‘This is not who we are’: Tory MP’s impassioned plea to stop Afghan pilot being sent to Rwanda

Rishi Sunak has promised to review the veteran’s plight after he was asked about The Independent’s story by MPs

Holly Bancroft,Kate Devlin,Adam Forrest
Tuesday 28 March 2023 21:35 BST
Rishi Sunak questioned on The Independent’s investigation on Afghan ‘hero’ facing deportation

An Afghan war hero threatened with deportation to Rwanda has exposed a “gaping hole” in our asylum system, senior figures warned today, as they called for Britain to fulfil its “duty” to those who served alongside coalition forces.

The Independent revealed this week that the pilot was forced to flee Afghanistan – leaving his young family – and travel to the UK on a small boat because he could find no safe and legal route out of the country.

Chair of the defence select committee Tobias Ellwood said the case shows there is “no functioning process” that allows Afghans to apply for asylum from abroad, adding: “This is clearly not who we are as a nation.”

Admiral Lord West, former head of the Royal Navy, added to the criticism, saying the government has a “duty” to look after those who fought alongside Britain.

Last night, Rishi Sunak promised to review the veteran’s plight after he was questioned about The Independent’s story during a grilling by MPs.

The pilot, who flew 30 combat missions against the Taliban and was praised by his coalition forces supervisor as a “patriot to his nation”, claims he has been “forgotten” by US and British forces.

Tory MP Mr Ellwood told The Independent: “This case illustrates the gaping hole in the current system – there is no functioning process that allows Afghans to apply for asylum from abroad and there is something very wrong if pilots who worked alongside us in Afghanistan could now be sent to Rwanda.”

He also called for the government to look at the case, saying: “This is clearly not who we are as a nation, and is not how our migration system should operate.

“I hope the government will look at this case specifically and address the wider issue of how an Afghan [who supported UK armed forces] can safely apply for asylum in the UK.”

The pilot said that ‘American and British forces have forgotten us’ (The Independent )

Lord West, chief of Naval staff from 2002 to 2006, said: “The Afghans who helped us, whether they be interpreters or whether they were fighting alongside us, we have a duty to look after them.

“Not least because they were helping us. But also because no one is ever going to want to help us if we ever get involved in a situation like that again.”

He added: “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.”

In an email to the pilot, a Home Office official wrote that it had evidence that he had been in Italy, Switzerland and France before reaching the UK, which could have “consequences for whether your claim is admitted to the UK asylum system”.

“[The pilot] may also be removable to Rwanda under the terms of the Migration and Economic Development Partnership between Rwanda and UK,” the email read.

In a notice of intent letter from the Home Office, the pilot was told that his personal data could be shared with the Rwandan government to assess whether he could be sent to the east African country.

The veteran said that it had been “impossible” to make his way to Britain via a safe route, adding: “What safe and legal way was there after the fall of Afghanistan?”

In his appearance before parliament’s liaison committee on Tuesday, Mr Sunak was asked about how the government would support Afghans who supported British forces but arrived in the UK on a small boat.

He responded by saying “these are exactly the sort of people we want to help”. But Tory MP Caroline Nokes replied: “... which is why an Afghan pilot was highlighted in The Independent as having been given notification that he was likely to be removed to Rwanda.”

Mr Sunak said that it was hard to comment on individual cases, but added: “If you send it to me I’ll happily make sure the Home Office have a look.”

The government has repeatedly said that there is no reason for people to cross the Channel in small boats because there are safe and legal routes to claim asylum.

More than 9,000 Afghans made the Channel crossing last year, according to Home Office figures.

Evacuees on a flight from Kabul in August 2021 (MoD/Getty)

The Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme (ARAP) is designed to bring those who worked for British forces in Afghanistan to the UK. It has brought more than 11,000 people to safety so far, but another 4,300 eligible people – including over 3,000 still in Afghanistan – have yet to be relocated.

Charities and case workers have raised concerns that ARAP fails to support Afghans who worked with British forces, but were not directly employed by them.

The general scheme for at-risk Afghans applying for resettlement, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), has only brought 22 people to the UK since the 2021 evacuation.

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer announced on Tuesday that around 8,000 Afghan refugees will be forced to move out of hotels within the coming months.

The refugees will be given a minimum notice of three months and they will be offered a property in which to stay. Charities have raised concerns about the plan, which could see thousands of Afghans presenting as homeless to councils if they reject the property offered to them.

Responding to Mr Mercer in the Commons, shadow defence secretary John Healey said the government was “serving eviction notices on 8,000 Afghans”.

He referenced another investigation by The Independent which revealed that Afghans were told they could come to safety in Britain only after their documents were stamped by the Taliban.

Mr Healey added that the government’s record “should shame us all”.

“Those in fear of their lives left in Afghanistan, housing promises broken, processing staff cut, ballooning backlogs, breaches of personal data – and even the MoD, even the MoD, saying to applicants that they should get the Taliban to verify their ARAP application documents,” he said.

“Far from being fair and right, this record and this statement should shame us all.”

Shadow defence secretary asks about The Independent’s investigation on Afghan refugees

Commenting on the case of the Afghan pilot, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, told The Independent: “The UK government made a solemn promise to the Afghans who helped our armed forces that it would help them and give them sanctuary from the Taliban.

“The failures of this Conservative government to help those that helped us is a source of national shame. We need a proper plan to ensure that the pilots, translators, and all those who risked their lives to help the British government get the protection they need and deserve.”

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats spokesperson for home affairs, said: “This Conservative government plans to ban people like him [the Afghan pilot] from claiming asylum in the United Kingdom and use an immoral, ineffective and hugely expensive scheme to deport them.

“We want to see these dangerous crossings stop, but the government has scrapped all safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to come here in the first place.”

Yasmine Ahmed, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, said: “This is what we’ve become, a nation that not only turns our back on those seeking protection, but expels those who helped us in our hour of need.”

The Home Office said: “We remain committed to providing protection for vulnerable and at-risk people fleeing Afghanistan, and so far have brought around 24,500 people impacted by the situation back to the UK.

“We continue to work with like-minded partners and countries neighbouring Afghanistan on resettlement issues, and to support safe passage for eligible Afghans.”

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