Public demands more help for Afghan heroes as mass rejections under discredited schemes revealed

Exclusive: Five times as many people rejected for Afghan resettlement scheme as are accepted

Holly Bancroft,Kate Devlin
Saturday 08 April 2023 21:01 BST
Dominic Raab grilled on Independent’s Afghan pilot investigation during Today Show

Half of Britons fear the UK is not doing enough to aid Afghan veterans who helped our forces, as figures show around five in six applicants are rejected from the military scheme established to give sanctuary to those in danger from the Taliban.

It comes after The Independent revealed the plight of an Afghan pilot who has been threatened with deportation to Rwanda despite working alongside RAF airmen – a move senior military figures condemned as “indefensible”, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also calling for action.

Just 23 per cent voters think the government is giving enough support to desperate Afghans trying to escape their home country after working with Britain, while 47 per cent want more to be done.

The pilot said it had been ‘impossible’ to make his way to Britain via a safe route (The Independent )

Data shows the Afghan relocation and assistance policy scheme (Arap) has rejected 18,946 Afghans, while just 3,399 have been found eligible. Charities and MPs say the criteria – that applicants must have worked directly for the UK government – is too narrow and hundreds of people who worked alongside British forces are being left behind.

Sarah Fenby, of NGO Global Witness, said she was in contact with several hundred Afghans who served alongside the British forces and “not had one person get eligibility since April 2021”.

They include members of the Afghan Territorial Force 444, known as “the 444s”, a unit created, trained and funded by the British Army but employed by the Afghan Ministry of Interior.

“A number have been told they are not eligible because they weren’t directly employed by the British. These are people who were central to fulfilling the UK’s mission in Afghanistan.

“They did counterintelligence, counter-narcotics, were armed and side-by-side with our guys. They see themselves as special forces and their work with the British now leaves them massively exposed.”

The Independent has launched a petition calling for the UK to support Afghan war heroes who served alongside Britain

Dan Jarvis MP, a Labour MP and former soldier who served in Afghanistan, said: “It’s reprehensible that brave men who served alongside us are paying the price for the government’s failing Arap policy.

“The government has had over 18 months to grip this, but as Arap numbers dwindle, small boat crossings rise. It’s just not good enough to tell people to use the safe and legal routes when they aren’t fit for purpose.”

‘What safe and legal way was there after the fall of Afghanistan?’ the veteran said (The Independent)

The Arap scheme has also been plagued by delays, with more than 1,000 people eligible still stuck in hotels in Pakistan waiting for months on end for relocation to the UK.

Ms Fenby added: “These guys are desperate, they are terrified, because they were on the frontline. I’ve got one guy who went to Pakistan and was living in a park in Islamabad. He was deported to Afghanistan and I’ve not been able to get hold of him since.”

Dr Sara De Jong, senior lecturer at the University of York and co-founder of charity The Sulha Alliance, said: “The interpreters who I am in contact with report significant mental distress.”

She added: “The 1,000 Arap eligibles, including 500 children left in limbo in Pakistan risk falling victim to an ‘out of sight, out of mind policy’. Yet others are still in Afghanistan and have been waiting for over a year for an Arap decision.”

More than 1,000 Afghans eligible for the UK are stuck in hotels in Pakistan (The Independent )

Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “The Arap scheme is just another ploy by this government to act as though they are doing something while betraying those who risked their lives to support British interests. The stats speak for themselves.”

Senior military figures, diplomats and politicians have lined up to demand that the government steps in to help the airman.

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said the case illustrated the “gaping hole” in the current system. Calling on the government to investigate further, he added: “This is clearly not who we are as a nation, and is not how our migration system should operate.”

Admiral Lord West, chief of Naval staff from 2002 to 2006, told the Independent: “I understand all the issues about trying to stop boats coming across the Channel and people drowning. But I think occasionally one has to show some flexibility. And I would have thought this was a classic case where we should.”

And Lord Alf Dubs – a child refugee who fled the Nazis before the Second World War – said the idea of deporting the pilot was “absolutely shocking”.

“If he risked his life for us, how can we possibly not consider giving him safety?” the Labour peer asked. “The government must think again.”

Chris Hopkins, from Savanta, said the results of the poll for The Independent presented a challenge for the government.

He said: “Tougher lines from government regarding small boats will inevitably lead to cases such as this one where government policy seems misguided and at odds with public sympathies.”

Prime minister Rishi Sunak told MPs last month that the Home Office will look into the pilot’s case but there has been no update since then.

The Home Office has refused to say whether it would consider removing the pilot’s deportation threat while it considers his asylum claim – and insists it cannot comment on the plight of an individual.

An MoD spokesperson said: “We owe a debt of gratitude to those interpreters and other staff eligible under the Arap scheme who worked directly for, or with, UK forces in Afghanistan. To date we have relocated over 12,200 individuals to the UK under Arap.

“The UK government has committed to relocating eligible Afghans and their families to the UK under the Arap scheme and will honour this.”

The Savanta poll for The Independent surveyed 2,193 adults between 31 March and 2 April.

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