Priti Patel is under pressure to outline how the Home Office will offer safe routes to the UK for Afghans fleeing the Taliban after she said they should not attempt to reach Britain via unauthorised means.
The home secretary told reporters on Thursday that the government wanted to “avoid” Afghans crossing the Channel with people smugglers and pledged to ensure that those who do not manage to escape from their country can be resettled in Britain.
But campaigners said there were “still many questions” about how these routes would be implemented and warned that Ms Patel’s approach “failed to recognise the reality of conflict and persecution”, warning that many Afghan refugees will have already set off to reach the UK.
There are mounting concerns that Afghans who arrive in Britain via irregular routes, such as on small boats in the Channel, will be penalised as per Ms Patel’s immigration plans, which seek to prevent any asylum seeker who arrives in this way from being granted permanent protection.
It isn’t clear when the new Afghanistan citizen’s resettlement scheme, announced by the Home Office last week, which commits to welcoming 5,000 in its first year, will begin and how it will operate.
Speaking during a visit to Heathrow airport, where a plane carrying 369 evacuees from Kabul had just arrived, the home secretary said that Afghans crossing the Channel with people smugglers was “exactly what we want to avoid” because “clearly it puts families in danger”.
She said the government was “absolutely dedicated and committed” to making sure people who do not manage to escape Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal were able to make safe journeys to resettle in the UK.
“The world has seen this in the Syria crisis,” she said. “In 2015 we saw thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean, making the most perilous, treacherous journeys that puts them in the hands of people traffickers, people smugglers who just don’t care about safety.”
She added that the government is “absolutely dedicated and committed” to making sure people who do not escape Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal are able to make safe journeys to resettle in the UK.
“Those individuals who may not get out, there is huge work taking place right now, you saw it at the G7, the Prime Minister said that we will supply safe passage.”
But shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the promises were like “trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted” and called on Ms Patel to “outline plans immediately”.
“The appalling mishandling of the collapse in Afghanistan by ministers has left huge numbers of lives at risk and a potential humanitarian crisis. The lack of planning to get people at risk out is unforgivable, given it has been 18 months since the Doha deal,” he said.
“We still don’t know when these supposed safe routes will open or how people fearing for their lives will be able to access help once the airport closes, and the military has left. It is a dangerous mess. Ministers should take responsibility and outline plans immediately.”
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, echoed the same concerns, saying that while the charity welcomed any initiative that would help Afghan refugees resettle in the UK, there were “still many questions about how these routes will be implemented in practice”.
“People fleeing are under extreme distress and pressure and in the absence of clarity from the Home Office about how the pledge to resettle all Afghan refugees will work, people will be forced to make difficult decisions including travel overland with all the risks and danger it involves,” he added.
Government data published on Thursday morning revealed that only 661 refugees have been granted resettlement in the UK in the year ending June 2021 – 81 per cent fewer than the previous year.
Since the Home Office opened the UK resettlement scheme (UKRS) in March, which had originally been due to offer sanctuary to 5,000 refugees from around the world in its first year, just 310 people have been welcomed under the programme.
The department scrapped its numerical target for the UKRS earlier this year, saying the numbers would instead be kept under review, “guided by the capacity of local authorities, central government and community sponsor groups as the UK recovers from Covid”.
Mr Hilton said the current commitment to resettle 5,000 Afghans in the first year should “immediately be doubled”, but added that the vast majority of Afghans at risk would “not be one of the lucky 5,000 resettled”.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said Ms Patel “had it in her power” to expand safe routes if she wished to prevent Afghan refugees from turning to people smugglers to reach safety.
“This includes a more ambitious resettlement programme, expansion of those who can join refugees in the UK through family reunion, and the introduction of humanitarian visas,” he added.
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “Thousands of Afghans, including vulnerable women and children, are now fleeing for their lives to refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. We cannot just leave them there.
“Instead of turning her back on refugees and whittling down the number we resettle, Ms Patel must make a far more ambitious commitment to bring those fleeing the Taliban to safety.”
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