Long-term refugee targets ‘would help west regain moral purpose’


Liberal democracies can regain their lost sense of shared moral purpose by agreeing to set a long-term internationally agreed target for the number of refugees they are each prepared to take each year, Rory Stewart, a former Conservative cabinet minister, has proposed.

Unveiling his plan to the Guardian, Stewart said: “Reforming the international resettlement coalition around the Afghan crisis presents a rare opportunity for key liberal democracies to restore their moral authority, form a workable international coalition, and deliver rapid, concrete, ethical results.”

Stewart has already garnered preliminary support for his plan from a group of Afghan specialists, including three former US envoys to Afghanistan, as well as parliamentarians from the UK, Germany and Canada.

He proposes each country joining the coalition should aspire within two years to take refugees equivalent to 0.05 % of their population annually.

The voluntary target would be similar to the aspiration for advanced economies to spend 0.7% of their GDP on overseas aid. Stewart said the plan could be adopted at a global pledging summit possibly convened by Germany as the chair of the G7 group of industrialised nations.

However, it is unclear whether the UK government would consider the plan. Last year, the government cut its aid pledge to 0.5% of GDP, ending the Tory commitment to spend 0.7%, claiming it was “difficult to justify to the British people”. Under the Stewart plan, the UK would take a minimum of 32,000 refugees annually, several times the number it accepted last year.

The plan has won the support of Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the UK foreign affairs select committee, Tobias Ellwood the chair of the UK defence select committee, Michael Roth, the chair of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs select committee, and Ret. Gen David Petraeus.

The co-sponsors, in a joint forward for an Atlantic Council paper written by Stewart, argue the humanitarian system has “atrophied” since the refugee crises of the 2010s and has not been able to respond to a sense of duty the west feels towards Afghans trapped under Taliban rule.

Stewart said: “We currently find ourselves in the very odd position that an important part of what it means to be a thoughtful modern international player – a willingness to take people at real risk of persecution – has been severely eroded.”

He added: “[The] shared tradition of such democracies, acting in concert, is now being questioned and challenged by authoritarianism abroad and populism and isolation at home.

“This is the moment to answer some of those challenges. A practical international response to the Afghan refugee crisis through a credible resettlement system would revive the values that formed the multilateral system in the wake of the horrors of second world war. We have a very special obligation towards Afghanistan after 20 years. We can see we played a direct part in tipping the Afghans into this horror.”

Stewart says the 0.05 % commitment would be a modest and realistic move towards transparent burden-sharing. He estimates if a coalition of Germany, France,Benelux and Nordic countries, as well as the UK agreed voluntarily to sign up the proposal, then 120,000 refugees would be guaranteed a home a year. By adopting the target, the US would be committing itself to taking 160,000 a year – slightly more than the number of refugees Joe Biden proposes to take this year.

Stewart says the target is the equivalent of a town of 10,000 people hosting a single Afghan family of five. For Canada, the target would be slightly lower than 52,290 refugees it is seeking to take in 2022.

For the scheme to work Stewart, a former UK international development secretary, said there would have to be some processing of asylum applicants inside Afghanistan since so many of the countries surrounding Afghanistan were refusing to let more refugees cross their borders.

At least three major categories of resettlement priority would be targeted within these overall numbers. The three categories would be those who have been evacuated but lack permanent settlement in a new country; those who remain in their country having already been promised a right to resettle; and those at risk of persecution.

He saysas many as 200,0000 Afghans are still trapped there who are already eligible for resettlement under existing international scheme but could not cross into the countries on Afghanistan’s borders. In addition there are tens of thousands not designated for existing schemes that are under extreme threat, such as female judges.

Even though many embassies remain closed, Stewart said, “a window is open to process in Afghanistan and evacuate with the consent of the Taliban, which may not remain for long. It should be used”.

But Stewart said Taliban cooperation to allow its political opponents to leave would be contingent on the west’s behaviour. He criticised Biden’s decision last week to seize the Afghan Central Bank’s $7bn (£5.2bn) assets frozen in the US and hand half to the victims of 9/11.

“For Biden to help himself to half that money is compounding betrayal upon betrayal. The first betrayal was to abandon the country to the Taliban. The second is to leave millions on the edge of starvation. Now the US president is proposing to steal Afghanistan’s own money which could have been used to feed the starving.”

Overall global resettlement spaces have fallen by 50% between 2016 and 2019. According to the UN agency for refugees, UNHCR, out of 1.44 million refugees in urgent need of resettlement globally, only 22,770 were resettled through the agency.