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Thousands of Afghans still in limbo as ministers miss own deadline to slash resettlement backlog

Interpreters who worked with British army are among those waiting to hear if they will be relocated to UK

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 31 August 2023 18:07 BST
Who is new defence secretary Grant Shapps?

Ministers have missed their own target to clear the backlog for a much-heralded government resettlement policy aimed at Afghans who worked alongside British troops.

Around 8,000 applications are still waiting to be processed under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) – while thousands remain in fear for their lives as they wait to hear if they will be given sanctuary in Britain.

Interpreters who worked with the British army and Afghans who served alongside the UK special forces are among those who have still not heard whether they will be relocated over two years on from the Taliban takeover.

Armed forces minister James Heappey told parliament in May that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) aimed to process all outstanding initial applications by August 2023. He then later added: “We will complete the processing of applications by this summer.” The department later distanced itself from the commitment but said it would pledge to significantly reduce the backlog of applications – with the exception of complex cases – by the end of August.

Military chiefs and politicians wrote to Rishi Sunak in July asking him to work urgently to relocate those eligible to the UK but they have received no response (Getty)

As of 30 August, they had received over 141,000 applications since the start of the scheme in April 2021. Over 85,000 eligibility decisions had been issued, out of around 93,000 unique applications.

One Afghan, who worked with British forces in his role as an intelligence analyst, has been waiting for a decision on his Arap application for two years. He is now in the UK, having fled Afghanistan in fear for his life. His case has been supported by two of his RAF supervisors and has been raised by his local MP with Mr Heappey three times.

He told The Independent: “The MoD told the parliament they will finish with the Arap eligibility by August and August is almost gone and they still haven’t sent me anything.

“I don’t know why my case is so complex or why it’s taking such an unacceptable amount of time. Despite the government’s promise to process applicants, years have passed and there are still simple applications pending.”

Labour’s shadow defence secretary, John Healey MP, said it was “shameful that thousands of Arap applications are still not processed despite the government promising to clear the backlog by today”.

He added: “Not only that, eligible Afghans are now being kicked out of hotels without new housing, while hundreds remain stuck in Pakistan. Ministers must fix the failing Arap scheme.”

Sarah Fenby-Dixon, Afghan consultant for the Refugee Aid Network, said she is supporting 52 Afghans who have applied for the Ministry of Defence’s resettlement scheme but said around 20 of those haven’t received an answer.

She said “many of them have extensive proof of their work alongside British soldiers, have supporting letters from their former British colleagues and evidence of horrific attacks that they have faced from the Taliban because of their work”.

James Heappey had pledged to clear the Arap backlog by summer 2023 (PA)

She said many were “under terrible threat”, adding: “People are hiding in cellars or in the mountains; they cannot go out and they cannot work to feed their children. The government’s treatment of them is a shameful betrayal.”

Legal project, the Afghan Pro Bono Initiative (APBI), has also been supporting Afghans who worked with the British armed forces to apply for relocation to the UK.

One family of three that they are supporting are still in hiding in Afghanistan, moving between family homes. The father worked for the special forces in the Afghan military, assisting British missions and one of his family member’s homes was raided by the Taliban in search of him. The family applied for Arap in November 2022 but they have had no response.

In another case, an interpreter, who had been employed by the MoD for work with UK forces, has been waiting for an initial Arap decison for over two years. He fled to a third country in fear for his life and has at times been made street homeless.

Becky Hart, lawyer for the APBI, said the government had “chosen to abandon Afghans living in hiding or making a dangerous journey to safety”.

She continued: “Our clients are living in hell, with many now waiting two years for a response from this government. Many remain torn apart from family, desperate to be together again. We have had clients face torture and death by the Taliban, and they are living in constant fear for their lives while they wait for answers.”

Military chiefs and MPs wrote a letter to prime minister Rishi Sunak in July, asking him to keep promises made to Afghan refugees and urgently relocate those who fought with the UK against the Taliban.

An estimated 2,000 people who have already been given eligibility under the Arap scheme remain trapped in Afghanistan and a similar number are waiting on relocation from Pakistan.

Former defence secretary Ben Wallace took a keen interest in the success of his department’s Arap scheme, and Mr Sunak highlighted his role as “the driving force in the design and implementation” of the policy in his response to Mr Wallace’s resignation on Thursday.

He has now been replaced by former energy secretary Grant Shapps, whose appointment has already been questioned by military chiefs who worry about his lack of defence credentials.

An MoD spokesperson said: “We owe a debt of gratitude to those interpreters and other staff eligible under the Arap scheme who worked for, or with, UK forces in Afghanistan. That’s why we have committed to relocating all eligible Afghans and their families to the UK under the Arap scheme – a commitment we will honour.

“Our absolute priority is supporting the movement of eligible people out of Afghanistan and to date, we have relocated around 12,200 individuals to the UK under Arap”.

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