Afghan resettlement scheme to open five months after it was announced

Charities welcome move but say ‘urgent clarity’ needed on how new programme will work

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 23 December 2021 16:41
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<p>The scheme will welcome those who assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for British values, as well as those who are ‘extremely vulnerable’, says Home Office</p>

The scheme will welcome those who assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for British values, as well as those who are ‘extremely vulnerable’, says Home Office

The government’s Afghan resettlement programme is to open in January, five months after it was first announced, the Home Office has said.

The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which is to provide 20,000 Afghan nationals with a safe and legal route to Britain, will start operating next month to “build upon the UK’s continuing efforts to support those at risk”, the department announced on Thursday.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and others welcomed the move, but said more clarity was required on how the programme would be funded and resourced, with one charity saying the Home Office remained “concerningly tight lipped on crucial details”.

They also warned that many Afghans, as well as refugees from other nationalities, would still be left with no option but to travel to the UK via unauthorised routes and must not be penalised for doing so.

It comes as ministers have been subject to mounting criticism for the “very slow” progress implementing the resettlement scheme, with MPs warning last month that some refugees could “die before it becomes operational”.

The Home Office said the ACRS would prioritise those who have assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for British values, as well as “extremely vulnerable” people such as women and girls at risk and members of minority groups.

During the mass evacuation effort from Kabul in August, known as Operation Pitting, saw thousands of Afghans transferred to the UK. Most are here under the Afghan Relocation Assistance Police (ARAP), a separate scheme, designed for those who helped the British effort in the country.

The Home Office said other Afghans have since continued to be evacuated, with around 1,500 people helped to enter the UK since the evacuation.

Some of those already evacuated, including women’s rights activists, journalists, and prosecutors, will be the first to be resettled under the ACRS, the department said.

Along with this cohort, the scheme will resettle those who have fled Afghanistan and are now in refugee camps, as well as members of Afghan civil society who supported the UK and international community effort in the country, such as human and women’s rights activists and prosecutors.

Laura Padoan, of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which will work with the UK to resettle Afghan refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries under the ACRS, said she was pleased that the scheme would be starting next month, adding: “Resettlement is a lifeline and we will work with the Home Office to ensure that the most vulnerable can access this route to safety.”

However, she said it would be at least several months before Afghans in refugee camps would be transferred to the UK, given that there is currently no resettlement scheme in neighbouring countries Pakistan and Iran.

“That requires quite a lot of scaling up and funding and having the staff in place. So it’s not going to be imminent. We’re not poised and ready to start bringing Afghans here. It will still take a while,” she told The Independent.

Louise Calvey, head of services and safeguarding at Refugee Action, said more detail was needed on how the scheme work: “Ministers remain concerningly tight lipped on crucial details, such as how many of the 20,000 people they’ve pledged to help are already in the UK, and how many additional refugees stuck overseas will be welcomed.

“The government must also provide urgent clarity on how intends to back local councils and international organisations to make sure people fleeing the Taliban quickly receive the life-saving protection and support they desperately need.”

The Home Office said delivering the ACRS was “evidence of the government’s New Plan for Immigration in action, offering a safe and legal pathway to the UK for some of the most vulnerable while breaking the business model of illegal migration”.

The controversial new immigration plans, being pushed through by ministers via the new Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed through the House of Commons this month, will see people who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes prevented from being granted permanent refugee status, and potentially imprisoned.

Ms Padoan, of the UNHCR, said that while the ACRS was a positive development, there was still a dearth of safe and legal routes to the UK for both Afghans and refugees of other nationalities, and that more would be required to ensure people can still find sanctuary in the UK under the Home Office’s new immigration bill.

“There needs to be a way for people to get here and not be criminalised for getting here and arriving irregularly. Many of the people who have been crossing the Channel in small boats are Afghans,” Ms Padoan said.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, echoed her concerns, saying that while he welcomed the scheme, he remained “concerned” about the fact that any Afghans reaching the UK who do not arrive under a resettlement scheme could be prosecuted and sent to prison for having entered the country unlawfully under the new plans.

He added: “This bill will slam the door in the face of many Afghans fleeing persecution and oppression. The government must rethink its proposals and ensure all Afghans can be given protection irrespective of how they arrived in the UK.”

Victoria Atkins, minister for Afghan resettlement, will set out further detail on how the ACRS will operate in an update to Parliament in January.

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