Fake Home Office website deterring Afghan asylum seekers from journeying to UK

Exclusive: Labour calls website ‘dishonourable and underhand’ as Afghans abandoned at end of UK withdrawal

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 29 August 2021 10:57
comments
Home Secretary Priti Patel greets refugees at Heathrow Airport_m199131.mp4

Afghan asylum seekers are being discouraged from attempting journeys to Britain by a government website posing as an unbiased source of “free, reliable and important information”.

Labour called the website “dishonourable and underhand”, as the head of the armed forces said hundreds of Afghan civilians who are eligible to enter the UK were left behind when the last evacuation flight left Kabul.

General Sir Nick Carter admitted on Saturday that “we haven't been able to bring everybody out” and said the number of eligible Afghans remaining in the country was in the “high hundreds”.

“They will always be welcome in Britain and if there are other ways of them getting out then they will definitely be welcome,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

But a website set up by the government claiming to offer “reliable migration information” does not provide details of official evacuation and resettlement schemes for Afghans, or on how to seek asylum in the UK.

“On The Move”, which contains no government branding and uses a .org domain commonly associated with charities, remains online a month after The Independent exposed its Home Office links.

The website contains a series of pages detailing safety risks along sea and land routes towards the UK and tells readers: “The UK asylum process does not offer any advantages. It is safer and easier to apply for asylum in the country you are in now.”

Following a complaint to the Information Commissioner, the English-language version of the website has been updated to say information was “provided by the Home Office on behalf of the UK government”.

But two other versions of the site aimed at Afghan migrants, in Pashto and Dari and accompanied by Afghan flags, have not been updated.

The site claims it “provides reliable information to migrants in transit” to help migrants avoid the “dangers of illegal immigration” and “make informed decisions”.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, called the website “dishonourable and underhand”.

“Nobody wants to see people risking their lives in the English Channel,” he told The Independent. “However, rather than funding a secretive and misleading website, the UK government should be concentrating on sorting out their own serious failings that have brought us to this point.

“That includes getting a workable deal with France to tackle people-trafficking gangs, putting safe and legal routes back in place and addressing the factors that are driving so many desperate people from their homes in the first place.”

The Pashto version of the ‘On The Move’ website, which is also published in Dari. Both are official languages of Afghanistan

Priti Patel said she is “dedicated” to helping those who have not been able to escape Afghanistan as part of the UK's withdrawal and announced a new resettlement scheme for 20,000 people.

Critics have said the new resettlement scheme is insufficient for the number of asylum seekers, including those with links to the UK, and called for the government to increase safe and legal routes.

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 Afghan asylum seekers who are already in the UK are “in limbo” after official guidance used to decide applications was deleted by the Home Office.

Ministers are still pressing ahead with new laws that would criminalise asylum seekers arriving by boat or other irregular routes, and allow the government to refuse to consider their claims.

The “On The Move” website tells migrants that the UK “regularly returns people who enter via irregular routes and have no right to be there”, but no deportation agreements have been struck with EU countries since Brexit.

“Those who seek to come to the UK unlawfully and the ruthless criminals who facilitate journeys are all breaking the law and endangering lives,” it adds.

Versions of the website aimed at Afghans urge them to get in contact for “free and confidential advice”, without telling them they would be contacting agents of the British government.

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said: “Organisations must use people’s data transparently. This means organisations must be clear, open and honest with people from the start about who they are, and how and why they use their personal data.

“If anyone is concerned about how their data has been handled, they can make a complaint to the ICO and we will look into the details.

“We have received a complaint on this matter and we will be assessing the information provided.”

The Home Office said “On The Move” was being updated, and that pages in Pashto, Dari, Kurdish and Arabic will have information on the homepage, along with a link to the UK government website.

It is part of wider efforts by the government to discourage asylum seekers who have reached France and Belgium from continuing their journey to the UK, as crossings are at a record high.

Facebook and Instagram posts linking to the website were pushed out to asylum seekers in the two nations in multiple languages as part of a campaign that cost the government £23,000 between December and April.

The Home Office said posts linking to “On The Move” were made from its “clearly-branded” official social media accounts, and that personal information was not being collected through the website or shared.

A spokesperson added: “We are seeing an unacceptable rise in dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings. While lives are at risk, we make no apology for providing potentially lifesaving information to migrants and highlighting the risk of these deadly journeys.”

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments