Thousands of Afghans waiting in Pakistan hotels for transfer to Britain as Islamabad starts crackdown

Around 3,000 Afghans who have been approved for refuge in Britain are stranded in UK-funded hotels in Islamabad

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 01 November 2023 17:30 GMT
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Thousands of Afghans granted sanctuary in Britain remain trapped in Pakistan as the country begins a crackdown on undocumented refugees, despite the UK government having promised to bring them to safety.

Around 3,000 Afghans who have been approved for refuge in Britain are stranded in UK-funded hotels in Islamabad. Many of the families, who are eligible for resettlement because of their work with the British government in Afghanistan, have been waiting for months, and their visas have run out.

Pakistan has said that it will begin to round up and expel any undocumented immigrants on Thursday. According to officials, more than 140,000 people have returned to Afghanistan ahead of the 1 November deadline to leave the country.

UK Foreign Office officials have been in discussion with the Pakistan government to ensure that Afghans who are waiting for relocation to Britain are not targeted. Those awaiting transfer have been given letters from the British High Commission in an attempt to protect them from expulsion.

The UK began chartering flights for the families after ministers were forced into a U-turn by legal action taken against the government by two Afghans who were staying in the hotels. In November last year, prime minister Rishi Sunak decided that no Afghans should arrive in the UK without first arranging their own accommodation – a policy that effectively ended relocations to Britain.

The government has now decided that Afghans should be moved to the UK even if they are not matched to settled accommodation, with hotels to be used if necessary. So far, just one chartered flight has brought more than 100 Afghans from Islamabad to the UK to stay in armed forces service accommodation.

Military chiefs and politicians wrote to Rishi Sunak in July asking him to work urgently to relocate those eligible to come to the UK

More families have been flown to Britain on commercial flights, but thousands remain as the Pakistan authorities begin their crackdown on refugees.

The Independent revealed last month 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.

The UK has spent around £26.7m accommodating the Afghans in hotels in Pakistan since the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. One former army interpreter who has been staying in a hotel for over a year said he was bored of waiting and was worried about his UK visa expiring if he was not relocated soon.

Pakistan’s interior ministry said in a statement that “a process to arrest the foreigners ... for deportation has started by 1 November.”

A senior official in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan, said that around 104,000 Afghan nationals had left through the main Torkham border crossing during the last two weeks.

The government in Pakistan has put the total number at 140,322. It estimates that there are 1.7 million undocumented Afghans living in Pakistan. Many fled Afghanistan during the decades of internal conflict that began in the late 1970s, while the Taliban takeover after the West’s withdrawal in 2021 led to another exodus.

In response to a parliamentary question about the relocation of Afghans to the UK, the government said it continues “to welcome families to the UK under the Afghan relocation and assistance policy (Arap) and Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS)”, the two schemes designed to enable Afghans who worked with British forces to come to the UK.

It added: “The government looks forward to bringing all remaining eligible individuals to the UK as soon as practicable. We know there is still a way to go to bring those eligible to safety in the UK, but we are committed to continuing to welcome eligible Afghans through Arap and ACRS.”

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.”

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