UK warns Afghans stuck in Pakistan hotels to hide indoors amid refugee crackdown

Exclusive: Warning issued to families as Pakistan begins expulsion of thousands of Afghan refugees

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 02 November 2023 12:51 GMT
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The special forces units abandoned to the Taliban by Britain

Afghan families waiting in Pakistan hotels to be relocated to the UK have been warned by the Foreign Office to hide indoors as authorities begin a crackdown on refugees.

The British High Commission (BHC) has warned those in hotels in Islamabad — and who Rishi Sunak has promised to evacuate to the UK — that they should not go outside because of the risk of arrest and deportation.

Afghan families have been waiting months to be brought to the UK and, as a result, some of their Pakistan visas have run out, meaning they are now undocumented.

Foreign Office officials have been talking to the Pakistan government to secure protections for those who are still waiting. But the UK government has so far only chartered one flight to take families to the UK. A few families have also been moved on commercial flights.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s government has begun rounding up undocumented refugees, most of them Afghans, and thousands of people have begun crossing the border into Afghanistan, having been forced out of their homes.

Afghan refugees rest near trucks upon their arrival from Pakistan at the Afghanistan-Pakistan Torkham border in Nangarhar province on November 1, 2023.

Aid agencies have warned that conditions in the Taliban-run country are “dire”, with temporary camps being prepared, and a commissioner for Pakistan’s Khyber Tribal District said more than 24,000 Afghans had crossed out of the country using the Torkham border crossing on Wednesday alone.

Some Afghans who have been ordered to leave have spent decades in Pakistan, while some have never been to Afghanistan. Of the more than 4 million Afghans living in Pakistan, the Pakistani government estimates 1.7 million are undocumented.

Over 3,000 Afghans are currently living in Islamabad under the care of the British High Commission, awaiting relocation to the UK under two resettlement schemes. They have been approved for transfer because of their work for and alongside the British government in Afghansitan.

One message forwarded to families from the Foreign Office officials reads: “You will be aware the GoP (government of Pakistan) are arresting, detaining and deporting those with no legal status in Pakistan, please do not take unnecessary risks by leaving your hotel.”

Detained Afghan refugees sit at a police station in Karachi on November 2, 2023, following a police operation against illegal Afghan immigrants.

Those eligible for UK transfer under the Ministry of Defence’s scheme for those who worked alongside British forces have been handed “assurance letters” to provide in case of arrest.

The letters say that the bearer “is being considered for permanent residence in the United Kingdom”. It continues: “They have received a positive evaluation at the eligibility stage of their application and await completion of the final stages”.

The Independent revealed last month that the UK government had been explicitly warned by diplomats that Afghan refugees in Pakistan could not be protected from arrests and deportation.

Risk assessments from the BHC in Islamabad, which the government tried to keep secret, were revealed after an appeal by The Independent and the Press Association.

Referring to the possibility of arrest after the announced 1 November expulsion deadline, the document reads: “It is very difficult to judge we would be successful in every case if it were to happen frequently beyond 1 November and we were not informed, or the eligible person didn’t have the documents with them.”

The Independent also revealed in September that police had stormed one of the hotels housing Afghans in Islamabad, and that they had only released arrested Afghans after intervention by British High Commission officials.

Pakistan’s acting interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti, has said there “will be no compromise against illegal refugees”.

He said: “We have the data on who are staying illegally in Pakistan. We are going door to door, and we have done geofencing. We will detain and deport them. We have arrested dozens across the country so far, including in the capital.”

A government spokesperson said: “The UK has made an ambitious and generous commitment to help at-risk people in Afghanistan and, so far, we have brought around 24,600 people to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan schemes.

“We continue to honour our commitments to bring eligible Afghans to the UK, with new arrivals going directly into settled accommodation where possible.”

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