The scheme, announced more than two months ago, is still not in operation as many remain stuck in Afghanistan fearing for their lives following the Taliban takeover in August.
During questions in the House of Commons, MPs from every main party urged Ms Atkins to speed up the resettlement of refugees.
Boris Johnson announced on 17 August that the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) would welcome 5,000 Afghans in its first year and up to a total of 20,000 in the “long-term”.
Caroline Lucas, who tabled the urgent question, told the House on Monday: “Two months on and still counting we have still heard nothing. That is utterly shameful. Lives depend on that scheme.
“Not just those who are at risk from the Taliban, but [Ms Atkins] will know of the deep and growing humanitarian crisis gripping Afghanistan with around half the population starving. So can the minister tell us how much longer do we need to wait until it opens and when will we get information on how people can be referred?”
Ms Atkins responded: “Regrettably, the situation in Afghanistan has not changed since I last addressed the House.
“We do not have British Army presence, we do not have British Consular presence […] We have to be realistic […] These things do take time, I’m afraid.”
Conservative MP and former immigration minister Caroline Nokes said the “big concern” for Afghans who were evacuated to the UK was about family members who had been left behind, adding: ”They’re desperately looking for detail and information on how the ACRS is going to work.”
Labour MP Chris Bryant warned that the situation in Afghanistan was “only going to get worse in the coming months” and raised concern that the UK was acting considerably more slowly than other governments in the relocation effort.
Referencing his recent visit to a refugee camp in Doha, Qatar, where a number of Afghans are residing after escaping their home country, Mr Bryant told the House: “All the staff there said that while other countries were being magnificent dealing with people very swiftly, the UK was being very very slow.
“That’s a Home Office responsibility. I would like to see a bit more of a sense of urgency from the minister. How on earth can the scheme still not be in place? We’ve had 20 months to prepare for this.”
Concern was also raised about delays facing people who were evacuated over the summer under the Afghan Relocation Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme, designed to relocate Afghans who worked for the British forces, as well as many British-Afghan nationals, who remain in “bridging” hotels despite councils having housing ready.
The Independent revealed earlier this month that homes intended to house Afghan refugees had been sitting empty for weeks and that councils were “frustrated” that properties they had procured for the scheme more than a month ago were yet to be filled.
Ms Atkins told MPs that around 11,000 Afghan families were currently still in hotels two months on from Operation Pitting, the evacuation effort in August. Last month the Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft told MPs the figure was around 7,000.
SNP MP Stuart McDonald said: “We’ve seen delays with matching families to properties and worry that vital housing stock will have to sit empty for weeks and months [...] When does [Ms Atkins] plan to have people out of bridging hotels?” The minister did not provide a date.
Conservative MP Simon Fell told of a case in his constituency, Louth and Horncastle, whereby the local council was told an Afghan family-of-three would arrive, but a family-of-seven arrived, and there wasn’t a property there for them.
“I recognise the need to cleanse data and work on internal systems, but there appears to be feedback loops missing there where a simple phone call could inform councils,” he said.
Ms Atkins said the delays in placing people in permanent homes was due to the Home Office having to gather data about each family and “match this very carefully”, considering factors such as “community ties”.
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