Afghanistan: How many asylum seekers and refugees live in Wales and can we take more?

Campaigners gather outside a Home Office site in Cardiff calling for more help to be given to people fleeing the Taliban Credit: Tom Davies

The situation in Afghanistan has been dominating headlines, since the Taliban effectively took over the country at a speed that took the entire world by surprise. 

Pictures coming out of the country have shown desperate scenes with people scrambling to flee from what many observers believe will be the implementation of a strict and punitive Taliban rule. 

While Afghanistan has effectively fallen, a political debate has ignited here in the UK over whether or not there is a moral obligation to help those fleeing Taliban persecution, particularly those Afghans who assisted British and Western forces during the fight against the insurgents. 

Immigration and asylum matters are reserved for the UK Government but, with the UK Government planning to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees, Wales will have a role to play in any resettlement of people. 

Here, we take a look at how Wales currently contributes to UK asylum policy and some of the positions taken around refugees and asylum seekers here.

The speed at which the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan has taken the world by surprise Credit: PA Images
  • The Welsh political arena and attitudes towards asylum seekers

In 2019 the Welsh Government outlined its notably pro-asylum seeker position, saying it wanted to make Wales a "Nation of Sanctuary".

The administration acknowledged that handling asylum applications and assisting refugees was a reserved matter for the UK Government but that there were steps it could take to help people through what it called the "asylum journey".

On Tuesday Mark Drakeford reiterated that political desire, saying in a social media post that "we'll do everything we can to support evacuations from Afghanistan".

The Welsh Government was working with the Home Office and local authorities on preparations "to support those who need it", he added.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Liberal Democrats have explicitly called for Wales to participate in the resettlement of refugees and people fleeing persecution in Afghanistan.

Party leader Jane Dodds, a former leader of the children's section of the Refugee Council, said Wales must "do its bit" to help those in need.

"While the power is ultimately reserved to Westminster, Wales must be prepared to do its bit and provide assistance to Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban," she said.

"We must make good on our promise to be a nation of sanctuary.

"Wales has a proud history of helping those in need and we should not shy away from it now. We must fulfil our moral duty and embrace those who are seeking safety and sanctuary in the UK, particularly children and their families."

The Welsh Conservatives have welcomed the UK Government's pledge to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees.

Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, said: "The scenes unfolding in Afghanistan in recent days have been utterly chaotic, and the British Government's new resettlement scheme will help thousands of at-risk Afghans.

"Many Afghans are in urgent need of our help after working with the UK to make Afghanistan a better place over the last twenty years.

"The UK has a proud history of welcoming those fleeing persecution or oppression, and now it is time for the Labour ministers in Cardiff Bay to step up to the plate and provide support."

Plaid Cymru has called on the UK Government to go one step further and expand its resettlement scheme to include those not in so-called "exposed enabling roles", in other words not just interpreters and people who provided visible assistance to the military.

Newport's population has grown the most in Wales since the previous census.
  • How many asylum seekers and refugees are in Wales?

There were 2,734 asylum seekers in Wales receiving Section 95 support - a form of financial and housing assistance given to people in particular circumstances as they await the outcome of an asylum application - in the first quarter of this year according to a House of Commons briefing paper published in July.

As a percentage figure, that equates to 0.86% of Wales' 3,169,586 population.

Of Wales' 22 local authority areas 12 currently had no asylum seekers receiving Section 95 support, according to the UK Government data.

However, all of Wales' council areas were housing resettled Syrian refugees under the UK Government's Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme with the highest number in Carmarthenshire.

The coronavirus pandemic had a significant impact on refugee resettlement in Wales last year, with 49 refugees resettled in 2020 compared to 339 the previous year.

In the first quarter of this year, 21 refugees have been resettled in Wales, almost half of the intake for the whole of 2020.

Wales has four designated asylum seeker dispersal areas - Cardiff, Newport, Wrexham and Swansea - which is where destitute people are sent to local authority areas where the council has signed up to the UK Government's dispersal programme.

Carmarthenshire was one of the first councils to resettle three families this week.

The resettlement scheme for those fleeing Afghanistan will see 5,000 people come to the UK in the first 12 months. The Welsh Refugee Council said if every local authority "does their bit", it would equate to around 15 Afghans per area.

The charity argues Wales is capable of taking more. Chief Executive Andrea Cleaver told ITV News, "We firmly believe that we can and should be doing more. Wales has always been a really proud nation that's welcomed people from all over the world, and we've grown as a nation because of that, both in terms of our skill set, and our culture and diversity."

She added she can "understand why there is an element of concern" by some people but said, "When you see newspaper headlines, it sounds like there's a lot of people coming here, but I think it's really important to remember that the vast majority of people that flee Afghanistan are more likely to seek refugee status in the neighbouring countries. That's a trend that we've seen all over the world, there will be a tiny proportion that come to the UK, in terms of the refugee numbers overall."

What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is an important distinction between refugees and asylum seekers.

An asylum seeker is someone who has arrived in a new country and asked for asylum as they seek safety away from human rights violations or persecution in their home country. In the UK that means they do not have the same rights as British citizens until they are granted refugee status. The charity Refugee Action describes asylum seeking as "a legal process".

If successful, an asylum seeker can then be given refugee status. That will mean that person is given official refugee documentation and given five years leave to remain (permission to stay), according to the Refugee Council. That person may have to apply for further leave although the terms are not limited to five years.

Campaigners from the Stop the War Coalition gather in Cardiff calling for refugees to be made welcome in Wales and the wider UK Credit: Tom Davies
  • Does the UK, and by extension Wales, have a moral obligation to take in more refugees from Afghanistan?

With the Taliban now seemingly in total control of Afghanistan the debate and the news agenda has since shifted to the evacuation of vulnerable Afghan citizens and, in particular, those who worked alongside British and Western forces during the invasion.

Making an impassioned contribution to Wednesday's Parliamentary debate Chris Bryant, the Rhondda MP, asked the Prime Minister: "The Home Secretary announced this morning that the UK will be taking in 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan but that only 5,000 will be able to come this year.

"What are the [other] 15,000 meant to do, hang around and wait until they've been executed?"

In response the Prime Minister said: "We will...be increasing that number over the...coming years to, as I said to 20,000, but the bulk of the effort of this country will be directed and should be directed Mr Speaker, to supporting people in Afghanistan and in the region...in order to prevent a worse, humanitarian crisis."

The Welsh Refugee Council has said it wants to see more safe routes for people fleeing persecution and that Afghans are given the proper opportunity to seek asylum.

However, although there may appear to be strong political and voluntary sector backing for the UK to offer humanitarian assistance to many Afghans, some feel it may not be practically possible at this moment in time.

Nathan Gill, leader of the Reform UK party in Wales, has agreed there is indeed a moral duty for more refugees to be taken in but that there is a "hard reality" to contend with in this country.

He said: "Obviously we have an obligation to take refugees full stop. That is the reality and that is something we that we agree with.

"The hard reality is that we are in an absolute housing crisis right now. We have to be honest about that.

"We have a crisis that has to be addressed, it has to be. There is the reality of where we are going to house people.

"The question is do we have housing stock available for these kinds of humanitarian crises."