Government U-turn on Afghan relocation scheme will ‘cost lives,’ former ambassador to Kabul warns

Ministers accused of ‘breaking promises’ to Afghan nationals after decision to narrow eligibility criteria

<p>The ARAP will be ‘narrower’ than previously, including during Operation Pitting, when thousands were evacuated from Afghanistan in August</p>

The ARAP will be ‘narrower’ than previously, including during Operation Pitting, when thousands were evacuated from Afghanistan in August

The Home Office’s decision to narrow the eligibility criteria for a relocation scheme for Afghans fleeing persecution will “cost lives”, the former UK ambassador to Kabul has warned.

Ministers have been accused of “breaking promises” to Afghan nationals after taking the decision this week to tighten the rules for the Afghan Relocations Assistance Policy (ARAP), designed to help Afghans who worked for the British effort in the country and whose lives are now at risk.

An explanatory note on the changes, published by the Home Office on Tuesday, states that the updated ARAP would now be “narrower” than rules applied previously, including during Operation Pitting, when thousands were evacuated from Afghanistan in August.

The scheme will now be limited to those who worked for or with the UK and can prove that they are at a certain level of risk in Afghanistan, or that they made a “substantive and positive contribution” towards the achievement of the UK’s military or national security objectives in the country.

It comes amid growing concern that the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), announced with much fanfare in August, is still not up and running four months on, meaning ARAP is currently the only official route by which most Afghans can currently reach the UK.

Sir Nick Kay, who served as UK ambassador in Afghanistan from 2017 to 2019, told The Independent the changes would leave at-risk Afghans who worked with Britain to “promote human rights, good governance and democracy” with “no route to safety in the UK”.

“For these brave people, the ACRS needs to open now. Delays cost Afghan lives, cause extreme distress and undermine the UK government’s claim to be offering safe passage and a warm welcome to those we abandoned in August,” he added.

Lawyers and campaigners have described the decision to tighten the eligibility as “shocking”, saying it is at odds with Boris Johnson’s pledge to give a “warm welcome” to Afghans fleeing danger following the Taliban takeover in the summer.

Minnie Rahman, interim chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, warned that the UK’s narrowing of the ARAP and its “shameful failure” to open the Afghan resettlement scheme meant that Afghans with links to the UK were now “stuck between a frying pan and a fire”.

“Four months ago this government promised Afghans a ‘warm welcome’ but again and again we see them slam the doors shut on the Afghan people – even those who risked their lives working alongside us,” she said.

Ms Rahman added that the changes would see people faced with the “impossible choice” of staying in Afghanistan and “risking death”, or making their own treacherous journeys to Britain.

Under the government’s new immigration bill, which is currently going through parliament, home secretary Priti Patel is seeking to penalise and in some cases criminalise asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via unofficial routes.

“We shouldn’t allow this government to break its promises to the Afghan people – the Afghan resettlement scheme must be opened now and people seeking asylum in the UK must have their voices heard, regardless of how they got here,” Ms Rahman added.

Zoe Bantleman, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said it was “shocking” that this change was made before the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme has been opened.

“Whilst clarification of the criteria in the ARAP rules is welcome, it is unclear why the rules for entry clearance for Afghans who helped the UK are being narrowed at this time. This further closes legal routes to the UK,” she tweeted.

The changes to the eligibility criteria took effect from 4pm on Tuesday and will apply to all applications decided after that point, regardless of when they were submitted.

The Home Office said the changes had been brought in to clarify the eligibility criteria to remove the “uncertainty” that emerged during and after Operation Pitting around who can qualify.

Victoria Atkins, minister for Afghan resettlement, said: “We undertook the UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping over 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan who we are continuing to support.

“We are now updating the ARAP immigration rules to make clear who is eligible to apply under the scheme, enable more families to remain together, and offer support to those who need it most.

“The ACRS will soon open and is one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history. It will give up to 20,000 people at risk a new life in the UK. We will honour commitments made to individuals and groups.”

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