Rishi Sunak accused of having ‘no plan’ for Afghans in limbo two years after fall of Kabul

No adequate answers from government – as military and political leaders line up to demand PM honours ‘debt’ to brave Afghans who fought Taliban

Adam Forrest,Holly Bancroft
Tuesday 15 August 2023 00:02 BST
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Rishi Sunak’s government has been accused of “apathy and incompetence” in ignoring the plight of Afghan refugees, as it was claimed the PM had “no plan” to rescue those left behind in Kabul two years after the Taliban takeover.

Speaking on the two-year anniversary of Operation Pitting – Britain’s biggest rescue mission since the Second World War – MPs and top military brass urged the PM to “urgently” help refugees who worked with the UK come to Britain.

But there was silence from Mr Sunak and the government, as neither No 10, the Home Office nor the Ministry of Defence could say when more eligible Afghans would be welcomed, saying only that the government was doing “whatever is possible to ensure more can come here”.

It came as veterans minister Johnny Mercer, who is responsible for looking after Afghans brought to the UK, said he was determined to make resettlement schemes “work properly” as he acknowledged that things could have been done better since August 2021.

Mr Mercer added: “I accept that there are people in Afghanistan at the moment that we have a duty to who are not in the UK, who I want to see in the UK.”

But asked by The Independent what plans it had to speed up the process of bringing Afghans whom the UK has agreed to help to safety, the government did not say.

It also could not say when it would restart flights to bring 3,400 Afghans eligible to be in the UK stuck there or languishing in Pakistan hotels – despite pledging to evict around 8,000 Afghans from hotels in the UK by the end of August to help free up space.

General Sir John McColl, the army’s former deputy supreme allied commander for Europe, said there was no “serious intent” from the government to help eligible Afghans trapped in Afghanistan and Pakistan relocate to the UK.

“There is no focus, there is no plan,” he told The Independent. “It is all very well for Mercer to acknowledge it’s not working. But he stood up in parliament in March and said there was no plan and we needed to get one.”

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer said he wanted schemes to ‘work properly’ but gave no detail on how he would do that

Admiral Lord West, the chief of naval staff from 2002 to 2006, accused the government of “incompetence” and said it was time to “pull its finger out” to provide sanctuary to those eligible for our help.

“We should jolly well get on and get the Afghans over here because we have a debt of honour,” said Lord West. “Finding accommodation for people is not beyond the wit of man. It shows a certain amount of incompetence from the government.”

He added: “Delays are the stuff of incompetent nations, and I’d like to think our nation was competent enough to pull its finger out.”

And Lord Robertson, former head of Nato, said Britain had an “obligation” to Afghan refugees who worked with the UK forces despite current problems finding enough accommodation.

“The government has to set out how they are going to give safe passage to the people we have agreed to help – they have to treat this problem with a greater sense of urgency and seriousness,” the Labour peer told The Independent.

UK armed forces helped Afghans on evacuation flight in August 2021

The Independent has been campaigning for the government to honour our debt to Afghans who supported the British military – including an Afghan pilot threatened with deportation to Rwanda after he arrived by a small boat.

The air force lieutenant, whose work alongside coalition forces put him at risk of death from the Taliban, urged Mr Sunak to act now to honour the UK’s pledges to help those who supported their efforts.

He said: “So, unfortunately, the time [has] gone, they didn’t succeed. We were discussing and finally, we couldn’t find any option [to get to the UK legally], she [my wife] said, ‘You have to leave. You have to leave and I will be here. So, I will put you in God’s hands, and God will bless you. So go.”

Around 1,950 Afghans, including family members of those who worked with British forces, who are eligible for relocation to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) remain stuck in Afghanistan.

A further 1,400 people who have been accepted to come to the UK are stuck in British High Commission hotels in Pakistan – with only 35 relocated since 1 December. At the moment, they are supposed to arrange for their own accommodation in the UK.

Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, said he had been told by the MoD that the government was reluctant to help more people arrive until it had cleared the backlog of 8,000 already-accepted Afghans who have been living in Britain’s hotels.

Council leaders have called the end of August deadline to clear hotels a “kick in the teeth”. The Local Government Association (LGA) said one in five Afghan refugees evicted from hotels (20 per cent) have declared themselves homeless to local authorities.

Afghan refugee Amir Hussain Ibrahimi is struggling to find a place after being evicted from a London hotel

Stephen Robinson, the Liberal Democrat leader of Chelmsford City Council, said his Essex council had to find temporary accommodation for nine Afghan families – around 60 people – in other parts of the country after they become homeless.

One family in a hotel had to be moved more than 400 miles to Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. “It’s a travesty because some had jobs locally and had children in schools here, but now we’ve had to uproot them because of the Home Office deadline,” said the council leader

Mr Robinson rejected the idea that it was up to local authorities to find homes. “We warned the government this would be a problem and they did nothing. The government wilfully refused to accept the state of the housing crisis.”

Major General Charlie Herbert, who undertook three tours of Afghanistan between 2007 and 2018, said Mr Mercer had “long championed the cause of Afghan interpreters” and others who worked with British forces.

“I only wish his commitment, dedication and integrity was shared equally by the defence secretary and last few home secretaries, whose apathy towards our former allies is well recognised.”

The military veteran added: “That so many eligible Afghans remain left in limbo for months and now years in Pakistani hotels, awaiting relocation to the UK, is indicative of this government’s approach to those who supported our armed forces in the war against the Taliban.”

Briotish forces in Kabul aided in Operation Pitting in August 2021

Calling for “tangible actions” Dr Sara de Jong, co-founder of the Sulha Alliance charity working with Afghan interpreters, said it was “hard to disagree with Johnny Mercer that it’s high time to make the Afghan resettlement schemes finally ‘work properly’”.

The calls come as a report released by the human rights group Justice on the second anniversary of Operation Pitting said there had been “significant delays, lack of transparency, and lack of consistency” with both Arap and the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS).

Wendy Chamberlain, the Liberal Democrats’ chief whip, has organised a cross-party letter sent by MPs to immigration minister Robert Jenrick about “the pace and scale” of ACRS – set up for vulnerable groups such as women and girls.

The group of “concerned” MPs want the government to increase places available under ACRS by at least 6,500, as well as finally introduce a family reunion mechanism, so family members left behind in the evacuation can be reunited with loved ones in the UK.

Meanwhile, the More in Common think tank said many Afghan families have been let down by the promised warm welcome to the UK. Having surveyed 132 Afghans in the UK, the group said they had heard about “the stress and anxiety of trying to ‘find your own accommodation’”.

Labour’s Chris Evans, a shadow defence minister, said the Tory government was “failing Afghans who risked their lives helping our armed forces”, calling on ministers to “fix their failing schemes”.

Asked if Mr Sunak hoped more Afghans could be brought to the UK in the weeks ahead, his official spokesperson said: “Yes, obviously. The Home Office is doing whatever is possible to ensure more can come here.”

Asked a series of questions on resettlement schemes, including how quickly flights would help bring people to the UK, a government spokesperson said: “We made one of the largest commitments of any country to support Afghanistan, and so far, we have brought around 24,600 individuals to safety to the UK, including thousands under our Afghan resettlement schemes.

“We continue to work to deliver on our commitments to the people of Afghanistan. This includes moving people out of Afghanistan where possible and away from the real danger and threat to life posed by the Taliban, as well as working with the UNHCR, like-minded partners and countries neighbouring Afghanistan to identify at-risk people.”

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