those gates despite warnings of an imminent terror attack, and they stayed during and after an attack that robbed dozens in the queues in front of them of their lives.
If they were lucky enough to get through all of that unscathed, people got on flights with no possessions except the clothes on their backs. Some had no idea where the flight was even going, as long as it carried them over the Afghan border. In scenes that none of us will ever forget, some clung to the outside of moving jets with no hope of survival. That is an act of desperation. Terror, persecution, oppression, abuse and violence drive people to do that to have just a shot at evacuation and escape.
The Taliban have tried to reassure the world that they and their world view have changed, but aspects of their language and the actions that they are taking give the lie to those assurances. They are not schoolboys. For want of a better phrase, the Taliban are a death cult. They stone gay men or crush them to death. They cut the tips off women’s fingers and they persecute and beat women in the street for supposed transgressions. They have a twisted view of what they believe to be Sharia law. They are brutal mediaevalists.
We spend a lot of time here focusing on where we disagree. I whole-heartedly hope that each of us recognises our duty to the people of Afghanistan. We cannot leave them on their own to fight for survival and basic human rights. I recognise that our military presence in Afghanistan has ended, but the humanitarian support and safe harbour that we offer to the people of that country must continue.
I support the Scottish Government’s motion today. It mirrors the arguments being made by Liberal Democrats in this Parliament and at Westminster. My amendment sets out how I would like the UK and Scottish Governments to go still further. The UK Government should urgently expand its plans for the resettlement of Afghan refugees. It has offered to provide sanctuary to 20,000 people. The scenes already described today show why we cannot wait for four or five years. This crisis is happening now. Given its scale, 20,000 people should be the starting point, not the limit, of our ambition; it should be the floor, not the ceiling.
That is why I want the Scottish Government to share evidence of the support that it can make available and of the resources that it can gather or dedicate. I do not doubt the Government’s credentials on the matter or the scope of its desire to make a difference. I welcome that. Those who arrive will need physical and mental healthcare. We have heard about some of that already. They will need housing, guardians, translators, education and more. They have faced enormous suffering and trauma. I ask the Scottish Government to guarantee that it is ready to assist in cross-party, cross-Parliament and cross-sector work to persuade the UK Government to lift its ambitions. If Scottish ministers produce and share guarantees of Scotland’s readiness, that could help to enable Scotland to provide safe harbour to thousands more.
I am grateful for Sarah Boyack’s kind words about our amendment. Her amendment aligns with mine in recognising the important role of local authorities, the third sector and other stakeholders.
However, the warm words in the Scottish Conservatives’ amendment cannot hide the devastation caused by the decisions of Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab or by those of President Biden and others. Although Donald Cameron made an excellent speech, it is undermined by the conflict that exists in his party over the 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product aid commitment. I welcome his call for his colleagues south of the border to increase that. I hope that they listen to him.
The UK and US Governments have left the people of Afghanistan, particularly women and girls, to the Taliban. It is a betrayal, and their decisions have left thousands fearing for their lives. How many UK nationals and Afghans were left behind? Why did we wait so long to start evacuating interpreters if we knew that this was coming? They worked with our troops and officials for 20 years. There is no hiding that this is the biggest foreign policy disaster in decades.
Every Scottish Conservative should be ashamed by their part in surrendering the UK’s position of leadership and strength on international aid. Only a handful of countries met the UN’s 0.7 per cent target and, thanks to the Lib Dems putting it into law, the UK was one of them. That commitment has been shed, and it is not just Afghanistan that will suffer. In Yemen, where aid is being halved, 400,000 children under five are at risk of starving to death. Aid cuts to that country are a death sentence, according to the UN secretary general.
Will the member give way?
The member is just concluding, but—
I am happy to take an intervention if there is time, Presiding Officer.
I note that London is soon to host the world’s biggest arms fair. Surely, given the member’s comments and points, which many of us agree on, what we actually need to be hosting is the world’s biggest humanitarian fair.
As I am a Quaker, it will come as no surprise to Michelle Thomson that I utterly agree with her on that.
I will finish by quoting the words of a teacher in Kabul who previously worked as an interpreter for the international forces. He said:
“I sleep 10 minutes, then I wake up. I sleep 15 minutes, then I wake up ... I am feeling tremendous fear ... When they”—
that is, the Taliban—
“announce their government I’m sure they’ll be killing us”.
Our words will mean nothing to the Afghans if we do not deliver with our actions.
I move amendment S6M-01003.1, to insert at end
“; urges the UK Government to expand urgently its plans for the resettlement of 20,000 Afghan refugees, with a new plan to provide immediate sanctuary to people fleeing persecution, oppression and terror, instead of spreading assistance over five years; believes that the resettlement of 20,000 people should be the starting point instead of the final target, and urges the Scottish Government, in light of the immediate human need, to share proactively evidence of the number that it can resettle and provide effective support and services to, including the capacity to provide physical and mental healthcare, housing, guardians, translators and education, providing guarantees that the Scottish Government and public authorities across Scotland are ready to assist, in order to help persuade the UK Government to lift the overall cap and enable Scotland to provide sanctuary to thousands.”
We move to the open debate. I call Kaukab Stewart, to be followed by Pam Gosal. Ms Stewart, you have six minutes.15:32
I, too, thank the Scottish Government for showing much-needed urgency in lodging the motion for debate. I speak today not only as an elected member, but as a Pakistani immigrant—to England, originally; I then moved to Scotland, where I have been made to feel welcome.
The scenes that we are witnessing in Afghanistan at present depict nothing short of a man-made humanitarian and human rights disaster. Having invaded the country 20 years ago, the UK and its international partners are now abandoning the very people they have long claimed to be protecting. Just as in Britain’s imperial past, the UK has never understood the people or the country that it has occupied. There is nothing great about a Britain that abdicates its responsibilities and leaves thousands to the mercies of a cruel and barbarous regime. It is therefore the Conservative Government’s moral and ethical responsibility to offer every support to those who are seeking asylum.
The human cost of the crisis is impacting my constituents right now. Only last week, I spoke with members of the Afghan community in Glasgow, and they did not know whether their families were alive or dead. At that time, most of them were hiding from the Taliban in Kabul. Perhaps most difficult to hear were people’s fears for their daughters, sisters and mothers. The tension in the room was palpable, and it reminded me of my experiences as a teacher working specifically with children and families who were forced to seek asylum in Glasgow. Families who have had to flee their home country in fear of death or worse have felt safe in my city, and I was privileged to assist them in rebuilding their lives.
Moving forward, it will be critical that the young Afghan people we welcome have access to specialist trauma support as well as language and social supports to help them to settle in the UK. Given that the crisis was entirely the creation of the UK Government and its partners, the UK Government must in turn provide the additional funding that is necessary to fully support these children.
The Afghan community representatives I spoke to were clear about what they need. They emphasised the necessity for the UK Government to put in place a fast-track process for existing Afghan asylum applications in the UK, of which there are more than 3,000 at present, and the triggering of family reunion rights, which need to be extended beyond spouses and children under 18. Furthermore, there should be no immigration returns to Afghanistan, asylum support cessations or evictions of Afghans.
Worryingly, the ideological war waged by the Conservative Party has left the UK aid budget ill-prepared for the current pressure that it faces. Even overseas development and aid programmes focusing on the education and health of women and girls have been cut.
I observe that every political party that has taken part in the debate so far—apart from the Conservatives, who are coming on to the issue later—has given a commitment to Afghans who are already in the United Kingdom, so that those who are genuine refugees, whom I imagine are the vast majority, should not be returned to Taliban-led Afghanistan. Does Kaukab Stewart agree that it would be helpful if, in the winding-up speeches, we could have the commitment of all parties, including the Conservative Party, on that important point?
I absolutely agree with the cabinet secretary on that point and I look forward to hearing that in everyone’s winding-up speeches.
As I was saying, there has been a cut from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product. That sounds like a tiny percentage, but it would make a massive difference to the Afghans in desperate need of support at present and in the months to come. Indeed, even the UK’s current commitment to take 20,000 Afghan refugees does not tell the whole story. In reality, the UK has committed to take only 5,000 Afghans in 2021, which is woefully inadequate.
There is also a clear and present domestic danger to all refugees, including fleeing Afghans, from the Home Office’s Nationality and Borders Bill. If passed in its current form, the bill will sever the UK’s relationship with the refugee convention. For 70 years, the convention, which was created and shaped by Britain after the Holocaust, enshrined an individual’s right to seek refuge—a basic human right. Instead of sheltering the most vulnerable, the new UK immigration agenda aims to criminalise refugees who arrive on our shores by “irregular means of travel”.
Compare that to the position of the Scottish Government, which has used the refugee convention and human rights as the foundations of the new Scots refugee integration policy, with dignity for all at its core. As Scotland prepares to welcome those fleeing the Taliban, we are incredibly lucky that our local authorities, such as Glasgow City Council, have been opening their doors to the world’s evacuees for more than 20 years.
The UNESCO chair in refugee integration through languages and the arts highlighted that a key to the success that it has enjoyed in Glasgow in integrating our refugee population—the highest per head in the whole of the UK—has been respecting a key objective of the Global Compact on Refugees: enhancing refugee self-reliance. It will be vital that partnership working with local refugee support groups and the Scottish Afghan refugee associations are co-ordinated to achieve that. In that vein, it is welcome indeed that the Scottish Government has reiterated its commitment to work with partners at all levels in order to provide refugees with the support and safety that they need to rebuild their lives.
The UK Government must hold true to its international obligations under the refugee convention and the Global Compact on Refugees. Anything short of that would be a complete moral failure and a clear demonstration that people cannot trust the UK when they need its support the most.15:38
At the start, I would like to say that this is a personal and sensitive speech. I might have some time at the end for interventions, but I will not be taking any otherwise, as I would like to make progress with my speech.
It is with great sadness that, after 20 years of our intervention in Afghanistan, we are standing here today watching the liberties of innocent people and those who helped us being taken away. Under the Taliban, things will go backwards. Let us be clear: the Taliban have not changed. Women who had gained liberty and had a future now fear for their lives. Girls who could go to school, get an education and build a future will now be a lost generation. Women who could stand for elections will now be sidelined.
Literally overnight, the fragile democracy that has been built up over 20 years has been shattered. The haunting images of terrified Afghans fleeing Kabul airport, desperately seeking refuge from the terror that awaited them, are unlikely to escape our memory any time soon. I am sure that there are many women in the chamber today who have been told at some point, “You can’t do that,” or told that, as a woman, they do not have the same rights and opportunities as men. I certainly have. It is not something that we ever forget. The thought of young girls being robbed of their education and freedom is difficult to comprehend.
I know that all of us in the chamber will look at the images coming from Afghanistan and feel a range of emotions, from sadness to helplessness. More than anything, though, I am angry. That is how I feel, as a woman, knowing that so many young Afghan girls will never go to school. They will never be able to forge their own paths, simply because they are women. We gave those women and girls hope. We gave them jobs and careers, and the prospect of a brighter future. We gave them a voice, all to be taken away by the medieval mindset of the Taliban rule. Those same women are being silenced and their futures are being stolen. We are now their voice.
I am sure that we have all heard the stories of women burning their diplomas and degree certificates to hide the fact that they were educated. I ask members to imagine for a moment that it is their daughter desperately concealing her education to avoid extreme punishment for having had the audacity to go to school. It is a horrible thought, but the daughters of Afghanistan will be punished by the Taliban—make no mistake about that.
Although there is plenty of blame to go around, we must all focus on the here and now. Responsibility for responding to the crisis sits with all of us. We must focus on helping to rebuild the lives of Afghans and their families who come to the United Kingdom. I welcome the UK Government’s commitment to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees in the UK, most notably interpreters and other individuals who have helped our armed forces. I also welcome the fact that people whose lives were deemed to be threatened by the Taliban are being offered indefinite leave to remain in the UK. That is the right decision.
Even before the crisis, though, the UK had taken in more than 36,000 Afghans since 1996. It is right that we should open our refugee scheme and make it accessible to all those who need it. I know that Scotland will play its part. Scotland’s councils and voluntary organisations have risen to this sort of challenge before and they will do it again. Already, people across the country have responded to calls asking for donations of clothes, nappies, toys, prams, pans, kitchen utensils and so on.
There is, of course, a role for our brave armed forces and diplomats who were on the ground in Afghanistan. They faced extraordinary danger, with the enemy at their gates, working day and night to get as many people out as they could. Despite a very real threat to their lives, they continued the exemplary level of professionalism that they are famed for worldwide. Once again, they have made our country proud and earned a place in the history books. I applaud and thank them.
Let us not forget that this is not the end; it is the beginning. The question that we must attend to is what comes next. People have been left behind and we must do all what we can to help them.
In closing, I want to talk about the devastation that now plagues Afghanistan. The figure that stands out for me is that for 15 consecutive years the number of free countries in the world has declined. Let us take a moment to think about that figure—it is shocking.
One thing on which we all agree, no matter what our politics are, is that we have a responsibility not to turn our backs on those who need our help, whether they are former Afghan service personnel, women and girls or people from minority communities. There is much to do, but that is what Scotland is all about.15:45
Many of my constituents are Afghan families who, over the past few weeks and months, have been on the phone to loved ones, family members, friends and neighbours in Afghanistan, worried sick about their safety. The everyday reality of those parents, brothers, sisters and children is often to hide and regularly move from house to house to escape the clutches of the Taliban. Those precious phone calls to tell relatives that they are loved, and to hear that they are still alive and safe for the time being, but always at risk, not only are heartbreaking but tell a different story from the public face that the Taliban seek to present to the outside world and the international community.
Glasgow Afghans know the truth. They speak daily to friends and loved ones who face the reality on the ground. A constituent’s brother was in Baghlan province, saw his district overrun by the Taliban and was put in jail to await the arrival of a Taliban officer who was going to question him. Before that happened however, a counterattack by the Northern Alliance, which still fights against the Taliban today, retook the area and the prisoner was freed. Had that counterattack been delayed by a single day, my constituent’s brother would now be dead.
My constituent’s brother is now desperately trying to make his way overland out of Afghanistan to a place of safety. Sadly, the district in Baghlan province is currently back in Taliban control for the time being. What is a safe route out of Afghanistan for my constituent’s brother? He clearly cannot return to Afghanistan if, God willing, he makes it out to safety in the first place. He has family in Glasgow. What has he done to be under threat? He was supporting the Afghan national police force to bring law and order, peace, safety and security to the nation; now, his life is in peril. Should he make it to the UK, it would be an outrage to see him criminalised under the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill—Maggie Chapman’s amendment highlights the issue.
The experience of my constituent’s brother also highlights the fact that the Taliban may control most of the country but it does not control it all. Panjshir province continues to hold out against it, and Ahmad Massoud, son of Afghan national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, leads that resistance. Shah Massoud held off both the Soviets and the Taliban before his assassination in 2001.
Today’s motion talks about recognising
“the lead role internationally that the UK Government must play in ensuring that aid continues to reach those who need it most”.
In that context, I welcome the £250,000 humanity emergency fund that the Scottish Government announced to support those in great need, which is, as the cabinet secretary pointed out, an additional financial commitment to that which the Scottish people already make to the UK’s aid budget through tax contributions.
Of course, aid to Afghanistan needs to go to as many people as possible who are in great danger and our aid agencies have to be safe. The UK and the international community also need to ensure that aid goes, when possible, to all parts of Afghanistan that are in need of support, not just those areas under Taliban control. I understand from Afghan constituents that the Taliban have effectively blocked off routes in and out of Panjshir province and the people there might need humanitarian support.
In Scotland, we need to ensure that all 32 local authorities are supported and empowered to take in Afghan families who are fleeing violence. I know that there will be much discussion about how much money the UK Government will provide to support our councils, and I do not want to get involved in that argument this afternoon. We should not forget, however, that the UK spent a reported £38 billion on its involvement in Afghanistan. Health, education, housing and wider community support come at a cost but, frankly, providing them is the right thing to do morally. How much support will the UK Government put up for them?
Together with those of the USA, the UK’s promises of protecting human rights and supporting a free, open and democratic society in Afghanistan, where the rights of women, children and minorities are respected, have melted away dramatically and with alarming speed. Funding the humanitarian fallout to ensure that local authorities across Britain can play their part in supporting Afghanistan friends is the very least that the UK Government could do.
In Scotland, much of the co-ordination must be led by the Scottish Government and partner agencies. We have a proud record of integrating communities well. However, such integration does not happen by accident—it takes careful planning and preparation. I hope that Scotland’s Afghan community will be involved in that planning and preparation as well as in the delivery of support.
I was pleased to hear that the cabinet secretary has already had a roundtable meeting with various public partners, as well as with community organisations such as Glasgow Afghan United. The strain placed on Glasgow Afghan United over the past few weeks has been immense. Often, the volunteers supporting the wider community also have loved ones at risk in Afghanistan at this difficult time. Their workload has spiralled, but the practical and emotional support offered has been vital for many families. Such organisations will be vital in supporting the Afghan new Scots families who will settle here in Scotland. The integration networks such as the Maryhill Integration Network and the Scottish Refugee Council are also vital. I was pleased to hear about the fantastic and amazing job that the Scottish Refugee Council has already undertaken. We have to ensure that those organisations are not just part of support plans and preparations but are resourced to deliver that vital support on the ground. I am sure that the Scottish Government will take that seriously. We should not underestimate the emotional and mental support that is offered by such organisations.
I have not mentioned how many families the UK and Scotland should take. Needless to say, the current numbers are widely accepted to be grossly insufficient. However, when the UK Government looks at the numbers of Afghan families as well as the criteria for settling in the UK, it should look generously at humanitarian reasons to support family reunification for so many Scots Afghan families whose loved ones are in danger right now in Afghanistan. They are in great peril. Scots Afghans are worried sick about their brothers, sisters, fathers and wider families.
I stand in solidarity with my constituents who are Afghan and Afghan Scots today. As a Parliament, we should come together to do all that we can to help as many people as possible to make a new life in Scotland that is safe and free and in which they can realise the dreams and aspirations that have been so cruelly snatched from them in Afghanistan.15:53
I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government has chosen to have an early debate on such an important subject. There have been some excellent and important speeches, including the previous one by Bob Doris.
Antiwar.com columnist, Daniel Larison, has said:
“Now that U.S. forces have finally exited Afghanistan, some American hawks are already agitating for the government to stoke internal conflict by backing a new insurgency and wage economic warfare on the country ... The US has previously responded to military defeat by inflicting economic punishment on the former enemy. The US trade embargo on Vietnam impaired the country’s economic recovery and contributed to the mass exodus of refugees from the country beginning in the late 1970s.”
We already know that there is a significant refugee crisis in the wake of the US-led exit from Afghanistan. Inflicting collective punishment on a country will drive even more people to flee to other countries. The international approach must be to recognise that Afghanistan remains a poor country that remains heavily dependent on outside aid. Any disruption to the flow of that aid will have serious consequences.
Meanwhile, all of us in the Parliament are worried about the position of women and girls and LGBT people who are left under Taliban rule. As Sarah Boyack says, we must not forget them. It is a huge human rights crisis and a geopolitical nightmare in the region. We did not need the distraction of our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, giving a dreadful performance yesterday when trying to answer questions on his role. Now, we must focus on what we can do.
Lisa Nandy has described the situation as
“The biggest foreign policy failing in a generation”.
The scenes from Kabul airport are shocking. The evacuation process from Afghanistan has been, and continues to be, at best, a shambles and, at worst, life threatening.
Warnings were given that there would be a bomb blast outside Kabul airport last week, but still, sadly, 92 people died. Their willingness to risk their lives to get to the airport demonstrates the desperation felt by many Afghans, who see no future for themselves under Taliban rule. Who can forget the footage of hundreds of people at Kabul airport running alongside a US Air Force plane as it gathered speed on the runway, with several men clinging on to the side? Harrowing videos posted on social media appeared to show two people falling to their deaths from the US aircraft after it took off. One was an Afghan teenager, Zaki Anwari—a 19-year-old footballer who played for the national youth football team. It is an absolute tragedy that his life was cut short in such appalling circumstances.
The shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, noted that
“The appalling mishandling of the collapse in Afghanistan by Conservative Ministers has left huge numbers of lives at risk and a potential humanitarian crisis”
and said that the lack of planning to get people out is totally unforgivable.
In the past week, the UK Government has announced that it will create safe routes for Afghans to come to the UK, and I whole-heartedly welcome that. However, we still do not know how those supposed safe routes will be opened up, and many people obviously fear for their lives in relation to being able to access those routes.
In the past fortnight, 15,000 Afghans have arrived in the UK, 8,000 of whom are former British Government employees. Those who were working for the UK Government were brought in under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, so they will get indefinite rather than temporary leave to remain, and that is to be welcomed. However, as has been said, under the Nationality and Borders Bill and current immigration rules, Afghans who try to escape through what are obviously not safe routes on boats will be automatically refused and disqualified. It would be helpful for Conservative colleagues in particular to add their voices to highlight the seriousness of that, if we are serious about providing safe passage and refuge for Afghans who are trying to get out of the country.
It appears so far that those who were considered at risk have been flown out, but those who have not been working for the UK Government will have the usual long wait to have their applications considered, and they will not be able to work in the meantime. There is quite a lot to consider in terms of the immigration rules that will apply to people whom we want to help.
I want to raise some questions around the current Syrian refugee resettlement scheme, which the minister mentioned. It is great to hear that 18 councils have come forward, but in the past some councils have complained that financial support for the scheme has not been as good as it should be. I would like some reassurances on that, although I welcome the announcement of the emergency fund.
I share the view of the First Minister and the minister, Angus Robertson, that we in Scotland should make a big commitment to settle Afghan refugees. That would be humanitarian, and it is something that Scotland has done in the past. It would be helpful to have some clarity on the numbers that we hope to take. I appreciate that there is a debate over how many of the 5,000 refugees the Scottish Government hopes to take, and around the numbers that it would like to take beyond that, with regard to funding. We need financial support, as we can see that difficulties might otherwise arise.
Bob Doris talked eloquently about Glasgow, which has a fairly large Afghan community, and there will be a much bigger Afghan population around the country. Those Afghans who have settled in Scotland have been absolutely amazing in providing support, and it would be worth considering whether some of that money could go towards ensuring that they can give advice and support to people who come to Scotland, because they themselves know what it is like. It might be quite helpful to give them access to some funding as part of the whole programme.15:58
Afghanistan is at a pivotal point in its existence. In reality, very little progress towards a truly modern democratic society as we would recognise it has been made over the past 20 years. For example, under the first Taliban regime, 2.3 per cent of girls attended secondary school; by this year, the figure for girls was still only 13.2 per cent, and it was 37 per cent for boys. Views remain highly traditional, with 85 per cent of Afghans believing that adulterous women—not men—should be stoned to death, and 79 per cent supporting the death penalty for apostasy. It is not difficult, therefore, to see why the Taliban were able to secure the support of a sizeable chunk of Afghanistan’s population in rural areas in particular.
The country was devastated by more than four decades of war, from the 1979 Soviet invasion onwards. The Soviets caused catastrophic damage to Afghan society, killing an estimated total of between 600,000 and 2 million people and destroying half the country’s 24,000 villages, with a quarter of the population fleeing abroad. Nevertheless, after they left, following a costly guerrilla war by radicalised mujaheddin backed by the west, China and the Gulf states, the client state that was left in place still survived for a year longer than the Soviet Union itself. We can contrast that with the almost immediate collapse of the US-backed Afghan Government kleptocracy, which took place over a few days.
The relative calm in recent years, secured by the dedication and sacrifices of UK and US forces, and coalition forces from Canada to Croatia, masked rampant corruption, tribal patronage and predatory policing of elections. Billions of dollars in military and development aid were stolen, warlords were kept in place and a small privileged elite was in charge. Generals claimed the salaries of non-existent soldiers while failing to feed those who were actually under their command.
Such was the rush to leave Afghanistan that the US commander of Bagram air base neglected even to tell his Afghan counterpart that he was off. Shockingly, DNA and biometric data on those who worked for the US and its allies were left to the Taliban. Black Hawk helicopters, 22,000 Humvees and even Cessna ground-attack aircraft were abandoned, although without spare parts they will not last; they could perhaps be exchanged following negotiations as the west tries to limit growing Chinese influence.
Professor Michael Burleigh’s book “Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World 1945-65” exposes the shocking ineptitude of US post-war foreign policy, and that ineptitude continues more than half a century later. In 2019, development and humanitarian aid, ranging from money invested in the economy, education, counterterrorism and narcotics control to disaster relief and refugee support, amounted to $779 million in a country of 39 million. To put that in context, it is less than NHS Ayrshire and Arran’s budget for that year to serve 367,000 people.
Most of the aid provided over two decades was in the form of military hardware and salaries. Altogether, foreign aid represented almost 78 per cent of Afghanistan’s public expenditure in 2019. That money is now lost to a desperately poor economy, and three quarters of the population does not have enough to eat as winter approaches.
Humanitarian aid is of critical importance and should be provided directly to the people, without preconditions, if the Taliban permit it. Additional aid must be surely be dependent on how the Taliban treat women, girls and minorities, on whether they will allow some of Afghanistan’s citizens to leave and on the country not becoming, once again, a haven for the launch of terrorist attacks.
The impact of the Taliban’s renewed control of Afghanistan will reach far beyond Afghanistan’s borders unless another issue that is of direct importance to Scotland and the west is addressed: opium. The Taliban claim that they will work to eradicate poppy cultivation, the practice of which was nearly eradicated two decades ago. However, should we believe the Taliban when an estimated three million people in Afghanistan are now employed in opium production and distribution? Three of the past four years have witnessed record opium production in Afghanistan, with cultivation soaring by 37 per cent last year. According to the United Nations 2021 world drug report, almost 93 per cent of villages in the country’s southern region cultivate opium poppies, and all village leaders in Helmand reported opium poppy cultivation to the UN.
Cutting the seed pods of mature poppies pays at least twice as much as harvesting pistachios and significantly more than working in construction. Revenue from heroin and opium provides the Taliban with an estimated 60 per cent of their income, which is important for the Taliban to maintain—they may even want to expand that. In a country with 40 per cent unemployment, farmers living hand to mouth receive advance payments for growing poppies but not other crops. Can they be blamed for growing poppies, or does the problem lie with greed, international demand and a system that incentivises cultivating illegal crops?
There is money to be made from the 10 per cent cultivation tax that is collected from poppy farmers by the Taliban, and drug labs that produce heroin are subjected to taxation, too, with estimates of the Taliban’s annual income from that ranging up to US $400 million. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 90 per cent of the world’s heroin and opium supply originates in Afghanistan, contributing 11 per cent to its gross domestic product.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint exact numbers, less open to dispute is where the Afghan heroin ends up. Here in Scotland, another 1,339 lives were lost to drug overdoses last year, many of which were down to heroin. The Scottish Government is working to tackle the problem in multiple ways. However, controlling a supply of heroin by tackling importation is extremely difficult. The National Crime Agency works with partners on every step of the trafficking route.
Although the Taliban regime is utterly reprehensible, it would be wrong to disregard the contribution of other actors to the thriving heroin industry. There is a reason why the production of opium and heroin was able to soar in the way that it did over the past 15 years while there was an Afghan Government in place that was not the Taliban. Corrupt Afghan Government officials not only allowed the trade to flourish over the years; they actively nurtured and benefited it, while cultivation seemed to go relatively unhindered by western forces. It is hard to believe that the Taliban will crack down, but that must be one of the demands made by the international community. The Taliban want to consolidate their regime, but dealing with them is a tough task, given their ideology and the fact that an even more fanatical fundamentalist force, Islamic State-Khorasan Province, is waiting in the wings should they appear too moderate to their own supporters.
Afghanistan faces a bleak future but, for its people and for the safety and security of our own, we cannot abandon it, and we must work with everyone we can to do our best for the people of Afghanistan.16:05
The current crisis in Afghanistan is both overwhelming and multilayered, but I will begin by expressing my solidarity with all those who are suffering or who are trying to flee to safety, and my deepest sympathies go to those who have lost loved ones in this catastrophe.
More than 18 million people within the country are in need of humanitarian aid, their sufferings intensified both by the Covid pandemic and by climate change-induced droughts. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that more than 550,000 Afghan people—more than half a million—have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of this year alone, adding to the 3 million who are already displaced inside Afghanistan and the 2.6 million refugees elsewhere, nearly 90 per cent of whom are in Pakistan and Iran.
The United Kingdom and its allies bear a great responsibility, not only to the Afghan people who have worked with our military forces, thereby placing themselves and their families at increased risk, but in relation to long-running harms and injustices endured by the entire Afghan nation. Afghanistan was the unwilling playground for the so-called great game of the 19th century that was callously played between the British and Russian empires. It was again exploited as a proxy for the cold war in the 1980s, when the US urged rebels to fight “to the last Afghan.” At the very beginning of our current century, its people experienced the arrogance and recklessness of Bush and Blair’s enthusiastic invasion and its tragic aftermath.
Clearly, the UK is complicit in the failed attempt at nation building in Afghanistan. We must stand up and recognise our role in creating this crisis and accept and act on our responsibility to Afghans fleeing conflict and persecution. The UK Government’s current commitment to take in 20,000 Afghans is pathetic. We must do more. As has already been discussed this afternoon, the UK Government’s cut to the aid budget means that we are failing in our duty to those in need around the world, and it is especially disgraceful when considering the reliance of those seeking refuge in refugee camps and elsewhere, and of those who are internally displaced, on foreign aid. I add my voice to the calls that have been made this afternoon to give those who are already in the UK indefinite leave to remain.
The invasion of Afghanistan, like the later war in Iraq, was part of the desperate neo-conservative search for a “good war,” in which the resources of the global south are seized for extractive capitalism, with the war dressed as promoting human rights. In Afghanistan, there was rhetoric about women’s rights—but more Afghan women and children have been killed and wounded during the first six months of 2021 than in any full year since records of civilian casualties began to be kept. That year, by the way, was 2009, eight years after the invasion. That indicates something of the way in which imperialists have disregarded the lives and wellbeing of the most vulnerable in Afghanistan. The US drone strike of just a few days ago, which was reported to have killed several young children, might well be another sign of that same contempt.
The Scottish people—those people who, this summer, stood in solidarity to prevent the deportation of their neighbours and friends—will recognise this as a matter not just of charity and compassion but of justice. They will want us, as their representatives, to do everything we possibly can to support those in need, both those within Afghanistan and refugees. They will expect to see the international humanitarian fund used in this crisis, in order to be able to welcome Afghan refugees to their towns and cities and to support the work and expertise of civil society organisations. I thank the cabinet secretary for the announcement earlier this afternoon of £250,000 for the fund. I echo his remarks and those of Sarah Boyack and others about the role that civil society organisations and local authorities played during the Syrian resettlement scheme, and I know that they are ready to step up once again.
The Scottish people will want to see the Scottish Government using its moral influence not only to urge international co-operation on safe routes and humanitarian visas, but to bring about a discourse of respect and honesty. This crisis has shown us in stark and agonising clarity how desperately we need to make our own independent and humane immigration policy, as the direction in which the UK Government is plummeting can be nothing but a source of shame for us.
The Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently at the committee stage in the House of Commons, is a direct and callous attack on the basic rights of refugees. If passed in its current form, it will place the UK in contravention of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, that historic treaty passed after the second world war, in which the global community looked back at the dispossessed and persecuted and said, “Never again.”
However, the Nationality and Borders Bill would criminalise genuine refugees who are unable to travel directly from their country of persecution, threatening them with four years in prison and seeking to remove them without even hearing their asylum claims. It would see more use of large-scale, hostel-type accommodation centres, the dangers of which we know only too well, refugees granted only short-term and precarious so-called “temporary protection” and enforced separation of parents and children—so much for the warm welcome that the UK is supposedly giving to refugees. Even the Law Society of England and Wales—scarcely a band of dangerous radicals—says that the bill would undermine both access to justice and the rule of law.
The Afghanistan catastrophe highlights, too, just how urgently Scotland, as a country that prides itself on its decent and progressive values, needs to make its own decisions on foreign policy and defence. In collective honesty and humility, we, as an independent country, could acknowledge our complicity in the injustices of the past and seek at least to begin to redress those wrongs.
Ms Chapman, we are tight for time, so can you bring your remarks to a close? Thank you.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
We could work co-operatively with others, large and small, to address global problems and, crucially, we could resist being dragged into yet more military interventions, adventures from which wealthy corporations somehow inevitably profit while disposable children die.
I now call Edward Mountain, who will join us remotely. He will be followed by Alasdair Allan.16:12
It is right that the Scottish Parliament is debating Afghanistan. It should be a debate about what we need to do to help those who are struggling to come to terms with the actuality of what the withdrawal means and those who are in fear of their lives. What the debate should not be about is blandly criticising by saying that not enough is being done, especially as I believe that the world is still mobilising to respond to fast-moving events.
I have always had the greatest respect for those who have written a blank cheque for their commitment to their country. At the same time, I have held in total contempt those armchair generals who play petty playground politics with serious matters to justify their political aims. To me, gesture politics, as I am sure all real politicians will agree, should have no place in this Parliament or any Parliament. It is sad to me that some appear to be using that in the debate.
I believe that the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan was a huge mistake—one that we will all regret and one that the US must take responsibility for. Mr Cole-Hamilton and Ms Stewart should be under no illusion, because the US withdrawal forced the UK withdrawal. Without the US, our forces would have been swamped by the Taliban. In the coming months we will have to see whether it is possible for religious zealots to change the way in which they behave. Frankly, I doubt that they will. I believe that we will see the Taliban take murderous revenge on those who do not support their religious and nationalist idealism. Now, however, is the time to look to ours, those who have the courage to stand with us and those who need our help.
It is almost 20 years since we deployed forces in Afghanistan. Our servicemen and women and their families have been under constant strain; 457 of them have given their lives and more than 2,200 of them have been injured. Many of those who served out there will be asking what it was all for, and I have had those discussions with many ex-servicemen and women, including my son, who served in Afghanistan. The answer that I gave him and the others that I have spoken to is that our 20-year deployment gave hope to the oppressed and prevented Afghanistan from being used as a terrorist base. That is a huge achievement, which the UK should be proud of. No life that is lost in order to protect freedom is ever wasted, unless those who benefit from those freedoms forget the debt that they owe; I will not and we should not.
The UK Government has been leading the international response to the crisis. We called for emergency G7, NATO and UN Security Council meetings. We played our part in evacuating 15,000 civilians from Afghanistan, a number that includes 4,000 British passport holders and more than 8,000 Afghans who worked with the UK Government. I commend every one of the 1,000-plus troops, diplomats and officials who gave their all to ensure that all were evacuated who possibly could be.
However, let us be clear. The Taliban takeover threatens to destabilise the country with extremism and persecution. I welcome the fact that the UK is ready to stand up and continue to support Afghans who are getting out of Afghanistan and those who are arriving in our country. We should never forget that, since 1996, we have already taken in 36,000 Afghans and we will take at least another 25,000 more, over and above those who have already been evacuated.
Operation warm welcome, which was announced this week, promises to ensure that Afghans who resettle in the UK receive the vital support that they need to rebuild their lives, find work, pursue education and integrate into their local community. That is a significant package of support, which includes £12 million to provide additional school places, £3 million to access the national health service and up to 300 university scholarships. Let us not forget that the UK Government is also already committing £200 million to the Afghanistan citizens resettlement scheme.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those Afghans who worked alongside the UK and risked their lives in doing so. It is therefore only right that we now do everything we can to help resettle the Afghans, so that they can restart their lives and thrive within the UK.
The military withdrawal from Afghanistan was premature, and I believe that it was a massive mistake. We have much to do to ensure that those refugees who have escaped are provided with a safe place to live and that they become integrated within our community. We also need to ensure that all those who are struggling to come to terms with the withdrawal from Afghanistan are fully supported. I make one final plea—we must not play party politics with the issue; those members who have done so are simply beyond my contempt.16:18
Other members today, not least Bob Doris beside me, have spoken very powerfully about the tragic situation in Afghanistan and Scotland’s moral obligation to help some of those who are now fleeing for their lives. As we have heard, those people include many women and girls who have gone to school or done anything else to make them conspicuous in the eyes of their new Government. They also include all those who have assisted coalition forces in any way over the past 20 years.
It is for another day to offer assessments about the political decisions that led to such a rapid withdrawal of those forces. For the moment, suffice to say that history is unlikely to be kind. Lest Mr Mountain wilfully mistakes that as a criticism of our armed forces: it most certainly is not.
I want instead today to say something specifically about those who have worked for international development agencies in Afghanistan to give opportunities to women and girls. As some members will be aware, Linda Norgrove, from the Isle of Lewis in my constituency, devoted and ultimately gave her life to helping people in Afghanistan to rebuild their communities. Linda was kidnapped by the Taliban and died during a failed rescue attempt in 2010. To their great credit, Linda’s parents, John and Lorna, now work from their home in Lewis to fund and facilitate projects that continue Linda’s legacy of supporting women and families in Afghanistan.
Needless to say, since the Taliban captured Kabul on 15 August following a rapid advance across the country, the fate of all those working on those projects has been a cause of serious concern. Then, on 26 August, an explosion outside Kabul airport, caused by an ISIS-K suicide bomber, killed at least 170 people and injured a further 150. Amid all that chaos, the Linda Norgrove Foundation was attempting to evacuate two vulnerable female staff members and their families. Sadly, despite getting close several times over the course of a 46-hour ordeal, they did not manage to get on a plane before the military presence departed. The Linda Norgrove Foundation is now anxious to find a way out of the country for them in the days ahead. I would ask the UK Government to be aware of, and to act on, those concerns.
The charity also hopes to be able to bring 20 of its 70 female Afghan medical students to the UK to continue their studies. All five of Scotland’s medical schools have, very creditably, already said that they would be happy to accept those students. The foundation has vowed to continue its work in Afghanistan to the best of its abilities under the new regime, despite the obvious difficulties.
Scotland can help more generally in the meantime in giving a welcome to people who have come here seeking refuge. Scotland has a long and proud history of opening our doors to refugees from all over the world. The UK Government has said that vulnerable Afghan citizens who were called forward by the Foreign Office but could not be evacuated will be guaranteed a place under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.
The UK Government has also committed to taking around 5,000 refugees from Afghanistan in the first year, and 20,000 over the coming years. As the Scottish Government has pointed out, those numbers are unlikely to be anything like adequate. Given the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan for decades, it is not possible to claim that we have no responsibilities there.
If I may end as I began, on a local note from my constituency, I want to praise the work of the local authority and community there over recent years in welcoming Syrian refugees to the Western Isles. I know many of those families and can confirm that they have enriched island communities, both culturally and economically, and have made a success of their lives. One of their children recently won a class prize for Gaelic. I record my personal thanks to those families for making the Western Isles their home.
As the cabinet secretary has likewise indicated, I hope that we can now give that same heartfelt welcome, across Scotland, to refugees from Afghanistan. I believe that we owe that much not only to the families, but to everyone from Scotland who has tried to help over the past decades in Afghanistan, whether in our forces or, like Linda Norgrove, in the many agencies that have been committed to building a better future for the people of that country.
Katy Clark will be the final speaker in the open debate.16:23
I strongly welcome the Scottish Government calling this debate, as well as the powerful contributions from across the political spectrum in support of human rights and the people of Afghanistan. It is important that those issues remain centre stage, because that scrutiny in itself will help those who are fighting for human rights in Afghanistan and put more pressure on the Taliban.
The situation in Afghanistan is bleak. As so many have said, we face a humanitarian and human rights crisis. Women, girls, human rights defenders and those who have helped the west are at great risk.
In the short time that I have, I will focus on what we need to learn from our experiences of the weakness and corruption of the Governments that have been in power in Afghanistan over the past 20 years and that have fallen so quickly to the Taliban. I will also focus on some of the issues that have been raised—for example, drugs—on how we should accept that Scotland and the UK now have to bear responsibility and relentlessly focus on how to give support to the people who are fleeing the Taliban, and on how refugees can be housed and welcomed in Scotland.
It would be wrong if I did not declare that I campaigned and marched against the western military intervention 20 years ago, as I suspect from their speeches a number of other members did, too. I was sceptical about the stated war aims and the arguments that were made at the time, particularly because of the history of failed interventions and occupations in Afghanistan. I feared that it would be a counterproductive war that was not the most effective way of combating terrorism and there was no clear exit strategy.
I understand that many people supported the invasion and that one of the reasons why was the plight of women and girls under the Taliban. However, it was clear that that was not the USA’s motivation for the war, given the role that it had played in the 1970s and 1980s in funding the mujaheddin against a secular Government that had brought in free medical care, mass literacy programmes and unprecedented gains for women and girls. Of course, the problem was that that regime was backed by Soviet Union, which then invaded.
Over the past 20 years, 457 British service personnel have lost their lives in Afghanistan and many more have been injured, had limbs amputated and suffered psychologically. Many civilians, like Alasdair Allan’s constituent Linda Norgrove, have also lost their lives. It is estimated that almost a quarter of a million people have lost their lives in the conflict, the majority of whom were, of course, Afghan.
Most politicians supported the invasion and the big political parties were all in favour of it. One of the things that needs to come out clearly today, from across the political divide, is that we have a responsibility and have to play our full role in assisting the people who are now fleeing the Taliban. We must robustly condemn the UK’s inadequate response. The international aid budget cuts are shameful. I hope that when the Conservatives sum up they will echo the demands that have been made from across the chamber.
However, we also have to look at what the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and all levels of government are able to do. People who are working with refugees have told me that they are not confident that we will take even the promised 20,000, given that previous commitments in similar situations have not always been honoured. In reality, it is the Home Office that commissions and undertakes most of the resettlement work. In Scotland, it is the councils that bear that burden, but every level of government has to take responsibility.
I welcome the further financial commitment from the cabinet secretary, but ask that we consider what more we and the Scottish Government can do. My colleague Pauline McNeill asked what percentage of the refugees are due to be resettled here and how many we feel that Scotland is equipped to welcome. How many refugees can we bring here and what work has the Scottish Government done to work out how many refugees it would be possible to house across the Scottish council areas? What discussions are taking place about what more can be done to maximise the numbers to which Scotland is able to provide support?
We have to show solidarity and learn lessons from the past, but most of all we have to give practical help. We must keep speaking up on behalf of the people who are fighting for the kind of values that brought most of us into politics to be upheld in Afghanistan, so they know that they have our solidarity and that we will not forget them. The more that we do that, the more we will ensure that Afghanistan has a society that the people of Afghanistan support and one in which fundamental human rights, including the rights of women and girls, are respected.16:30
In an intervention on Kaukab Stewart, Angus Robertson asked Opposition parties to restate their commitment to allowing Afghans who are domiciled in this country to stay. Nobody should be repatriated to that country while it is under the Taliban. I am happy to restate that commitment on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.
When Harold Macmillan handed over the keys of 10 Downing Street to Alec Douglas-Home, he is reported to have said something like, “So long as you do not invade Afghanistan, my boy, you will be absolutely fine.” Our Government and the American Government have discovered the truth in those words the hard way.
Earlier, I started by talking of my Quakerism, from where my liberalism stems. I have always been deeply sceptical of any military action to further the interests of the British state. Like Katy Clark, who has just made an excellent speech, I struggled with the original invasion of Afghanistan, not out of any love of the Taliban but because I doubted the motives behind it and because military aggression of any kind repels me. However, the endgame has been one of those rare occasions on which the removal of armed forces has actively resulted in brutality and oppression, and I cannot reconcile myself with that.
In practical terms, the war in Afghanistan has ended, so the international community must now take responsibility for what comes next. That means offering safe passage and safe harbour to those who need it. It means being emphatic and clear about our willingness and capacity to let people find peace here. The people who clung to the planes leaving Kabul airport were not doing so out of choice. People do not run along the tarmac like that on a whim; they do it out of fear and terror. Leaving a home, culture, community and family in the most chaotic and uncertain of ways happens only when the alternative is much worse.
Afghanistan might now be reported to be the graveyard of empires once again but, for many people, it was their home. It is a place of rich history and culture and the people to go along with that. The world’s first oil paintings came not from the great cities of Europe but from the caves of Afghanistan. It was also the birthplace of one of the world’s oldest faiths, Zoroastrianism, which believes in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Now, as a result of the catastrophic failures of diplomacy, intelligence and forward planning, the end of the war might somehow lead to even more bloodshed. If someone has been forced to flee their home to escape war and persecution, they should not be confronted with needless barriers in the pursuit of safety.
We should not be quibbling about numbers or questioning motives. Since the days of the Kindertransport, during world war 2, the UK has had a proud reputation for providing sanctuary to those in need. The UK is a nation of immigrants, and we should be proud that people who want to come to our country and work in our NHS are now part of our society.
The Conservatives have, however, been determined to drag that legacy through the mud by treating refugees and asylum seekers with hostility and contempt through the hostile environment policy. I am grateful to Donald Cameron for his remarks and his call to his colleagues at Westminster to reinstate the 0.7 per cent aid budget.
This has been a powerful and very moving debate. I am very grateful for the support for our amendment and the kind words of Sarah Boyack, who was right to speak in granular detail about the role of local authorities. Kaukab Stewart offered a very helpful analysis of the structures that we need to put in place to provide support for those who are arriving as refugees. Pam Gosal gave a moving account of the plight of Afghan women and girls, and that image of women burning their degree certificates will stay with me.
Bob Doris spoke of his constituents’ efforts to escape, and with a bit more time they might have made it out of there. However, many Afghans did not have that time because they were not given notice of the American departure.
Like many members in the Parliament, I was overjoyed by the election of Joe Biden to the US presidency. I hoped that he might end Trump’s doctrine of isolationism. After all, America has maintained a mission in Korea for 70 years to prevent the sort of destabilisation that we are now seeing in Afghanistan. At the base of the statue of Liberty, there is an inscription that is often quoted in this Parliament. It comes from a poem by Emma Lazarus:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
It is imperative that the US now recognises the destabilisation that it has caused and throws open the doors of liberty to the Afghan people it has deserted.
Pauline McNeill gave a typically moving speech in which she identified personal stories of people whose lives had been cut short. Edward Mountain referenced my remarks. For the record, I recognise how fatally undermined the UK mission in Afghanistan was by the US withdrawal. No one could fail to have been moved by the emotion and anger that we have seen in countless interviews with former and current serving armed forces personnel. That strength of feeling was captured in a spellbinding speech in the House of Commons by Tom Tugendhat.
There have been many other excellent speeches in the debate, but my time is running short.
At heart and to our fingertips, Scottish Liberal Democrats are internationalists. We believe in championing the values of human rights, democracy and equality. Now, the international community must act together and use every diplomatic means possible to secure a safe route out of the country for those people who wish to flee Afghanistan. Therefore, I urge members across the chamber to support my amendment.16:36
I congratulate the Scottish Government on organising a debate on this subject, and I welcome the cabinet secretary to his role.
After the powerful and emotional words of Pam Gosal, Kaukab Stewart and Bob Doris, I would like to offer a prayer for all the Afghan people who have lost their lives.
There can be no doubt that the past few days have been nothing short of a disaster. We have watched in utter horror the scenes of Afghans running after planes that were taking off or staying at an airport that they knew would be bombed, and of parents handing their babies to complete strangers from our armed forces, hoping for an escape from inhumanity. The real desperation has been truly hard to watch. Regardless of the past, we have a moral responsibility to do what we can and help those people, and we must. We cannot let the last 20 years’ efforts go in vain.
At this point, I want to thank our armed forces for the work that they have done to airlift as many of our Afghan allies as possible—Afghans who put their own lives on the line, including the medics, interpreters and local security forces, some of whom helped to protect our embassy staff.
As my colleague Sarah Boyack rightly said, today must be about looking at our responsibilities to the people of Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war. They are our friends and we should remember that we made a promise to them. They fear for their lives and are worried about what life will be like now for their families, their children and their friends.
On refugees, the UK Government must be bold and ambitious. The Tories claim to lead a new global Britain, but actions speak louder than words. It is time for action. The Government of that so-called global Britain has offered to allow only 5,000 refugees to settle down in our nation over the next five years, while our allies in Europe and across the world are doing all that they can to help to resettle larger numbers of people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees currently estimates that 90 per cent of the 2.6 million Afghan refugees who are outside the country live in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. We can do far more to play our part in supporting refugees.
I hope that we have a genuine settlement programme that can truly support the needs of the Afghans. We need to have a programme that will be ambitious and welcoming, because if we do not, it will leave open the possibility that more vulnerable Afghans will be at risk of being at the mercy of human traffickers and those who seek only violence. I urge the UK Government to change direction. We are a welcoming, caring and compassionate nation. We could show real leadership.
We can show that leadership here, in Scotland. We must play our part at home. Groups in Edinburgh and across Scotland have been supporting refugees for years and stand ready to provide support to those coming from Afghanistan.
Sarah Boyack referred to the tremendous work that The Welcoming Association has done here, in our capital, to help those in need, supporting refugees to learn English, find jobs and access local services and offering opportunities for friendship, creativity, health and wellbeing. It connects locals and newcomers through social and cultural exchange, collaborating with others to share knowledge and skills and to influence positive changes. That is the kind of action that we need now.
However, we can do more only if we ensure that there is funding for local authorities to support anyone who seeks help. Refugees deserve to be treated with respect, not stuck in poor, inadequate, temporary accommodation. Many refugees are on waiting lists for comfortable safe homes where they can settle their families. Scotland can and must do better than it is doing now.
I join the calls for the Scottish Government to make the necessary financial commitment, not only by reversing the cuts that local authorities have faced in recent years but by ensuring that adequate funding is in place for new housing. That will help not only our existing communities but refugees newly arriving in Scotland, so that all can have the life and opportunities that they deserve. It is time for action, not rhetoric.
This capital city is truly a beacon of hope to me. I came here because I knew that this city would give my family a fresh start in life and take us in with welcoming arms. Let us ensure that anyone looking for a new start in life can begin that journey here, in Scotland. I hope that Parliament will support the Labour amendment.16:42
This has been a compelling debate. It has been uncomfortable for me at times and I hope that it has been uncomfortable for everyone. None of us should feel that we have the moral high ground or that we lack personal responsibility for what we have been discussing. I can say to Foysol Choudhury that we will support the Labour amendment and I say to those who have asked specific questions of the Conservatives that I will come to those in my summing up.
I begin with a couple of observations. Kenneth Gibson reminded us in a motion that he lodged today that, a week on Saturday, it will be 20 years since the events of 9/11 took place in New York. That was the catalyst for the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. I remember that day, which I imagine all of us are old enough to remember. I felt a profound sense of shock not only at the events but at the realisation that the whole period of cold war foreign politics that I had grown up with, and which had been in a hiatus, had suddenly been replaced with a completely new form of politics and threat that was going to dominate events in the years ahead.
Some 58 nations supported the incursion into Afghanistan, which was at first intended to end the threat from al-Qa’ida and the use of Afghanistan as a base for international terrorism. We succeeded in that objective. I think many of us accept that the subsequent war in Iraq, whatever its merits—and that is a separate debate—diluted the effort had been made in Afghanistan. That war took the eyes of the international community and of the countries that had been part of the invasion of Afghanistan and its hoped-for rebuilding off the prize of a better Afghanistan in future.
Despite all the work that we did on education for women, which Pam Gosal and others touched on this afternoon, there came to be a growing realisation as time went on that the hopes of that first democratic election were not being fulfilled. The Government of Hamid Karzai, which sought to try to centralise Afghanistan around Kabul, was alienating many of those in the regional provinces and there was an emergence of an internal civil conflict, with which we then found it almost impossible to wrestle.
As we come to the most recent events, I think that the departure was a disgrace, and I look to the United States as the principal body of culpability. In two presidential elections in America, we have been presented with candidates who were either unfit for office, deeply polarising or unsuited to office. This is the first time in my lifetime that that has happened.
Whatever I felt about American Administrations—from Eisenhower in Korea; through Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon in Vietnam; Reagan in Grenada; Bush and an exemplary first incursion repelling the invasion of Kuwait; to Clinton and the Balkans; and subsequently Bush and Obama—I may have disagreed, but I thought that there was a basic level of competence. I do not see that today, and if people across the world think that America has given up on them, why should America expect them not to give up on it? I saw a headline in the Chinese communist national newspaper saying that people in Taiwan should look to Afghanistan and see their future. That is deeply disturbing for us, as part of a NATO alliance that has relied inherently on the strength of the United States.
Of course, in Saigon, it collapsed in an ignominious fashion, although it did at least manage to dump the hardware in the sea rather than leaving it for those who were taking over. America did recover its authority after Vietnam, and we just have to hope, even as we stand here in some dismay, that that can yet happen again, because America has to be a crucial part of our international western response to events.
At the moment, it seems that there is a lot of wishful thinking abroad that the Taliban will be different, but the early signs are not encouraging. Women have been expelled from university in Herat and told that they can no longer work, and huge numbers of people have been summarily executed, yet there are those in the Overseas Development Institute in London and in UNICEF who say that there are grounds for optimism.
A real subject for international debate—we have not touched on it in this debate—may yet be what happens if the Taliban do not deliver. Do we simply then withhold all aid and support from the people of Afghanistan as a penalty for its imposed Government, or do we recognise that we still have a moral responsibility to the people of Afghanistan, notwithstanding the actions of the subsequent Government? We need to touch on that.
There have been some compelling contributions to the debate. I listened to Bob Doris, Katy Clark, Foysol Choudhury and Pam Gosal, who all talked with passion about the people of Afghanistan and our responsibility, and I hope that we accept that it is a collective responsibility. Let us not find ways together to be cynical and undermine the challenge that is now before us. We are an excellent country at welcoming and incorporating people into the United Kingdom, and in operation warm welcome we should be willing to succeed and not find excuses and reasons to hope that we will fail.
I will not get into the numbers debate, but two questions have been asked of us this afternoon and I want to be clear that the commitment from the UK Government—I think that I saw an exchange between the cabinet secretary and others on this—is that
“Relevant Afghan citizens ... already in the UK with limited leave can apply for indefinite leave to remain at any time, despite the Immigration Rules currently stating they must have competed at least 5 years with limited leave before they are eligible”.
The criteria are that they have worked for the UK, they are at risk of death, which is a pretty comprehensive provision in the current circumstances, or that they are otherwise eligible as set out in the relocations and assistance scheme. I do not feel confident to go beyond that today, but I am prepared to work with the Scottish Government to bottom out what that commitment actually represents.
Secondly, we have been asked about our commitment to international aid. I and my predecessor were absolutely clear that we did not agree with the UK Government’s decision to reduce the international aid budget, although we understood the economic circumstances of the moment, and I have called for and will continue to call for its earliest possible restoration. However, I point out that the aid budget is not a cash sum, it is a percentage of GDP. That requires a strong and growing economy. There is not much point in willing a bigger percentage if one is not also going to will a stronger and bigger economy at the same time. The amount of aid that we are able to give, whatever the percentage, depends on the strength of our economy as a country, but we are saying in our amendment that we want to see that percentage restored.
I recognise that my time is up. I will finish by saying that collectively, as a chamber, a country and a people, we owe one heck of a debt to all the people who helped us in Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan whom we sought to help, and we must honour that in full.
I call Jenny Gilruth to wind up the debate for the Scottish Government.16:50
I thank all members who have taken part in the debate. As Jackson Carlaw noted, the speeches have shown powerful compassion for the lives and livelihoods of the people of Afghanistan, and I thank every member who has contributed.
Members have told the stories of the people affected by the US-led military withdrawal and, across party lines, members have demonstrated the willingness of this Parliament to step up. As we know, the return and resurgence of the Taliban has stirred fear in many, not least Afghanistan’s women. The reign of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 was one in which women and minorities lived in absolute and all-encompassing terror. Women were confined to their homes unless accompanied by a man; women were refused an education; women were banned from working.
The Taliban now say that they will respect women, almost as though they have attended a public relations course on how to appear reasonable. We must not forget that it is a violent regime that does not recognise human rights. I share Edward Mountain’s cynicism that the Taliban are really seeking to change at all. Indeed, yesterday, in response to a question on whether women would form part of the proposed Taliban regime, a senior Taliban official stated that members would be selected on merit—specifically, those with capacity for posts would be selected. The implication was that women have neither.
Misogyny knows no borders and it does Afghan women a real disservice to suggest that we in the UK or in Scotland have all the answers. We should be cognisant of the politics at play. As Talat Yaqoob wrote earlier this week,
“We are in yet another crisis where Muslim women are used as tools to deflect from foreign policy disasters and domestic political fall-outs, all without nuance and all too often, without hearing from the women being pointed at, written about or photographed, crying in fear.”
We must commit to actively listen to the voices of the women, who, as Talat notes, were frozen out entirely from the negotiations on the military withdrawal.
As members know, earlier this week, the cabinet secretary and I met members of the Afghan community in Scotland. Safia Khalid, who works for Glasgow Afghan United, which Bob Doris referenced, made some practical points that I want to share with members. She spoke of the need for Afghan women to be trained to understand the rights that they have in Scotland; the need for them to be shown where they can shop, how they can travel and the importance of making sure that they do not feel lonely; and the importance of access to English classes, with wrap-around childcare provision, because of the reality that, for many Afghan women, only their husbands will understand English. I want to give Safia a commitment that officials are undertaking urgent work on that matter.
I turn to some of the points that members raised in the debate. Donald Cameron opened by speaking of the importance of our armed services and paid tribute to those who fought to bring democracy to Afghanistan, and I want to share that sentiment from members on the Government benches and join him in that.
Sarah Boyack, Maggie Chapman and Katy Clark derided the UK Government’s overseas aid cuts. I hope that members know that they have the support of the Scottish Government on that matter. It should not have happened and it should not have happened in the midst of a global pandemic.
Alex Cole-Hamilton spoke of the violence of the Taliban regime. I will not repeat what he said, but it was particularly vivid and demonstrated the sheer brutality of the Taliban in action.
I am glad to hear that members, such as Kaukab Stewart and Bob Doris, are speaking to Afghans in their community, which I think is hugely important. The fear that Afghans must be living with at this moment in time must be unbelievable.
On Alasdair Allan’s point regarding the Linda Norgrove Foundation, I give an assurance that the Scottish Government will help with those representations to the UK Government in any way that we are able to.
I thank Pam Gosal for her extremely powerful contribution. She spoke about a “lost generation” of women and girls, and about the haunting images that we all recall of Afghans desperately fleeing for safety. Pauline McNeill touched on that, too. Ms Gosal said that
“the daughters of Afghanistan will be punished by the Taliban—make no mistake about that.”
I fear that she is absolutely correct.
Bob Doris spoke about the importance of planning and preparation, and he can be assured that the Afghan community will be and are already involved in the preparatory work that he spoke to.
Katy Clark asked a number of specific questions, which I want to address briefly. We do not yet have details about the total number from the UK Government, but I can give Ms Clark an assurance that we will share those details when we have them. On the specifics regarding work with councils, as I mentioned, the cabinet secretary and I met representatives from COSLA earlier this week, and we are due to meet them again soon. Local authorities have been undertaking preparatory work since June, and the cabinet secretary gave an update about the current numbers in his opening remarks. However, we will keep members updated on that as the situation evolves. I hope that members appreciate and understand that things are moving quickly at the moment.
The UK has a duty to help the people of Afghanistan, not least because of our historical involvement in three different Anglo-Afghan wars between 1838 and 1919. The United Kingdom was also at the centre of the intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, and it must be at the centre of the solution to the current crisis. As the chamber knows, the UK Government’s Afghan citizens resettlement scheme offers to take just 20,000 people over five years, with 5,000 people in the first year. That is not enough. According to the House of Commons library, the UK accepted around 27,000 Asian-Ugandans in 1972 and between 17,000 and 22,500 Vietnamese refugees between 1979 and 1992. Resettled people are granted refugee status by the UK while abroad. They are then brought to live in the UK and their status is decided by officials from the UN and the UK Government, so the UK Government will choose who is offered resettlement in the UK. The Prime Minister has written to the First Minister on the matter, and he can be assured of Scotland’s support, but the resettlement scheme must do more for the people of Afghanistan. It must commit to take more Afghan refugees, and we in Scotland stand ready and willing to help in that endeavour.
We have heard today of Scotland’s commitment to supporting the people of Afghanistan and I will touch briefly on my constituency. As a Fife MSP, I am really proud that Fife Council is one of the councils that have been willing to step up to the task at hand. Fife Council has coordinated its efforts with Fife Voluntary Action, which is actively collecting donations at its offices in Glenrothes and Kirkcaldy. I put on record my sincere thanks to the 18 council areas that have pledged their support additionally. As Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, I was pleased that the humanitarian emergency fund could be activated to provide support for humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. Maggie Chapman can be assured that that funding will be used to get to those who need it most in Afghanistan.
Members who were here last session will recall that we reviewed our international development offer earlier this year and that, following the election, the SNP would increase its international development budget by a third. However, the UK Government’s decision to cut overseas aid during the worst excesses of the pandemic was nothing short of deplorable or, to quote the Baroness of Lundin Links, a “disgrace”. Now is the time for the UK Government to recommit to the 0.7 per cent target, which should never have been reneged upon.
As Pauline McNeill told us, many threw themselves fatally at the side of aeroplanes, so desperate were they to escape. Thousands of people risked their lives to cross Kabul just to reach the airport. They faced Taliban checkpoints where there were so-called kill lists and bribes. For those fortunate enough to have the money to pay the bribe or not to be on a kill list, their fight for a better life did not end there. We all saw the images of people desperately trying to get on to those aeroplanes; so many were not lucky enough to make it. No one should ever have to make the choices that they face now.
I watched the Rory Stewart documentary “The Great Game” last night—so named after the way in which the British and the Russian empire treated Afghanistan in the 19th century—but Afghanistan is no game. As Afghan author Khaled Hosseini notes in his book “The Kite Runner”,
“there are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood.”
Today, we remember the lives of those who have been killed over the past 20 years—the children, men and women, civilians and those from our armed forces who we sent to Afghanistan in good faith. To the Afghan refugees who fled in terror: you will always be welcome in Scotland. This Government and this Parliament stand ready to assist.