Ministers pledged to relocate up to 20,000 people after the Taliban takeover of the country in August, but the scheme has not yet started and is still in the design stage.
Campaigners accused the government of “dawdling” after failing to prepare for the consequences of military withdrawal from Afghanistan, while an MP said one of her constituents had already seen two relatives murdered by the Taliban.
The delay comes as the government moves to criminalise all asylum seekers arriving in Britain on small boats or by other irregular routes. At least 10 migrants are thought to have drowned in the English Channel in recent weeks.
Victoria Atkins, the minister responsible for Afghan resettlement, told the House of Commons: “We are working urgently across government and with partners such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to design the scheme.
“We continue to support the thousands of people successfully evacuated from Afghanistan under Operation Pitting, and we will continue to support those who come under the scheme when it opens.”
Labour MP Helen Hayes said one of her constituents had a brother living in hiding in Afghanistan with his wife and children.
She added: “Since the evacuation ended, they have lost an uncle and a cousin, both murdered by the Taliban, and they have received numerous threatening messages. They live in daily fear for their lives, yet the government will not issue papers to give them the best chance of safe passage to the UK via a third country.”
Ms Atkins said the security situation in Afghanistan meant that the UK had no consular presence in the country, but was “working at pace” to set up the resettlement process.
“We want to set the scheme up as an example of a safe and legal route under the government’s new plan for immigration,” she added.
Labour MP Bambos Charalambous said: “There is a real risk that the people whom the scheme is intended to help will die before it becomes operational.”
Ms Atkins said 15,000 people were evacuated under the Operation Pitting emergency operation, and that there were agreements to remove more from Afghanistan with third countries.
She insisted the UK was “meeting its commitment” for translators and other Afghans who were made Taliban targets by their work with the British military.
Louise Calvey, the head of services at charity Refugee Action, said: “It’s indefensible that ministers are still dawdling over the details of its Afghan resettlement scheme, three months after the fall of Kabul.
“These delays have been caused in part by the government’s previous refusal to commit to a long-term resettlement programme, which left it totally unprepared when it was needed.
“But this is no excuse to not help now. Ministers must urgently use the already operational UK resettlement scheme to identify and relocate vulnerable Afghan refugees so they can start to rebuild their lives here in safety.”
Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said she was “dismayed” by the delay, adding: “The situation in Afghanistan remains extremely dangerous with many people at risk of persecution. The government needs to provide urgent clarification on when we can expect the scheme to open.”
During the same parliamentary debate, Priti Patel defended a suite of new laws that would criminalise any refugee – including Afghans – who cross the English Channel on small boats or by any other means without “entry clearance”.
“The new plan for immigration and the Nationality and Borders Bill are pivotal to the comprehensive reform of the entire system,” the home secretary told parliament. “There is no single solution.”
Several Conservative MPs said their constituents were angry at the more than 25,000 Channel crossings so far this year – more than three times the total for 2020 – and wanted action.
During Monday’s debate, the home secretary did not confirm if planned boat push-backs had taken place, or whether the government would “offshore” asylum seekers in a third country.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, urged Ms Patel to “accept responsibility” for the situation instead of spouting “empty rhetoric and broken promises”.
He added: “The government deal with the French authorities is failing. The government have closed down safe routes, such as the Dubs scheme, and they have cut the aid budget, which was addressing the reasons why people flee their homes.
“Last week, the home secretary yet again vowed to make the Channel crossing route unviable, but nothing happens, and ever more people continue to risk their life.”
Mr Thomas-Symonds accused the home secretary of “losing the trust of not only the country, but her colleagues”, after failing to replace an agreement lost in Brexit that allowed asylum seekers to be returned to EU countries they previously passed through.
Ms Patel replied: “The answer to the right hon. gentleman’s question is no, throughout.”
She later said the situation would be “much worse if it were not for the work already untaken by the government”.
Several MPs called for the home secretary to withdraw previous claims that 70 per cent of people crossing the Channel were “economic migrants” after a study using Home Office data found that almost two-thirds were granted protection as refugees.
Ms Patel refused and repeated an unverified assertion that “70 per cent are single men and they are economic migrants”. Gender and marital status has no bearing on refugee status in law.
Ms Doyle, of the Refugee Council, said: “The Home Office’s own data suggests that the vast majority of the men, women and children who cross the Channel are from countries where persecution and human rights abuses are rife and have a high likelihood of being granted protection.
“Rather than deny this reality, this government should show compassion by welcoming those who need refugee protection rather than seeking to cruelly push them back across the channel or punish them with imprisonment.”
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