Home Office deletes asylum guidance for Afghanistan claiming no ‘real risk of harm’ to general population

No replacement for official security document amid scramble to escape following Taliban takeover

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Monday 16 August 2021 18:14
Comments
UK military arrives in Kabul to evacuate British nationals from Taliban-gripped capital

The Home Office has deleted a document used by officials considering asylum applications that claimed there was no “real risk of harm” to the general public in Afghanistan.

Official guidance on the security situation in the country, which has not been replaced since being deleted on Monday morning, said failed asylum seekers could still be safely deported to Kabul despite “indiscriminate violence”.

“The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has worsened but has not deteriorated to the extent that it represents, in general, a real risk of harm [contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights],” the document added.

It quoted a tribunal judgment saying that a “person who is of lower-level interest for the Taliban (i.e. not a senior government or security services official, or a spy) is not at real risk of persecution from the Taliban in Kabul”.

The Home Office document, which was quoted in asylum refusal letters, claimed the “proportion of the population affected by indiscriminate violence is small and not at a level where a returnee ... would face a serious and individual threat to their life”.

The guidance meant that until Monday, asylum seekers had to prove that they were personally at risk through their “individual circumstances”, because the general security situation was not considered dangerous enough to grant them protection in Britain.

It disappeared from a government website on Monday morning, alongside eight other documents on terrorist groups in the country, and the treatment of women, gay people and ethnic and religious minorities.

Only one document, on healthcare provision in Afghanistan, was left on a page that says it is “used by UK Visas and Immigration to make decisions in asylum and human rights applications”.

The Home Office said it removed the documents because they were “no longer relevant to the current situation”, after the Taliban seized power following a rapid advance through major Afghan cities.

Chaotic scenes were being reported from Kabul, where people were killed during desperate attempts to board planes the capital’s airport.

The Home Office would not answer The Independent’s questions on how officials will be considering more than 3,000 live asylum applications from Afghan nationals without the guidance, and if cases would be paused as a result.

Official figures show that almost 2,900 Afghan asylum seekers in the UK are awaiting an initial decision on asylum claims, while a further 236 are under further review.

A brief history of the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan

There is also an unknown number of Afghan migrants living in Britain under fear of deportation after their asylum applications were refused.

A solicitor who specialises in Afghan asylum cases told The Independent that he was notified of an Afghan refugee awaiting removal from the UK as recently as last month.

Jamie Bell said the man, who was being deported because of his failed asylum claim and did not have a criminal record, was held in immigration detention ahead of planned removal on 13 July.

The lawyer said the Home Office deferred the removal and released the man the previous day, without giving an explanation.

Mr Bell is calling for an amnesty for Afghan asylum seekers who are currently living in the UK, urging the government not to “leave them in limbo”.

“Everyone’s waking up this morning terrified saying ‘what does this mean for me, will I be returned there?’,” he said.

“The threat of Afghanistan removals should be a thing of the past while the Taliban are in control.

“Many ‘failed asylum seekers’ were refused on the basis of guidance that is now fully out of date.”

Mr Bell said that for several years, asylum seekers had “not been believed” by the Home Office when they said Afghanistan was not safe.

“There was no sign of the war getting any better but Afghans were being told that they weren't believed because there was an official perception about safety in Afghanistan,” he added.

“The perception of Kabul was as a safe international city where people could thrive.”

Mr Bell said that the Home Office had not officially changed its stance until the Taliban took control of the entire country, even though “any international observer knew which way it was going” in recent weeks.

United Nations human rights experts are calling for member states to keep their borders open to receive asylum seekers from Afghanistan.

They said the Taliban’s military offensive had been “marked by a relentless campaign of direct targeting of civilians, civil society and journalists, summary executions, assassination of human rights defenders, mass executions of civilians, and unlawful restrictions on the human rights of women and girls”.

Boris Johnson was to chair a third Cobra meeting over Afghanistan on Monday afternoon, amid a struggle to evacuate UK nationals and allies.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said the UK will continue the evacuation effort for “as long as it is safe to do so” as the government came under fire for its handling of the crisis following the withdrawal of British troops.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have been closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and due to the escalations this weekend we removed our country policy information, as it was no longer relevant to the current situation. We are urgently working to update this as soon as possible.”

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