‘Grave concern’ over lack of safe and legal routes to UK for vulnerable people still trapped in Afghanistan

Joint letter calls on ministers to act ‘as matter of urgency’ to bring people at risk from Taliban to Britain

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 04 April 2022 12:20 BST
NGOs warn that Britain’s Afghan resettlement scheme offers ‘little or no capacity for those most at risk in Afghanistan to come to the UK’
NGOs warn that Britain’s Afghan resettlement scheme offers ‘little or no capacity for those most at risk in Afghanistan to come to the UK’ (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The UK government has been told to act “as a matter of urgency” to offer vulnerable people at risk of persecution from the Taliban to safety in Britain under its designated Afghan resettlement scheme.

Twenty-three NGOs including the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council have penned a strongly-worded letter to the home secretary expressing “grave concern” over the lack of safe and legal routes available for vulnerable people still in Afghanistan to reach the UK.

The Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) was announced on 18 August 2021, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledging that it would resettle up to 20,000 of the most vulnerable people at risk in the country, with around 5,000 arrivals expected in the first year.

Under Operation Pitting, the UK government evacuated around 14,000 Afghans from Kabul in August 2021 and brought them to the UK. It has evacuated approximately a further 2,000 since then.

The ACRS opened in January of this year - but the letter, whose signatories also include Oxfam GB and Refugee Action, warns that in reality the scheme offers “little or no capacity for those most at risk in Afghanistan to come to the UK in a safe and secure manner”.

They said this was in part because the government had decided to limit those relocated directly from Afghanistan in the first year to those who “supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan, including those British Council and GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni who are most at risk”.

The signatories of the letter said this decision had left thousands of vulnerable Afghans with the “invidious choice” of remaining in Afghanistan at risk of persecution, fleeing into a neighbouring country such as Pakistan in the hope of being able to access the UNHCR referral pathway, or embarking on even more dangerous journeys further afield.

The organisations said they were also concerned about the lack of family reunification rights under the scheme, which means Afghans already in the UK are struggling to bring at-risk relatives to join them.

“Many of our organisations have been involved in delivering practical and emotional support to people evacuated to the UK, many of whom are suffering from trauma and high levels of anxiety about family and friends left behind in Afghanistan,” the letter states.

“Many of these people are anxious to hear further details of when the scheme would open, how it would operate and whether friends and family would be eligible to come to the UK under the ACRS.”

The charities said they were also concerned by immigration minister Victoria Atkin’s admission in January that the target of supporting up to 20,000 people through the scheme would include thousands of Afghans who had already arrived in the UK under Operation Pitting.

Separately, a letter signed by more than 20 climate, equality and refugee groups in the UK and Afghanistan, including Friends of the Earth, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, has called on ministers to ensure climate activists’ safety in the country by “urgently unlocking” the ACRS.

The letter’s signatories note that “over 150 environment activists remain in hiding, in fear for their lives”, and several civil society activists have been killed since the Taliban’s takeover.

Despite this, civil society activists, including environmental campaigners, are not being prioritised for resettlement under the ACRS, and there is still no way for those at-risk to apply for refuge via the scheme.

Last month, The Independent reported on the case of an eight-year-old girl who is stranded in Afghanistan while her parents are in the UK, due to what was described by lawyers as “an abject lack of concern” by the British government.

The girl is currently living with extended family in the city, where members of the Taliban are said to be going “door to door” searching for people with links to western countries.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The UK has made one of the largest commitments to resettlement of any country. Our scheme will provide up to 20,000 Afghan women, children and other at risk groups with a safe and legal route to resettle in the UK.

“We are working as fast as possible to house everyone and are proud this country has provided homes for more than 4,000 Afghans evacuees in such a short space of time. We urge councils to join over 300 local authorities who have pledged to support Afghan families, and those who can offer more housing places, to do so.”

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