A third of the places promised to rehome Afghans fleeing the Taliban in the UK have been given to people who were already in Britain – prompting fears that many still in Afghanistan will no longer be able to reach safety.
The Home Office has exceeded its target of resettling 5,000 people in the first year of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) after just one month, after it decided to offer places to people who had already been evacuated to the UK, including relatives of British nationals.
Charities warn this leaves “limited space” under the scheme to help thousands of Afghans who remain at risk and are in “desperate need”.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper called on ministers to “honour promises” they made to help those still trapped in Afghanistan who are vulnerable to persecution from the Taliban, warning that there is “still no sign of more people being helped”.
“The UK has a responsibility to those who worked alongside us and stood up for our most fundamental values. The government needs to make sure they have a route to safety and don’t end up being exploited by smuggler gangs or traffickers if they try to flee instead,” she told The Independent.
The ACRS, first announced following the Taliban takeover in August and set to resettle up to 20,000 over around five years, was designed to offer sanctuary to “vulnerable people and members of minority groups at risk”.
However, during a debate in the House of Lords last week Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad revealed that the original figure of 5,000 for year one had “been exceeded” and that “nearer 7,000” had already been counted towards the scheme, just weeks after it opened at the start of January.
Three days later, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins stated in response to a parliamentary question that around 6,500 people currently in the UK who had been brought to safety during and after the UK’s mass evacuation of Kabul in August were eligible under the ACRS.
Thousands of British nationals and their relatives were evacuated from Kabul to the UK in August, alongside some 8,000 Afghans who worked for the British army and their families, who are being resettled in the UK under a separate scheme, the Afghan Relocation Assistance Policy (Arap).
Jon Featonby, refugee and asylum policy manager at the British Red Cross, said it was “deeply concerning” that a third of the 20,000 resettlement places committed would be filled by people who are already in the UK.
“While it is right that those people who were evacuated last August receive the help and support they need, the resettlement scheme should focus on those who are still in danger. There are women, men and children in and around Afghanistan who are in desperate need of safety right now,” he added.
The Home Office has said there are three pathways for potential resettlement under the ACRS: one for those already in the UK; one via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for those who have already fled Afghanistan and are in refugee camps in surrounding countries, starting in the spring; and a specific pathway for those in Afghanistan who are at risk.
A UNHCR UK official told The Independent the organisation currently maintains its commitment to facilitate the resettlement of a considerable number of Afghan refugees under the ACRS this year.
However, it is not clear how many Afghans, if any, the Home Office will resettle under the third category – the only route by which people currently in Afghanistan can be resettled in the UK under the scheme.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “We are very concerned the target of supporting up to 20,000 people through the resettlement scheme announced in January simply doesn’t go far enough.
“Crucially, we now know it will actually include thousands of Afghans who have already arrived in the UK, leaving limited space to support more Afghans who remain at risk.
“In reality there are many more Afghans in great need who will not be eligible for the scheme, leaving them desperately unsafe and with no choice but to embark on dangerous journeys exploited by people smugglers to find safety.”
It comes after The Independent revealed that an ex-minister of the Afghan government and former senior judge, who sentenced hundreds of Taliban members to jail, is currently stuck in hiding with his family in the country. There is no route by which he can apply under the ACRS.
The Independent has backed calls for ministers to be more ambitious in its plan to resettle Afghans. Our Refugees Welcome campaign is calling for the government to offer sanctuary to as many people as possible.
A Home Office spokesperson said it would exceed its initial aim to resettle 5,000 people through the ACRS in the first year, but did not outline by how many.
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