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Fears that Afghan refugees in UK face ‘hostile environment’ rules within days after visa delays

Alarm raised over failure to grant indefinite leave to remain – before immigration papers expire

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 17 February 2022 19:11 GMT
Around 15,000 refugees were welcomed to the UK when Kabul fell last August, on temporary six-month visas
Around 15,000 refugees were welcomed to the UK when Kabul fell last August, on temporary six-month visas (PA)

Afghan refugees in the UK will fall under the Home Office’s “hostile environment” regime within days after delays issuing new visas, worried lawyers are warning.

The alarm has been raised over the failure to grant indefinite leave to remain before their immigration papers expire – despite ministers promising to act weeks ago.

More than 15,000 refugees were evacuated to the UK when Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, on temporary six-month visas – which means they will run out within days or weeks.

Under the hostile environment, which remains in place despite being renamed, they risk “homelessness and destitution” if they cannot prove their right to be in the country, the Law Society fears.

“Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK need valid immigration status to rent a home, open a bank account or find work, and access NHS treatment free of charge,” said I. Stephanie Boyce, the organisation’s president.

“When Afghan evacuees arrived, the Home Office promised to work with them to secure their long-term UK immigration status within six months, but many still do not have the new papers they need.”

Calling the situation “deeply distressing”, Ms Boyce added: “Solicitors tell us they have been seeking clarity from the Home Office for months and are worried that, if their clients become ‘overstayers’, by omission they may face homelessness and destitution.”

However, the Home Office described the warning as “needless scaremongering”, insisting it was “completely wrong” to claim rights are at risk.

Most concern centres on the plight of around 4,000 refugees who have been moved into homes from temporary hotel rooms, who are most at risk from losing the right to rent and work.

The Independent’s Refugees Welcome campaign is calling for the government to offer sanctuary to as many Afghans as possible, and for them to receive proper support.

Last month, when the Home Office was alerted to the problem by MPs, it said it aimed to “conclude the process before individuals’ leave to remain expires”.

But the Law Society said official advice has not been updated since September 2021, when most of the refugees arrived under Operation Pitting.

It has been alerted to one individual whose visa expires next Thursday, who has received no response to raising their case in recent weeks.

Ms Booth said some people in Home Office accommodation have been contacted, but added: “All the people who have not yet been contacted are increasingly anxious.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Afghan nationals resettled here already have the right to work, access to education, healthcare and can apply for public funds.

“While we are in the process of granting all indefinite leave to remain, all have valid leave while this is ongoing, so to suggest they are at risk of losing their rights is completely wrong.”

In answer to parliamentary questions in January, Kevin Foster, a Home Office minister, was unable to say how many refugees are still awaiting indefinite leave to remain.

He said: “Communications have been issued advising individuals of next steps to progress permanent residence in the UK.”

However, the Law Society said solicitors were reporting that clients outside Home Office accommodation have been given no information.

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