With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the UK’s international response to the situation in Afghanistan.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out, over the last three weeks, through a shared effort right across Government and our armed forces, we have delivered the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory. Between 15 and 29 August, the UK evacuated over 15,000 people from Afghanistan. That includes more than 8,000 British nationals; close to 5,000 Afghans who loyally served the UK, along with their dependants; and about 500 special cases of particularly vulnerable Afghans, including Chevening scholars, journalists, human rights defenders, campaigners for women’s rights, judges and many others.
Of course, the work to get people out did not start on 15 August. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advised British nationals to leave the country in April and again on 6 August; we estimate that about 500 did so. At the same time, the Government launched the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme for interpreters and other Afghan staff, getting more than 1,900 out before the airlift began on 15 August. As the security situation deteriorated, we accelerated that process throughout July and early August. In total, since April, we have helped more than 17,000 people to leave.
I place on record my thanks, and I pay tribute to the herculean efforts of our troops, our diplomats and our civil servants, who have done an incredible job in the toughest of conditions. As we remember their efforts, we also remember those in the UK armed forces who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan trying to make that country a better place for the Afghan people.
Now that the evacuation has ended, we have moved into a new phase. We stand by our commitment to support those who have worked for us and to take all remaining eligible cases. Securing their safe passage out of the country is an immediate priority. We are working through our diplomatic channels to that end, and of course the Taliban have given assurances that they will provide safe passage for foreign nationals and those eligible Afghans who wish to leave. On 30 August, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2593, driven by the UK alongside the US and France, affirming the international community’s expectation and requirement that the Taliban should follow through on the assurances that they have given.
Last week, I visited Qatar and Pakistan. In Qatar, I met the Emir and the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed, to discuss safe passage alongside the international community’s wider approach to dealing with the Taliban. We discussed ongoing efforts to re-establish flights at Kabul airport, where Qatari technical staff are working on the ground, and to see how we can co-operate in handling the organisation of future flights. I also announced our new non-resident chargé d’affaires for Afghanistan, Martin Longden, who is now working out of Doha.
In Pakistan, I met Prime Minister Khan and Foreign Minister Qureshi to discuss safe passage via third countries and the importance of holding the Taliban to their commitments. I also announced that we are sending £30 million in support to Afghanistan’s neighbours. This will provide life-saving support for refugees, including shelters, household necessities, sanitation and other hygiene facilities.
I dispatched last week a new rapid deployment team to the region, with an extra 22 staff in total. They will reinforce our embassy teams and high commission teams in neighbouring countries, processing British nationals or eligible Afghans who are seeking to leave via third countries. We want to do that as fast as we possibly can once they can leave, subject to the necessary security checks.
I also spoke to the Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan earlier today and the Foreign Minister of Tajikistan last week. Our Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Ahmad, visited Tajikistan last week and will return to the region shortly.
I turn to the wider international strategy. The international community is adjusting, and must adjust, to the new reality in Afghanistan and is recalibrating its approach. The UK is playing a leading role. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister convened G7 leaders on 24 August to discuss a shared response to the situation. That followed a G7 Foreign Ministers meeting, and we are building a global coalition around four key priorities set out in a UK G7 paper that we have shared with those partners.
First, we must prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a safe haven or harbour for terrorists. Secondly, we must prevent a humanitarian disaster and support refugees, wherever possible, in the region. The UK has allocated £286 million in aid for Afghanistan this year. We are supporting Afghanistan’s neighbours, as I have set out, and the Home Secretary has set out our resettlement scheme, so we are leading by example, which enables us to encourage others to step up in what will inevitably have to be an international team effort.
Thirdly, we must preserve regional stability, which risks being shattered by the combination of renewed terrorist threat and an exodus of refugees. Fourthly, we must hold the Taliban and other factions to account for their conduct, including and in particular on human rights and on their treatment of women and girls. I am taking that forward through our bilateral partners; we have a G7+ meeting later this week, and the UK is also pressing for further discussions among the permanent members of the UN Security Council. We plan to host an event at the UN General Assembly later this month, as the Prime Minister indicated.
We will not recognise the Taliban, but we will engage, and we will carefully calibrate our actions to the choices that they make and the actions that they take. Given our strategic priorities—the ones that I have specified—we must also set some credible tests to hold the Taliban to the undertakings that they have made on safe passage, on terrorism, on humanitarian access, and on a more inclusive Government. We stand ready to use all the levers at our disposal—political, economic and diplomatic—in that effort. We continue to galvanise the international community and bring together the widest possible group of influential countries to deliver on those strategic priorities, and to exercise the maximum moderating influence on the Taliban that we possibly can. I commend this statement to the House.
These have been a painful and sobering few weeks. Had it not been for the heroic efforts of the armed forces as well as the brave diplomats and civil servants involved in Operation Pitting, many more lives would have been lost and many more people left behind. They reminded us what courage looks like. I want to put on record my thanks to them and to all those who have served in Afghanistan over the last two decades, and also to add my condolences to the families of all those killed in the horrific bombing at Kabul airport.
If more lives are not to be lost, we need some urgent clarity today. What, specifically, is the advice to people trying to leave? Should they stay put and be hunted by the Taliban, or should they make their way to a border and risk being turned back?
Could the Foreign Secretary take care of some basic issues? The Home Office phone number provided for Afghans asks people to hold on for hours, and it is still chargeable. That is pretty easy to fix. Could he have a word with the Home Secretary and get it dealt with? He was not able to tell us how many British nationals are still there, but I imagine he must know by now, so can he tell us? We know that only one security guard from the embassy got out, so what is his plan for the rest? I did a quick check before I left my office today; there are still hundreds of unanswered emails from MPs, and many of them raised that question with the Prime Minister this afternoon. How many staff are now working on this in the Foreign Office, and why has it not been dealt with? If those Members are to get an answer by this evening, can the Foreign Secretary assure us that it will be a real answer and not just a holding response?
Can we have some clarity about who is actually eligible, especially under the ARAP scheme—it is welcome that the Secretary of State for Defence has stayed for the statement—because without clarity about who is eligible, people cannot risk heading to the border? It would be useful to have a much tighter idea of who the eligible people are, particularly the special cases. What is the assurance about safe passage that the Foreign Secretary believes that he has from the Taliban? Does it apply to all those with documentation, or just to the British nationals?
I understand that the technical problems at the airport have now been overcome, and that is welcome, but can the Foreign Secretary tell us a bit more about the diplomatic progress that has been made? How, for example, does he intend to square the circle to comply with the Taliban’s refusal to allow a foreign military presence, while also ensuring that those technicians from Turkey or Qatar, or whichever other country is chosen to oversee that operation, can be safeguarded? I very much support his view that it would be wrong to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate Government, but that presents a practical challenge to the countries that are considering stepping in to oversee the airport in respect of how guarantees can be upheld.
May I just say to the Foreign Secretary that the co-ordination between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, despite some very hard-working civil servants on the ground who are working round the clock, is still appalling? My office is in touch with a small number of Afghan workers, for example, who have been attached to intelligence and to MI6 in recent years. They are being treated as special cases under ARAP, and many of them have been waiting for months. I want to place on record my thanks to the Secretary of State of Defence, and also to the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who have made themselves available to many of us at all hours and at short notice to assist with some of these cases. Their personal intervention has made a difference, although that is no substitute for a system.
Could the Foreign Secretary also clarify some comments that he made to the Select Committee? He suggested that those who had been cleared to travel as part of Operation Pitting would now have to undergo security checks before being accepted on to ARAP. Were those checks not initially done, or is he now reneging on his promise? I have to say that both those scenarios concern us greatly. These are practical issues that are within the Foreign Secretary’s gift, and the fact that they have still not been dealt with sends a strong message that he has been more focused in recent days on keeping his job than on actually doing it. I want him to prove us wrong, because a lot rides on this, including the lives of many Afghans who assisted us.
Will the Foreign Secretary say a bit more about how the UK is going to get aid into Afghanistan to those who need it? I have been in touch with aid workers on the ground, many of whom are female and who have been banned from working by the Taliban. Those aid agencies are understandably saying that they will not operate with those conditions in place, but that means that they are not operating at all. On the refugee crisis, I say to him gently that countries in the region are not hugely impressed by the Home Secretary’s decision to cap the number of refugees that the UK will accept at 5,000 when they are dealing with a far greater refugee crisis. A bit of generosity from the UK would go a long way to helping to resolve the issues at the borders.
These are immediate concerns, but we are also concerned that for a generation of young Afghans, the future that they had expected is unravelling in front of their eyes. Can the Foreign Secretary say something about how the rights of the LGBT+ community will be upheld, as well as those of religious minorities? Can he outline the measures that he intends to take to set conditions for the Taliban regime, particularly that the situation of women and girls will be the cornerstone of any future engagement?
Our intelligence has been downgraded, our diplomats and troops are no longer on the ground and the Prime Minister appeared to say in his statement just now that the risk posed to the UK was unknown. The Foreign Secretary has suggested in a media interview that we would rely on open-source intelligence. Could he say some more about that, and about the possibility that we might be in a position where we are sharing intelligence with countries such as China and Russia? Given the significant national security implications of that, the House has a right to understand the Government’s strategy on it, if there is one. This has been nothing short of a disaster, so I ask him now to turn with humility to the world and to start to repair some of those broken relationships, trashed alliances and broken promises that have reduced us to a position where we are reliant on the Taliban for permission to safeguard our own citizens and negotiating with China and Russia in our own interests? In the cold, hard light of what has unfolded over this summer, surely it is time for him to rethink his approach to the way that Britain engages with the rest of the world.
I thank the hon. Lady for what she said about the efforts of our UK forces and the cross-Whitehall teams who have delivered the biggest evacuation in living memory. She asked for specific advice, but she will understand that I am a bit reticent about giving personal advice generically. However, the travel advice that the FCDO is putting out is very clear. It has been changed to reflect the situation on the ground, and it is the right point of reference for constituents and for hon. Members around the House.
The hon. Lady asked about phone calls into the FCDO crisis centre. Since 11 August, it has handled more than 44,000 calls and we have surged 45 members of FCDO staff and 35 staff from other Departments. Since 19 August, we have answered well over 90%—93%—of the total number received, and on every day since 24 August, our call handlers have answered more than 94% of the calls that were made. Just to give the hon. Lady a sense of this, since 20 August the average wait times have been less than a minute.
The hon. Lady also asked about correspondence. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear, we will have replied to all MPs’ emails received by 30 August asking for an update by today. That will signpost them to the specific advice relevant to the particular case that they are raising. We will also respond to all the other emails that we have received from members of the public. She also made the point, as have other Labour Members, about putting them all in together, but these are different cases. The eligibility for nationality is different from the resettlement scheme, which is different from ARAP, so it is right that they are triaged to the proper decision maker. That is the point of the exercise that we are engaged in.
The hon. Lady asked about the details of the ARAP scheme. They have been published, so the details are there—[Interruption.] If she is concerned about any particular aspects of it, she should of course approach the relevant Minister. She asked about safe passage and—[Interruption.] We cannot answer her questions in the abstract to give effect to the circumstances of the cases she is referring to. She asked about safe passage. The Taliban have given us an assurance that those nationals and those who worked for us and want to leave will be allowed to leave, but like a range of other commitments they have made, we will have to hold them to that. These will form one of the early tests for the Taliban, and they will be judged by what they do rather than by what they say. The hon. Lady talks about influence, and that was the reason that we passed the United Nations Security Council resolution—we led this with the French and the Americans—that reiterated, affirmed and applied the international community’s imprimatur on that demand of the Taliban. We will now have to see whether they can pass that test.
Kabul airport is not up and running yet, but there are ongoing efforts to deal with not only its operational and technical capacity but its security conditions. For most cases, whether British nationals, ARAP or special cases under the resettlement scheme, it would be most straightforward if we can safely see Kabul airport up and running. If not, we will have to look at third-country routes out, but of course many third countries in the region are very nervous. We have had conversations with all of them, which is why I was in Qatar and Pakistan, to look at the practical arrangements for delivery.
Of course we will make sure that we check the eligibility of those who want to come to the UK, so that seats on planes go to those we want to come, those who are eligible to come and those we need to come, and we will also make sure that the security checks are in place so that we avoid the wrong kind of people coming to the UK.
The hon. Lady asked how we can ensure that the aid going into Afghanistan gets to where it needs to go. As I announced last week, we have provided £30 million for neighbouring countries to deal with refugees in the region precisely because it is better for refugees to be dealt with closer to their home, but also because we recognise the burden that will be placed on the region.
On aid more generally and the rest of the £286 million, this is another of the early tests for the Taliban. If they want to avoid the collapse of Afghanistan’s social and economic fabric and if they want aid to continue flowing, they will need to provide a safe operating environment for the UN and other agencies. I spoke to the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Jean Arnault, about that.
We have further meetings this week with the G7+, and I will have further conversations—I am sure I will be travelling to the region. The UK has issued a G7 paper setting out the key priorities, from counter-terrorism to the humanitarian lifeline, and it has been very well received. Working with our partners, we now have to operationalise that paper.
The hon. Lady asked about non-G7 partners. The reality is that, if we want to influence the Taliban in the most effective way possible, we need a broader caucus, particularly with regional countries that have a relationship with the Taliban, to exercise the maximum moderating influence, and that is just what we are doing.
I too am grateful for advance sight of the statement.
The impression we have been given of ministerial communications with Members of this House on constituency cases is not as rosy as has been put forward by Ministers. I constructively suggest that there needs to be a proper review of how adequate things actually were, because our experience is that communications were not as good as we have been told.
I am glad to see that the new resettlement scheme is now moving, but I would like to unpack what 20,000 people over the coming years actually means. It is a good line, but I fear it will not stand analysis. Does it mean that the scheme will close if 20,000 Afghans apply and are processed in the first few months of next year? In that case the scheme is wholly inadequate. Or does it mean there is an annual quota? How long do the UK Government think vulnerable Afghans should wait while the Taliban hunt them down? In that case the scheme is similarly inadequate. We would like to see the scheme expanded and we would like much more clarity, which I understand is coming for the devolved Administrations and local government, particularly on how family reunion will be counted within those numbers—that is a crucial point for Afghans who are already here and those who are concerned.
On the Foreign Secretary’s line about safe and legal routes to this country, in the name of policy coherence surely now is the time for the UK Government to pause the Nationality and Borders Bill because it would penalise many Afghans arriving by other routes. Afghanistan is in chaos, and they will not be able to form an orderly queue in the way one might like. Surely, in the name of policy coherence, one part of the UK Government should not be penalising Afghans arriving here while another part of the UK Government is trying to save them and keep them safe.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks; he asks perfectly reasonable questions. On the correspondence, I have already set out for the House how we are dealing with that. I just say to him that we had, of course, a surge of cases and indeed requests for updates in the final days of the evacuation. At that time, rightly, we took the decision, and I took the decision, that our focus ought to be on getting as many people as we possibly could out of Afghanistan, on to flights and back home to safety. That is how we have achieved that remarkable figure of more than 15,000 in the space of just a couple of weeks, but of course we want to make sure that colleagues in this House are updated and signposted to the right advice, and that those who have emailed or called directly get the advice they need.
The hon. Gentleman asked a range of questions on the resettlement scheme. Those are probably more for the Home Secretary than for me, but let me tell him that the plan is for 5,000 to be resettled this year, with 20,000 over the course of the next few years. That comes on top of the ARAP scheme. I believe we are right not only to lead by example in the way I have described and, on aid, to provide the £30 million to the neighbouring countries so that we can support them in taking those refugees, but to use that leadership by example to corral and cajole other countries to step up. We are not going to be able to take all of the refugees or those wishing to leave Afghanistan. We do our bit, but we also then call on others and use the example we have set to cajole and encourage others to do the same. Further details on the scheme will be set out by the Home Secretary.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we would strip out the legislative checks that are applying more broadly. I do not think that is the right thing to do and I do not think our constituents would want us to do it, as we are, in a good-hearted way, making sure that this country is taking in not just our nationals, but those fleeing Afghanistan because they have worked for us or for other reasons. Our constituents will want to see us take a responsible approach and have the checks in place to make sure that that system is not abused.
Congratulations to all involved in Operation Pitting, including my right hon. Friend. It seems unlikely that the Taliban are going to continue to co-operate on the safe passage of Afghans to the UK—in order to safeguard those individuals from the Taliban—so the focus will shift, sadly, to refugee camps in countries surrounding Afghanistan. What read-across does he see between this situation and the highly successful Syrian resettlement programme? In particular, what measures has he discussed with the UN to triage people, so that we take from among the most vulnerable, as we do with the Syrian programme? Has he engaged with other countries, as we engage with Turkey, for example, in trying to ensure that we take those who are most vulnerable and relocate them back to the UK, to locations such as Wiltshire, where my constituency has done its part in helping people from that particularly challenged part of the world?
I thank my right hon. Friend and pay tribute to his time as a Foreign Office Minister. He is right; we are already consulting the UN. The Prime Minister has spoken to UN Secretary-General. I have spoken to his special envoy for Afghanistan, Jean Arnault,, to talk through these issues and make sure that we get the eligibility and co-ordination right. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is also right to refer to the Syrian precedent. We want to learn the lessons from it, and there was much that was a success there. Of course, the circumstances in Afghanistan are different, and the Home Secretary will set out further details in due course, once we have completed that. It will feed in all of the conversations we are having, not just with the UN, but with allies, including Turkey and other countries around the region.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. May I ask him about the number of requests the Government have already had in respect of Afghan citizens who do not qualify for the ARAP scheme as they did not work directly for us, but who want and need to flee here from Afghanistan and have already asked? I know that the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is not yet open, but he must already know how many have, through Members of this House or other organisations, already asked to come here because of the Taliban. Can he tell us how many have done so? How will the Government decide who is going to get into the 5,000 cap? The criteria for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme are yet to be announced, but we know that it is for those who are highly vulnerable to the Taliban because of what they have done in support of the values we and the previous regime were committed to, in particular, women and girls, equality, democracy and human rights. There are bound to be so many more than 5,000, so how will the Government in practice decide between those who will be the lucky 5,000 and be allowed to come here, and those who, although meeting the criteria, will, because of the 5,000 cap, be refused and face a terrible fate at the hands of the Taliban? The reality is that the unless the Government increase the 5,000 cap, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is going to end up as a lottery of life and death.
I know how passionate the right hon. and learned Lady is about this issue and how assiduous she has been on it. It is difficult to give a precise number of the applications and claims, not least because there is some duplication in the multiple emails and correspondence we have had. She is right to say—frankly, this would be true even if we doubled or tripled the quota—that the number of people who flee Afghanistan is going to outstrip what the UK would be able to take alone. That means that we need to look very carefully at the criteria, as the Home Secretary and I are doing across Government, to make sure that we prioritise the most vulnerable and those with a particular link to the UK, as well as co-ordinating with the United Nations. Further details will be set out by the Home Secretary.
As I mentioned earlier, the UK is doing our bit, alongside the aid we are providing, including to support third countries that take refugees. The UK will not be able to deal with the demand alone—of course we would not do so—but by taking action and showing leadership, we will help to corral and cajole other countries to follow suit. That is how we will have a comprehensive and effective response to the Afghanistan situation.
The Taliban want cash, international recognition and propaganda coups. I am gravely concerned by the international direction of travel towards recognising them, so will my right hon. Friend reassure me that we are doing all we can to prevent other partner countries from doing so and from giving them any cash? Will he consider using the conflict centre to set up an international mechanism for atrocity management, to make sure that we know exactly what is happening on the ground, that we are monitoring it and that we can reveal the Taliban for who they truly are, internationally and around the world?
My hon. Friend is right about holding the Taliban to account, particularly in relation to human rights and the approach they take to women and girls. Getting access on the ground is the main challenge, which is why we need to have humanitarian access, first, to provide that lifeline, but also to give us the information that my hon. Friend described.
On recognition, we will not recognise the Taliban—in fact, the UK Government do not recognise Governments as distinct from states. We are encouraging our allies and partners in the region to do as we have done, which is set some early tests for engagement with the Taliban on safe passage, on a permissive environment for humanitarian groups operating on the ground in Afghanistan and on the Taliban’s commitment never to allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for terrorism. If the Taliban follow through on those things and show that they can be a constructive partner—albeit at a level of expectation different from that we would have in respect of more like-minded countries—we can see what that can develop into. It is important to engage without bestowing legitimacy on the Taliban regime.
The Foreign Secretary said in his opening remarks that we must prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a haven for terrorist groups, and of course we all agree with that. Did the Foreign Secretary agree with what the Prime Minister said to the House earlier, when he talked about the Taliban cracking down on terrorism? Is that a credible statement from our Prime Minister?
There is clearly a difference between the Taliban and groups such as ISIS-K and al-Qaeda. Indeed, there is a suspicion—I would not say more than that—that part of the intention of the ISIS-K attack at Abbey Gate was to target the Taliban. Clearly, if the Taliban want to be an effective Administration of some sort and to avoid all the disastrous mistakes made previously, they will have to live up to the assurances they have made to avoid Afghanistan becoming a harbour or safe haven for terrorism. I share the right hon. Lady’s measure of scepticism, but it is right for the international community to hold the Taliban to their commitments, as we did with the UN Security Council resolution last week, and to test what the level of engagement can produce in terms of constructive results.
I welcome the inclusion in the Prime Minister’s statement of sexuality as an identified risk for Afghans who need to be rescued. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made a direction on the issue early in the crisis, and in evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee I will report how things went thereafter. I am afraid it was unsatisfactory.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that unlimited objectives—as we set ourselves in Afghanistan when this exercise began—with only limited means will always run the risk of failure? Does he agree that the failure in this case has done awful damage to our values and reinforced the appeal of our enemies? Will he confirm that the Chicago doctrine, which is one of the roots of this situation, alongside a wilful ignorance of history, will have no part in our values and his understanding of how global Britain will operate in future?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he has already raised LGBT rights in relation to the vulnerability of Afghans and the resettlement scheme. I have discussed that directly with the Home Secretary. I understand its importance and we want to make sure that, with the details of the resettlement scheme, we cover all of those who are particularly at risk, and that group clearly is particularly at risk. He asked about interventionism more generally. I think he will see in the integrated review not just a strategic policy for the United Kingdom for the 21st century on tech, on trade, and on the UK as a force for good, but a rigorous approach to reconcile ends with means, and he is right to say that there are lessons for that over 20 years in Afghanistan.
I welcome the news that, last week, the Foreign Secretary visited Pakistan, a key player in the region. However, does he accept that it is simply unacceptable that he did not call Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, in the six months before the Taliban takeover given the UK’s overwhelming interests in the region at a time of crisis?
We have an excellent relationship with Pakistan. The hon. Lady is right that, on my visit, I saw Prime Minister Khan and Foreign Minister Qureshi. The Minister of State, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, had visited Pakistan in June. All of us—the Prime Minister, through me, and right the way down—made sure that we were in constant contact. The bilateral relationship as well as the country’s relevance and importance on Afghanistan is something very dear to our hearts and we discussed it at length when I was there.
I sincerely thank the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence for their help in evacuating several Kensington-related families. I still have British nationals with Afghan dependant minor children and spouses in Afghanistan. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to urge the Home Office to publish the details of the Afghanistan resettlement scheme as quickly as possible so that these families know where they stand?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank her for paying tribute to the cross-Whitehall teams that worked so assiduously under immense pressure. Of course, cases like the one that she describes could be eligible under the nationality criteria, depending on the nature of the dependants, or separately under the resettlement scheme. The particular circumstances will be relevant and important, but, of course, we will make sure that the full details of the resettlement scheme are published shortly.
The Government say that the number of British nationals left in Afghanistan is in the low hundreds, but in my constituency alone, I have 11 constituents stuck, including an 18-month-old baby, many of whom witnessed horror at Kabul Airport and, fearing the Taliban, they are now petrified and in hiding. When I contact the Foreign Office about these cases, all I get is cut-and-paste responses. What will the Foreign Secretary do to guarantee their security. Will he give his word that these British nationals will get home safely?
Of course we will do everything we conceivably can. One reason why we did not get everyone out was that some were afraid; the conditions on the ground were objectively very challenging. None the less, we are committed, both through our efforts with third countries and also in seeing when and how Kabul Airport can be reopened, to make sure that, as well as the resettlement scheme, we do everything that we can for her cases, in relation to the UK nationals, the qualified independents, the Afghans who worked for us and the other special cases. I am very happy to continue to support her in that endeavour.
We are watching the developments on the ground very carefully, but it is fair to say that the Taliban are in control of the vast majority of Afghanistan. I do not think it is the right thing at the moment to start supporting other groups, notwithstanding our previous role. I say to my right hon. Friend, with an understanding of his passion and knowledge of the issue, that we have to adjust to the new reality on the ground.
I have to say that my blood ran rather cold when the Foreign Secretary suggested that the Home Secretary would have anything to do with helping refugees. However, there are Members around the House who have been supporting Afghan nationals to try to get them out of Afghanistan—people who have now burned their documents, deleted electronic records, and have even seen their internet profile and footprint deleted by organisations for which they used to work. Can we have a categoric, cast-iron assurance from the Secretary of State today that no one entitled to support to leave when the routes are open will ever be turned away for the absence of a piece of paper or an electronic record?
I do not think that the Home Secretary or I—both the children of refugees—need to be lectured on this subject by him in the terms and tone that he used. We will do everything we can to get those who are eligible home, but we are not going to dispense with the basic checks—he calls them “a piece of paper”—that we need to ensure that we keep this country safe from those who are not eligible and would put our safety at risk.
The Taliban’s values may not have changed, but their use of technology has. What assessment have the Government made of the ways in which the Taliban may be using technologies such as social media to track opponents and spread disinformation, and how can we work with our allies and social media companies to counter this?
I am not going to go into too much of the operational detail, but it is fair to say that the new iteration of the Taliban are a more sophisticated operator in many ways—with regard not just to the comms that they are engaged in, but their ability to use technology. That could, at least at one level, have a positive effect, but it also creates new risks and threats, which we will monitor carefully with our allies.
I pay tribute to everyone who worked on the airlift from 15 August.
We had 18 months’ notice that this situation would come about, but I have to say to the Foreign Secretary that the organisation here—for us, raising cases on behalf of our constituents—was nothing short of chaotic, with different phone numbers, a lack of information and a lack of feedback. We still do not know whether anything that we wrote and passed in on behalf of our constituents had any effect whatever. The Foreign Secretary has said that the work to get people to safety started long before 15 August and that 500 UK nationals got out. That does not sound like many. What of those people we had an obligation to in Afghanistan—the Afghanistan nationals who worked with our Government? How many of them did we get out before 15 August?
The hon. Gentleman issues a fair challenge, but I am afraid that there is an equally fair and reasonable answer. We have standing evacuation plans in place for all high-risk embassies. As I have made clear before, although we considered all eventualities, our central assessment was that there would be a slow deterioration in security from the end of August, after NATO troops were withdrawn. From April, in the run-up to our June G7 summit, I was focused on securing the US assurances to allow us to shift our embassy from the green zone to the airport.
The hon. Gentleman asked about what we were doing in the months that preceded the evacuation. From April, we sped up the relocation of former Afghan staff under the ARAP programme. In answer to his question, in that period from April onwards we relocated nearly 2,000 people. We changed our advice in April and again later on, so from April we have been very clear in advising British nationals to consider leaving Afghanistan. Our timing, by way of international comparator, was in sync with our NATO allies. I also point out that commercial flights were running until 14 August. No one—not even the Taliban, I think—had expected them to gain ground as rapidly as they did. I think that is the view among NATO allies. It was certainly also the view of regional partners when I was in the region, in Qatar and Pakistan, last week.
On the resettlement of the Afghan families—the British citizens and those with the right to remain here—how confident is my right hon. Friend that agreement will be reached with the Taliban and other Governments of neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, so that those needing to cross the border will not be prevented on the one side or turned away on the other? Will that include Iran, for those who have already crossed the border at Herat, and when does he expect the processes and resources will be in place so that we can update constituents?
On my last update, although it is changing and very fluid, I think that all the borders have been closed with the exception of Iran’s. When I was in Pakistan, the border with Afghanistan had been closed, so let us be very clear: this is going to be a challenge. We want to make sure that we have arrangements in place so that the willingness and the ability to process British cases, whether they are nationals or ARAP-eligible cases, will be seen by these third countries as taking some of the burden off them. At the same time, it would be much more straightforward if the airport at Kabul could be made up and running, but there are not just technical capacity issues with that but the security situation on the ground. We are alive to all these risks. We are working all of them through, including with our allies, and that is why I was in the region last week.
About 10 days ago, I met Oxford’s Hazara community, one of whom described how they had paid exorbitant amounts of money to human traffickers for their family to get to the Pakistan border and then get over the border itself, but they had been turned away because they were not of the right tribe. Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that the Hazaras are considered a vulnerable group, because history, and the present, tells us that they are? When he talks about safe passage, is he specifically considering how people get to the border and over the border, not just what happens to them when they get to the border, because for many of them that is not a possibility?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that ethnic groups—Hazaras and others—would be considered as part of the eligibility in the same way as LGBT people. Effectively we are looking at risk, which will depend on the individual but also the group, and she is right to raise ethnicity as a risk. In relation to getting to the edge of the Afghan border, that will require the Taliban to allow safe passage. I have explained to the House how we are working on that. We are also engaging with all the regional partners—this is why I was in Pakistan and why I spoke to the Uzbek Foreign Minister earlier today. We want to be clear that we have the capacity to process and give them the assurance to let those individuals across the border, and that we will take them directly back to the UK. I have deployed a team of 15 additional rapid deployment team experts to support that process in the region. But the crucial question at the moment is: will the Taliban offer safe passage and will those other countries in the region be willing to allow at least a measured and controlled opening of their borders?
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned Herat. There are 572 miles of western border between Iran and Afghanistan. Some 780,000 refugees from Afghanistan are in Iran, and perhaps two or three times that number unregistered. Is there any possibility that we can use exit routes via Herat or elsewhere in Afghanistan to get people to this country?
I thank my right hon. Friend. I know how much first-hand experience he has of these matters from his time in active service. Of course the relationship with the new Government of Iran remains one that will have to be tested, but I can tell him that both through the joint comprehensive plan of action and more broadly, I had a consistent and constructive dialogue with the previous Foreign Minister, and I will certainly remain open to continuing that with his successor. That would allow us to address these wider issues, which I think will be in Iran’s interests as well as obviously those of the UK and other countries.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I have been receiving concerns from people across the United Kingdom regarding the vulnerability of people with disabilities who are at risk. They cannot get to safety in Afghanistan and cannot get to the airport. This is particularly those who are part of ethnic minority groups or religious groups, such as Christians. Will the Foreign Secretary link with the all-party group to make sure that the resettlement programme is inclusive for the most vulnerable and that those with disabilities are never left behind?
I thank the hon. Lady for the work that she and the APPG are doing. She raises a really important point. It is a practical point, but one that will only exacerbate people’s fear and anxiety, particularly if they are disabled or from an ethnic minority, as she described. I urge her to send me and the Home Secretary any papers or recommendations that the APPG has.
We will not give aid to the Taliban. The Taliban have a choice and a set of decisions that they have to make about whether they want to preside over the wholesale economic and social collapse of the fabric of the country. If not, they will have to give certain assurances. I think that will particularly apply to the permissive environment we would need for aid agencies in order to continue our aid. Again, that falls within the category of early tests for the Taliban, which is why we will engage with them without recognising them.
I also had constituents who could not get to the Baron Hotel as a result of illness and disability. On Saturday, it was reported that British citizens seeking to flee into Uzbekistan were not able to cross the border, while citizens of other states, such as Germany, were able to do so. What steps will the Government take to ensure that British nationals and Afghans eligible for support here are able to safely cross borders and get to safety?
I think what the hon. Lady says about the Germany case is not quite right. My understanding is that there was a previous German case that was allowed onward passage, but the border has been closed. I spoke to the Uzbek Foreign Minister earlier today, as I have been speaking with the Foreign Ministers around the region, to try, as we have done in Pakistan, to set up a workable system so that British nationals, Afghan workers and, indeed, other cases that we are willing to take—and we can give that undertaking—can be allowed into Uzbekistan for onward passage to the UK. We are doing everything we can to make sure that that is possible.
The positive impact of 20 years of education for millions of girls and young women in Afghanistan has changed countless lives for the better. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will be using every tool at their disposal to place pressure on the Taliban and protect the progress made on the rights of women and girls?
British aid allowed 10 million more children to get access to a decent education over that last 20 years. Four out of 10 of them were young girls, who would have never seen a school otherwise. I think that is absolutely one of the crucial social gains that we need to try to consolidate and avoid being rolled back. Whenever I have spoken to any of my G7 partners, or partners in the region, there has been clarity that we need to work together to exercise the maximum moderating influence that we possibly can to make sure that those gains are not lost.
In the last quarter of 2020, the Home Office was rejecting more than half of all asylum applications from Afghan nationals. Will the Foreign Secretary back up some of the language that he has used today and urge his colleague the Home Secretary to ensure that all Afghan appeals under review are assessed for suitability for a grant of asylum before they are listed and heard in court?
I would just say to the hon. Gentleman that I understand the passion with which he speaks. We have taken more than 17,000 people. Many of those are British nationals, but there are also Afghan nationals. We have allocated over the next few years that we will take 20,000, but we cannot take all of them, which is why it is right to check eligibility and to work with partners in the region and across the world to make sure that they can also bear the burden.
My right hon. Friend might like to note that the Council of Europe will be debating Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. I wonder whether he has seen the pictures that appeared today of musical instruments that have been smashed by the Taliban, who have banned western music. I encourage him to take a special interest in girls and women, particularly those of the Afghan women’s orchestra, who are threatened by the Taliban at the moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting such cases and pay tribute to his work on the Council of Europe. We are clearly going to face challenging times and need to adjust our thinking to the new reality, but of course we will do everything we can to protect and preserve the gains in relation to girls’ education as well as wider social activity, including music.
Earlier, the Prime Minister said to the House,
“tell them that this country and the western world were protected from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan throughout that period.”
The Foreign Secretary furthered that by saying:
“First, we must prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a haven…for terrorists.”
I agree entirely with both statements, but we are putting a lot of trust in the murderous, medieval Taliban. What do we do if the training camps and terror networks return?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which is probably the single biggest concern of hon. Members across the House. In the last analysis, we reserve the right to exercise the right of self-defence, as we always do. It is not quite right to say that we trust the Taliban or that we can trust the Taliban. We need to be willing to engage and set some early tests—of which this is one—and then monitor them carefully and judge them by what they do, not just what they say.
Like every Member of this House, I have many constituents who are desperately concerned that they have friends and relatives at imminent risk of reprisals by the Taliban. For them, the crisis is now, not evenly spaced over five years. Will the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues therefore show some flexibility to ensure that, as part of the scheme being worked up, we can rescue those at the time of need?
I understand my right hon. Friend’s point. It is right to have the resettlement scheme over a number of years, because history tells us that we will be dealing with this challenge for some time. We have also catered for and addressed the immediate short term. We have got more than 17,000 people out, including about 500 special cases of Chevening scholars, female judges, female rights activists, journalists and many others. We are trying to get the right balance between a sustainable long-term strategy and dealing immediately with those fleeing persecution.
Many of my constituents’ families are still facing difficulties in getting out, including the family of a 17-year-old constituent who made it to the visa application centre in Islamabad only to find that part of their family reunion paperwork had been lost by officials. Others are awaiting DNA tests and tuberculosis paperwork. What will the Foreign Secretary do to address the paperwork issue? Can I have a meeting urgently to discuss the other 85 cases and over 100 Afghans that my office is supporting?
That is one of the reasons why I went to Islamabad, where I talked to the high commission team dealing with and supporting those applications and cases. We are trying to work through them as assiduously as we can. If the hon. Lady has examples of cases that she feels have not been handled properly, she should send them to me and I or Lord Ahmad will be happy to sit down with her.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he is doing and that his team are continuing to do. I appreciate that it is incredibly difficult, but can he give any further detail on his assessment of the timeframe to help those British nationals still stuck in Kabul?
I appreciate what my hon. Friend says. The reality is that it will depend on two factors. The first is the ability to get Kabul up and running. That is in many ways the more straightforward, because by engaging with the Qataris in particular, we could not only get easier and more direct access out of the country but look at what we could do on eligibility pre-checks and such things.
If not, the alternative is third countries. I imagine that many of the third countries are anxious about a potential exodus, so we must approach them with a view to supporting them to take cases that would come to the UK. I cannot give my hon. Friend a definitive timeframe, but I was out in Qatar, which is helping on the airport, and in Pakistan, which of the neighbouring countries is probably the most likely destination for those leaving, precisely to work through those arrangements and to make clear what we will do to co-operate and co-ordinate.
As of this morning, I had received urgent, heartbreaking pleas from 289 constituents of mine about well over 1,500 of their loved ones desperate to get out of Afghanistan. My team and I have been doing everything we can to help, but we need the Government to respond and to be clear about what options people might have. Can the Secretary of State make it clear whether the response the Prime Minister promised today will include a specific response to the inquiries that I and other MPs have raised, and can he confirm when the eligibility for the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme will be published?
We will do everything we can to support the hon. Member, and indeed hon. Members across the House. The thing to understand is that there are three separate ways of being eligible to come to the UK. We want to triage the cases, and point people in the direction of the right port of call and give them the right advice for each one of those three channels, rather than mixing them together, given that they do not have the same eligibility criteria.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me that it is strange to hear the Labour party criticise the Government for unnecessary withdrawal from Afghanistan when the shadow Foreign Secretary said that the mission had “outlived its usefulness” only in July?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The truth is that throughout this crisis we have had a litany of critique without really very serious or credible suggestions for doing anything alternative. The reality is also—I want to recognise this—that beyond the Labour Front Bench there are hon. Members across the House who have very legitimate and genuine concerns, and we are doing everything we can to support those.
Does the Foreign Secretary believe he would be more successful in his attempts to persuade the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan to keep or indeed make sure that their borders are open to refugees if our country took more than a desultory 5,000 as a limit, and saw that as a minimum number of refugees we would take rather than a maximum?
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes, but I think there is no country proportionally doing more, if we take not only what we are doing on the resettlement scheme, but the 17,000 who have come back to the UK and the £30 million that I announced at the end of last week to support those third countries. I think it is right that we do our bit, but I have to say to him that I also think it is right, as a matter of policy and of moral responsibility, to try to allow refugees to be settled closer to their home so that in the future they may be able to return.
I have spoken to my counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and I will speak to him again in the near future. There is a lot of talk about how China wants to rush in and fill the vacuum in Afghanistan, but I have to say that I am not entirely convinced that it does want to bear the entirety of the burden, whether it is the security and the terrorist burden or the financial burden of a country in such a precarious, fragile position. While we have many areas that are challenging with China, actually this is something where there are some commonalities of views and interests. I think in a situation such as this, whether it is China or other countries in the region, we need to try to work together, because we are much more likely, if we do so, to exercise maximum moderating influence on the Taliban, and that is what will yield results.
With the Taliban takeover, many of my constituents who are Hazara Shi’a fear for their families’ safety. There is also a minority Uyghur community in Afghanistan who are in hiding, scared that they will be handed over to China. What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to protect these minorities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who I think raises a very real issue. As I have already said to the House, we will make sure that vulnerability based on ethnicity will be considered in the resettlement scheme, and it is crucial—and I refer to the G7 paper the UK has put forward—that one of the things on which we will have to judge the Taliban and one of the early tests will be whether they are serious about being a more inclusive Government, and that will mean human rights obviously in relation to women but also their treatment of ethnic minorities.
When we designed the Syrian resettlement scheme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees played a crucial role as an independent and neutral party to identify those eligible for resettlement and then make the connections with the authorities of the countries willing to take them in, including the UK. What discussions have taken place between the Government and the UNHCR doing this work, and if it is my right hon. Friend’s view that the UNHCR is not going to be able to undertake that in this different situation, who does he feel is best placed to undertake that key role?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. The Prime Minister has spoken to the UN Secretary-General, including on this, and I spoke to Jean Arnault, the special representative on Afghanistan. Without giving all the details, I can say that of course the relationship with the UN will be one of the critical factors we consider in shaping the resettlement scheme.
The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill would see hundreds, possibly thousands, of Afghan asylum seekers arriving in this country in the months ahead and being prosecuted in criminal courts and imprisoned for up to four years. How can the Foreign Secretary possibly justify that proposal?
We want to be a safe haven for those fleeing persecution, but we also want to encourage people to take legal and lawful routes, and that is why we have set them out. We do not want to encourage the kind of situation we see across the channel; we want to ensure that people come through the right channels. That is the right, balanced approach, and I think it is what our constituents would expect.
While the Taliban’s PR skills seem to have improved over the past 20 years, it is not yet clear that the new regime is any less evil or oppressive. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there should not be any question of either Britain or our international partners recognising the Taliban Government until we can be sure they will meet their commitments on human rights, terrorism and humanitarian access?
My hon. Friend nails it: we do not intend to recognise the Taliban. The UK Government do not as a matter of practice recognise Governments, and the reason why is that that allows us to engage, and measure and calibrate our level of engagement, based on what the authorities do, not just what they say. The issues and tests that he identifies are the right ones, and we will be watching very carefully what the Taliban do in the weeks and months ahead. I would just say that while my scepticism runs quite deep, there was some evidence in the engagement we had on the ground in relation to the airport that it is possible to have a rational and constructive engagement and be able to test whether they will keep their word. That was an early test; the ones that my hon. Friend described will be the next ones we have to face.
The Prime Minister spoke earlier about helping Afghan friends of this country, but having been approached by some concerned constituents and having corresponded with the Home Office, the MOD and the FCDO, it was extremely difficult to get any clarity about plans for the evacuation of British Council employees, former employees and their families. Eventually I was advised that even current British Council staff are not eligible for early relocation. Can the Foreign Secretary explain this very disappointing decision, and what plans are now being put in place to help these Afghan nationals who put their own and their families’ lives in danger by supporting the British Council over the past 20 years?
I do not think that is quite right: we have been willing to look at British Council cases, although of course this depends on the level of association. More generally, if the hon. Lady has particular examples where she thinks that that has not been done, she should write to me and I will look at them personally.
Will the Foreign Secretary say a little more about his assessment of the characteristics of the Taliban, and does he agree that one feature they have demonstrated is extraordinary patience over 20 years, so that if, as some had called for, the occupation by allied forces had remained for longer the Taliban would simply have waited that extra time before making their move for power?
It is difficult to assess and judge that with any precision, but one thing is clear: the Taliban have proved a very effective military force. The question is whether they can turn that into not just governing Afghanistan in a way that is more inclusive and moderate but demonstrate the technical skills and capacity to, for instance, set a budget or get the airport up and running. These bread and butter issues away from the polemics of whether the Taliban have had a wholesale Damascene conversion will be among the most important tests in the weeks ahead. The Taliban at a political level are currently engaged in the process of forming a Government, and we will be looking very carefully at the character and composition of what is announced in due course.
What engagement will be undertaken with regional multi-state security collaborations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, whose members all have an interest in checking international terror groups based in Afghanistan?
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are going to have to test this; this is one of the early tests. The evidence from the period of the evacuation suggests, given the numbers we referred to—over 17,000 people, with a huge number of Afghan nationals, and the 500 cases of particularly vulnerable Afghans such as journalists, judges, Chevening scholars and women’s rights activists—that the Taliban are able to give an assurance and then keep to it. The question is whether we can build that into a steadier understanding to deal with the outstanding cases.
The Secretary of State has said that the Taliban have agreed for British nationals to leave Afghanistan. Does that include eligible immediate family members? Can he confirm what exit routes have been agreed with the Taliban and say more about the timescales—are we looking at days, weeks or months? Finally, can he also say more about the economic leverage the Government and our allies have over the Taliban?
In terms of the eligibility of dependants, the Taliban have not gone into that level of granular detail, but if there is a clear case of a British national and immediate dependants we would expect to be able to include them, and so far through the evacuation that has been the case. The hon. Lady asked a series of other questions which are perfectly legitimate. We will have to see whether the Taliban are willing to allow safe passage. At present the challenge is that most third countries have locked their borders, so that challenge is coming externally, but for understandable reasons we are working and willing to engage not just with the Taliban but with all the countries in the region so that any of our cases that get to the border can be processed.
First, may I thank the Foreign Secretary for all he has done and for today’s statement? I have a specific question. The Prime Minister has said that we are looking to set up a contact group or broader coalition. What is the timeline for setting up this contact group and what will be the specific criteria for membership—counter-terrorism, humanitarian, nation building? Also, will the format be based on P5 plus region and plus other countries from the middle east to get the money?
The truth is that all the points my hon. Friend made are relevant considerations. Ideally, we would want the UN to co-ordinate as that would give it independence and objectivity. All the groups he described would need to be considered. Of course they do not all get on with each other, so this is also about the art of the possible, but I am following through on that this week. We are trying to establish a core of a P5 consensus although that is not entirely straightforward, and then we will want to consider all the different regional partners, which do not all have perfect relationships with each other. This is partly about the factors my hon. Friend described but it is also about the art of the possible. It is clear, however, that we need a much broader group to be more effective in exercising a moderating influence on the Taliban.
Did the right hon. Gentleman’s Department provide a risk and needs assessment to help the Home Secretary draw up the figure of 20,000 as the proper number of people to be resettled? What advice is it providing about identifying the 5,000 most in need to come in the first year? What advice is it providing to the Home Secretary about selecting the next 15,000? They need help, but not for a few years apparently. What support are they going to get in intervening years before they are allowed to come to the UK?
Of course, we are advising and working very closely with the Home Office on the new resettlement scheme and the eligibility criteria, in the way that the hon. Gentleman described. If we had just made a year 1 commitment, he would probably be saying, “But what about year 2, year 3 and year 4?” I think it is right that we look at both the short term and the medium term, and the Home Secretary will set out full details in due course.
People in Stroud were really distressed to see the footage of a baby being handed over to an American soldier at Kabul airport. We know that there are thousands of orphans stranded in Afghanistan, and they are at risk of radicalisation and abuse. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that children and orphans are a focus of UK support and say a little more about how we are achieving that?
No one could fail to be moved by the heart-rending scenes at Kabul airport—the one my hon. Friend described and others. We will of course look at what we can do in relation to orphans and unaccompanied minors. The real challenge will be getting verifiable details about their parents—whether they are still alive or whether there are members of the wider family. In the first instance—this has been our experience more generally across the middle east and in war-torn countries—we want to try to see whether it is possible to reunite children with either their parents, if it is safe to do so, or wider members of their family.
As is the case for many MPs, many of my constituents who are British have family dependants in Afghanistan, and a number are saying that they want to go to a third country, such as Pakistan, to get them out. I am advising them to wait until they get advice from the Government, but is the Foreign Secretary having serious discussions with the Home Secretary about expediting cases that are already in the system, with the biometrics and paperwork already in place, to see whether we can get those people through quickly to avoid clogging up the infrastructure in those third countries?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Of course, if there is a stock of cases that are good to go because those checks have already been done, we want to make sure that we are ready for the first flights out of Kabul, or indeed the first access that we can get via a third country, so that is very much on my mind and the Home Secretary’s.
Over the past 20 years, and especially in the most recent weeks, we have been able to see and hear so much about what is going on in Afghanistan thanks to the bravery of many local journalists—especially women, who of course were not allowed even to work under the previous Taliban regime. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising them for their courageous work, and can he confirm that those who now feel at risk and need to leave the country are included in the category of special cases?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not only are they included, but among the broadly 500 special cases that have been evacuated out of Afghanistan, there have been a significant number of journalists. Of course, we will continue to process those kinds of cases.
Thanks to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), we are all cognisant of the fact that the Foreign Office was acutely aware of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan in July—22 July rings a particular bell. Despite that, the Foreign Secretary still proceeded to go on his holidays. When is he going to find a backbone and resign?
The hon. Gentleman referred to the risk report that the management board received in July. That is a standard monthly report that goes to senior officials. It did not contain any novel or new intelligence assessment. What the July document made clear was that our central planning assumption at the time was that the peace process in Afghanistan would probably run for a further six months. We followed all that advice while at the same time preparing our contingency plans for the evacuation.
An easy mistake to make, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Spirit Aid, the charity founded by the Scottish actor David Hayman, currently has doctors, teachers and others, and their families, stranded in Afghanistan. On 25 August, 28 August and again on 3 September, I contacted the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence. I have no idea whether those emails have even been opened. Will the Secretary of State commit to open the emails and read the names of the people on those lists? When will he be in a position to tell me and, more importantly, those terrified people in Afghanistan exactly where they stand?
I explained why there was a backlog of emails; it was partly due to the surge of new contact that we received in the narrowing window of the evacuation and the decision consciously to focus on the resource of getting people on to the flights. However, as has already been said before the House, we will make sure that we give a response to all the hon. Members’ emails that we have received by close of play today, with the relevant triaging and signposting to the specific Department that is processing that type of claim.
I have a constituent, a British national, who was left behind when the evacuations ended. The Foreign Office has point-blank refused to even take his contact details or name. He has since risked his life to get to the border, as instructed, but been refused entry to both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while watching other foreign nationals freely enter those countries. Will the Foreign Secretary please confirm why it has taken until today to speak to his counterparts in those countries and when he expects to get an agreement so that British nationals can enter those countries to return home?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is not quite right. Most of those countries have closed their borders. We have spoken to all of them, pressing for a third-country facility to get any UK nationals, or indeed other ARAP cases, out. They are obviously concerned about encouraging a flow of refugees. If she has had specific problems with a case, she should get in contact with me, and I or Lord Ahmad will reply and look personally at that case.
In the last 20 years, Christianity has grown greatly in Afghanistan. More than 200 missionaries have come from different parts of the world to preach the gospel and have made that very clear. Many Afghans have accepted Christianity as their faith. The fall of Government means that those Christians across Afghanistan are under great threat. Never has there been a fear quite like it. What can be done to help Christians in Afghanistan at this time, to get them out and get them into the free world again?
Of course, those fleeing persecution or in fear for their life because of not just ethnicity but religious belief will be part of the considerations for the resettlement scheme. More broadly, providing some reassurance to those different communities in Afghanistan will be a critical first test for the Taliban. As the UN Security Council resolution that the United Kingdom pressed for makes clear, we will be holding the Taliban to those commitments and assurances that they have made.