[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear masks when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with Government guidance. I also remind Members to take daily tests when coming on to the estate, which can be done either on the estate or at home. Please give each other enough space—I can see you are already doing that. Hansard colleagues would be very grateful if you could pass on your speaking notes afterwards.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.
My thanks to you, Ms Ali, and to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to raise this essential issue. I know that it has been addressed today in a statement in the Chamber, but unfortunately I could not be there because I was in another debate. I apologised in advance to the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. I have also provided my notes so the Minister probably knows where I am coming from.
It is only right that I start by putting on the record my thanks to my Minister and my Government for what they have done on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and for how our Government have conveyed the compassion that is needed for the Afghan refugees we watched on TV, even though we might not have met them personally. I certainly hope I will meet some of them in my constituency of Strangford. I want to express my thanks for the generosity of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I am keen to express some concerns. I know that other Members, such as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), will also want to make a plea on behalf of those I refer to as a persecuted people—the religious and ethnic minorities; those living in Afghanistan even now—as to how our Minister and Government can respond. I also wish to say that while I welcome the four-year plan, I am concerned that four years might mean that some will, I fear to say, not be here, and that they will not get their opportunity to come to this country. Therefore we need urgency.
The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, in the wake of UK, US and NATO forces withdrawing from the country, has left many Afghans concerned and terrified for their future. Initial statements from the Taliban claiming that they had reformed certain elements of their ideology, positioning themselves as a less nefarious force, were, unsurprisingly, blatant lies—we cannot believe a word that comes out of their mouths. Sadly, we know all too well that Afghans who do not adhere to the Taliban’s harsh and strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, especially those who adhere to other faiths or beliefs, face a grave threat. Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, members of ethnic and religious minority communities, supporters of the former Government, and other minorities have lived in fear of violence, torture, and even execution.
None of us in this Chamber could fail to be moved by the scenes of chaos that we saw at Kabul airport, of people fleeing for their lives. I hope—indeed, I believe—we can all agree that there is a pressing need to protect these vulnerable groups, and a moral obligation to defend their most fundamental human rights. I very much welcomed the announcement on 18 August that Her Majesty’s Government would launch the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, a bespoke initiative to enable vulnerable Afghan citizens to be settled in the UK. That scheme is designed to provide protection for Afghans identified as most at risk: their gender, sexuality and religion could all be indicators of vulnerability, as well as having advocated for democracy and human rights. I am very grateful to the Government for working to support those groups, but much more must be done, which is why we are having this debate today.
We need to be more anxious, more keen and more determined to deliver what we intended to deliver through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme in August last year. Given the subsequent months of fear that vulnerable Afghans have faced, it is necessary to obtain clarity on how that scheme will work. Again, I apologise that although I was present in the main Chamber for part of the Minister’s statement, I was not there for all of the answers that she gave. After four long months of silence and seeming shrinking of responsibility, I welcomed the Minister’s announcement on 23 December that the scheme would open this month. I stress the urgency of that scheme for vulnerable persons in Afghanistan, and the need for the swift opening of applications. I believe with all my heart that there is an urgency to this matter and a need to expedite the process as soon as possible. I look forward to more details being made available to Parliament at the Minister’s earliest convenience, as we all eagerly await details of how the UK will mobilise to assist these vulnerable people.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I have spoken to many colleagues who are deeply concerned about the current situation in Afghanistan. When it comes to freedom of religion or belief, conditions in the country have deteriorated drastically since the Taliban seized control last year. Religious or belief minorities are facing a particular threat, and it is heartbreaking to hear some of their stories. I will focus on religious and ethnic groups, not on individuals, because if we focus on individuals, it is very hard to move away from that. I would have very much liked to have seen earlier prioritisation and understanding of this issue. Greater clarity as to the eligibility criteria would have conveyed the Government’s dedication to the issue.
One such group in Afghanistan that I would like to draw attention to today is the Hazara community, labelled as heretical by the Taliban, along with other non-Sunni Muslims. The Hazara community has long faced discrimination and violence, and has suffered social and economic marginalisation and waves of physical attacks. When the Taliban were last in power, the Hazaras faced targeted violence, and many fled as refugees to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan in search of safety, such was their fear of what might happen if they and their families remained in Afghanistan. Since its emergence, ISIS in the Khorasan province—ISIS-K, as it is referred to—has also attacked this community, and has stated its goal to exterminate the Shi’a Muslims, including the Hazara Muslims.
There has been a resurgence of attacks on the Hazara community since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Hazara schools and religious sites have been bombed, medical clinics have been targeted, and Hazara civilians have been murdered by the Taliban and ISIS-K. A recent report by Amnesty International in December 2021, “Afghanistan: No escape: War crimes and civilian harm during the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban”, emphasised that the Hazara Muslims are at considerable risk of targeting by Taliban forces. That report highlights the targeted killings of Hazara Muslims in Daykundi and Mundarakht provinces in July 2021. After taking control of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, Taliban fighters massacred nine Hazara men in the village of Mundarakht. Eyewitnesses have since given harrowing accounts of those killings. Six of the nine men were shot. Three were tortured. Similarly devastating, on 30 August, Taliban forces killed 13 Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, in Kahor village in Afghanistan’s Daykundi province, after members of the security forces of the former Government surrendered. Those are the very people they were surely trying to save.
Depressingly, such brutal killings likely represent a tiny fraction of the total death toll inflicted by the Taliban to date. The group have cut mobile phone services in many of the areas they have recently captured, controlling which media from those regions are shared. Such attacks must not go unnoticed, which is why we are holding this debate and are looking for action right now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate at this important time, and for highlighting the plight of the Hazara community. Relatives among my constituents have been in touch with me. Does he share my concern that there is no way to apply for the scheme? Relatives in the Hazara community have no way of knowing whether their family members are in the system and should be contacted within the next six months or a year. It is very unclear whether those people are going to be safe, despite the fact that they are in hiding and in fear of their lives.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for all the work she did in her previous job—I have said it before, but I say it in Westminster Hall for the first time. I am aware that she has a heart for this subject matter. I agree with her point exactly. That is one of the things we are looking for—how do these people get into the system to ensure that they get the opportunity of the Afghan resettlement scheme and we get the opportunity to have them in this country?
Hazaras are not the only community at risk. Far too many other minority communities also face a bleak and precarious future. Amnesty International’s report lists a litany of attacks against many religious minorities. Owing to the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia law, they consider conversion from Islam to another religion apostasy, and do not hesitate to punish such a decision by death. Afghan Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is and those of no religious belief are all unable to express their faiths or beliefs openly due to fear of the dire consequences from the Taliban.
Ahmadi Muslims, for instance, are not recognised by either the Sunni or Shi’a Muslim faiths and have suffered a long history of persecution in Afghanistan, including public stoning in the early 19th and 20th centuries. Heaven forbid such hostility should prevail once again. Today, Afghan Ahmadis practise their faith in secret due to continued societal persecution and discrimination.
Christians, of which I am one, are another group at grave risk. We know people who are still in Afghanistan. As the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said in her intervention, the issue is how we get those people on the list. We need to know. I look to the Minister to give some response, focus, direction and pointers on how we do that, for all the people that we are going to speak about.
Many Afghan Christians are converts from Islam and are therefore considered apostates according to Afghan law. They have already faced ostracisation and the threat of honour killings by family members, but such retaliatory measures are now at heightened risk with the Taliban in power. Those people are in fear of their lives.
According to reports from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Christian converts receive threats in a variety of forms. A Dari-speaking network in the United States of America that supports Afghan house churches has reported that a leader of a house church network with more than 500 members received a letter signed by the Taliban, threatening him and his family. It read, “We know where you are and what you are doing.” That brings back to me chilling memories from Northern Ireland and what the IRA used to do—“We know who you are and where you live.” We can all guess the implications and imagine the fear incited. On 15 August, Taliban members visited the leader’s home, but he and his family had already gone into hiding—a point that the hon. Member for Putney referred to.
In essence, the Taliban has successfully stifled freedom of religion or belief. These people need help. How do we get help to them? How do we let them know that they have a route to the end of it?
Some Christians have had to abandon the use of their phones and have moved to undisclosed locations for unknown lengths of time just in hopes of being left alone. Other church members have received threats and visits from the Taliban. During one visit, Taliban members took a 14-year-old daughter from one of the families. Months later, that family still have no idea what has happened to their daughter. We can imagine the heartache and pain in their hearts.
Humanist and atheist beliefs are also considered apostasy and punishable by death. Arash Kargar, a humanist in Afghanistan, describes his life as,
“facing constant problems with family, friends, and even in dealing with people at the university campus and the community at large. Having any beliefs outside of Islam or that…are not compatible with Islam and its teachings is considered an unforgivable crime. Such a view is prevalent throughout society, family, friends and even at the university...There are two ways available to me and others like me: Either stay quiet for your entire life which in turn is an imposed punishment for a social being like humans, or voice your concern for equality, freedom of thought and expression publicly. But to what cost?”
The ultimatum that Arash faces is faced by thousands of others in Afghanistan, even more so since the Taliban took over.
I hope that my summary of the different groups in Afghanistan that we know of—and others here know of directly through their constituents—shows the enormity of what we are trying to achieve, and what Government need to grasp through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. It also demonstrates the extent to which freedom of religion or belief is violated in Afghanistan, and how vital it is that these groups are offered safe resettlement. Whether they are Hazaras, Christians, Humanists, Uyghur Muslims, Baha’is or other minority groups, extreme levels of persecution haunt their waking moments. The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme seeks to provide for 5,000 spaces a year over four years for vulnerable Afghan citizens to be resettled in the UK. By the end of this scheme the UK will have aided in resettling 20,000 Afghan citizens. I said it at the beginning of the debate and I will say it again: I understand and welcome what the Government are doing, but we want to feed into the process in a way that can help those people that we know of. Some of those people we may never meet in this world, but we know them through our constituents and through others.
While the creation of this pathway fills me with much hope, it is vital that this scheme is treated with the urgency that is needed. Four years is too long to wait for vulnerable communities who are facing arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, war crimes or even genocide. I ask that this Government—my Government; my Minister—reconsider the staggered approach to the resettlement scheme and clarify how a four-year-long wait is justifiable when it is a matter of life or death. That is the issue and the core of where I am coming from.
I thank the Government for their commitment to starting the Afghan citizen resettlement scheme. I have set myself a time limit of 20 minutes, which will give plenty of time for everybody else to participate—I will not go beyond that. I thank the Minister and the Department for the commitment, and the letter that I got last week. Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct, two companies in my constituency, in September 2021 offered jobs to any Afghan people who wanted to resettle in this country. Not only did they offer them jobs, but they offered them accommodation as well. I have sent the details of the Minister’s letter on to those two companies; those two companies will respond very quickly about what they are able to offer. I hope that my constituents in Strangford will offer what the hon. Member for Putney and everyone else here wants—the opportunity to reach out and help, and to give people hope for the future. These people did not want to leave Afghanistan; they did so because they had no other option. We in this country, with the compassion that we have and the ability that we have to help, need to do so.
As I draw to the end of my remarks, I would like to end on a note of hope. Much work has been done in the past few months by individuals and organisations to assist those on the ground in Afghanistan. They have not squandered time in the face of this very real human rights crisis, and I believe that Government could learn from their example. I want to praise the work of people like Baroness Kennedy, who has seen more than 100 female Afghan judges and their families rescued from Afghanistan. I think the Minister mentioned that in her statement on the Floor of the House of Commons today.
I also offer my thanks to the many colleagues who have repeatedly asked for answers and assurances on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. We want to see all of those people who have come here for a new life, new opportunities and a new beginning have that opportunity across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is such a scheme. However, I want to stress again that urgent action is needed to prevent the tragedy that will happen in Afghanistan if we do not get those people over here and into this system.
When it comes to leadership and the resettlement scheme, I thank the Minister on behalf of my constituents in Strangford, who want to help. The two companies that I have mentioned also want to help. With that in mind, I look forward to the Minister’s response and thank hon. Members for coming to make a contribution to the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Ms Ali. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate, which seems to have prompted the Government to make today’s announcement about the opening of the Afghan citizen resettlement scheme. I welcome that, but I believe it should have happened months ago. The announcement of the opening of the scheme still leaves many questions unanswered, and I hope that the Minister can answer some of them when she responds.
There are three Chevening alumni scholars who have a connection to my constituency and who were eligible for the emergency evacuation by the Foreign Office back in August, but given the chaos that ensured at Kabul airport and the lack of response from the Foreign Office, they were unable to board the flights to the UK. The three Chevening alumni scholars remain in Afghanistan and have been lying low to avoid the Taliban, and I am pleased that the Minister has stated that there will be a third route to the scheme that will prioritise Chevening alumni and others, but I would welcome the Minister’s explaining to me how the scheme will work in practice to locate the alumni, and whether it will also allow those who are eligible to bring their families with them. During the statement, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) stressed the need for family reunion to be part and parcel of the resettlement scheme, because the one thing that we do not want to happen is to see family members embarking on dangerous crossings to the UK in order to be with their families who have secured places on the resettlement scheme.
In August and September, some people felt that their lives were threatened by the Taliban due to their roles as activists for women’s rights or in law enforcement, or because they were from religious minorities or were part of the LGBTQ community. They managed to escape to third countries. They, too, will need to access the ACRS, but from a third country. Could the Minister let me know whether they will be able to access the scheme from third countries? I note that in her statement earlier today, she spoke about the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees playing a role in referring refugees in need of resettlement who fled Afghanistan, but I am interested to know how that would work, because some of them may have fled to places such as Tajikistan, Iran and other countries, where it may be a bit more difficult for UNHCR to assist them.
If the scheme is to be a success, the Government also need to consider what they need to do to ensure that there is integration when people have been settled in the UK. I note that Barnardo’s has advised that there is a need to help children to be resettled in the UK. It has advised that children should be given a particular focus when considering integration, because the needs of refugee children, and the impact that they have on the entire family, must be considered in order to ensure that integration is successful. Families need to be supported in the environment in which they are most comfortable—for instance, key workers can best build relationships with refugee families in informal settings, such as their home environment. Things like that also need to be considered.
Barnardo’s also argues that integration is a two-way process, so local communities must be encouraged and supported to better understand the nature and trauma of those seeking asylum and resettlement in another country. I ask the Minister to take into account the expertise of organisations such as Barnardo’s in dealing with resettlement, particularly of children. I note the references that the Minister made in her statement earlier today about integration, but I would welcome her thoughts on the issue of integrating children into the system.
Local councils will also be at the centre of supporting communities and people who have been resettled under the scheme. They cannot be left alone to deal with the challenges of the scheme without proper support—both financial and strategic—from central Government. I would very much welcome information from the Minister about how local government will be supported in hosting communities and vulnerable individuals through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.
In August and September, many of us received emails, telephone calls or visits from constituents in relation to their concerns about family members in Afghanistan. Although we were able to give responses with the information we had had from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, those updates stopped in September. I have already had a couple of inquiries from constituents who are concerned about their family members. I invite the Minister to advise us on what support will be received from the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the MOD, so that we can respond to those inquiries from constituents whose family members may be eligible for the scheme. That needs to be addressed.
I have made only a short speech because I thought the debate would be oversubscribed, but clearly the earlier statement has dealt with a number of concerns that people have about the resettlement scheme. I will end by saying that the chaotic scenes during the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 must be one of the lowest points of the Government’s foreign policy. We now have a moral duty to support those who have helped the UK and who have a strong connection with our nation. Although I welcome the opening of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, it has to be implemented properly so that it does what it was intended to do. I am very keen for the scheme to be a success because we must not let the Afghan people down again.
I am absolutely delighted to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Ms Ali—it is the first time, I think, so congratulations to you. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the absolutely exemplary work that she is doing in this area—we are very grateful that she is in her position. I want to make two points. The first is on the position in Wycombe, and the second is to ask a few questions about what we should do, but what I will say will not surprise my hon. Friend because it was the essence of my question to her following her statement on the Floor of the House earlier.
According to the 2010 census, about one in six of my Wycombe constituents are British Asians. As I know my constituents, I know that those people will overwhelmingly be Kashmiri. That means, of course, that they are very much embedded in the wider region, so it is no surprise to me that a significant number of my constituents—a larger number than I might have expected, in fact—have family and friends in Afghanistan, or cousins who are married to people in Afghanistan. This issue is very present in Wycombe, as things often are in the region.
Having grown up as a white British person in a homogeneous community in Cornwall, I confess that for many people across our country, these are distant events with which they will not feel closely associated. Indeed, I do not doubt that I will see that on my social media after this speech. I have to say to people, however, that we must remember that the UK is now a diverse country and I am very proud of that—I am proud to represent Wycombe—and people in the UK with friends and family who are connected to Afghanistan deserve our diligent representation and support.
My hon. Friend is nodding, and I know that she knows this, but I will put it on the record for others: we have to look after everyone who is British, and I am glad that we are doing so.
The particular issue that comes up in Wycombe is that constituents very often believe that family—and possibly friends—in Afghanistan had visa entitlements to come and join them in the UK prior to our departure from that country. Of course, they are most concerned that those people should—on top of any other scheme—continue to have those entitlements to visas and to come and be here, notwithstanding the change of circumstances. Although there are other questions about why people who worked for the Government have not already been extracted, I am putting that particular question to the Minister because it is such a present issue in my constituency. I am sure our goal is the humane treatment of everybody, but I sympathise with Ministers as we go through this. We are not taking a very large number of people. Carrying through people’s prior entitlement to visas would be a good way to show good faith with the British people who have friends and family—a good way to go beyond the 5,000 would be to bring those people over as well, as they were expecting to be able to do.
I come on to some specific asks. What should people do? In the Chamber earlier, the Minister talked about safe and legal routes in answer to the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). Pakistan has some very legitimate interests of its own. We would not thank a country that created a crisis on our own borders—indeed, that perhaps comes up with France at the moment—so it is perfectly reasonable that Pakistan should ask us not to act in such a way as to drive illegal immigration into their own country. This is a very important and sensitive humanitarian situation across multiple dimensions.
We should of course respect Pakistan’s legitimate requirement for legal migration in its own country. I am being asked by people whether friends and family should go to Pakistan and whether they will be processed there. It is a legitimate question, and I need to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for an answer to it, even though I recognise that she may well have to discourage people from doing so in order to respect the interests of Pakistan. I am sorry to give her that difficult problem to answer, but we need to say something to our constituents.
That is the final point I need to raise. My constituency caseworkers are now very highly connected to the surprising number of people with direct contacts and connections in Afghanistan. We all know the sensitivity and the danger of the situation. People are in hiding in Afghanistan, fearful for their lives, fearful of being physically tortured and dismembered for what they have done, obviously quite wrongly. Tensions and emotions are running extremely high and people are desperate for information. There is a great need to give all our constituency caseworkers what information we can, respecting that none of us can second-guess the security situation of particular individuals in the country. We need to give guidance and support to caseworkers. They are under immense stress themselves. We can help alleviate that stress by giving them good information to pass on, in so far as we can.
I finish where I began, in thanking my hon. Friend the Minister. I absolutely sincerely welcome the job she is doing, which I know is very difficult. She is doing it with great skill and diplomacy. I absolutely wish her well in carrying forward her task and I can certainly promise to give her any support she might like.
It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Ali. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for all his diligent work in this area, particularly on religious freedom and on freedom of speech: a subject very dear to my own heart. I echo what the hon. Gentleman said—more needs to be done and more needs to be done more urgently. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s responses to his questions.
Many of us were glad to hear of some progress in today’s statement in the Chamber—I thank the Minister for that. I want to make one point to her quite gently. When the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), pointed out that there are some criticisms to be made of the way the Government have handled the matter, the Minister seemed to suggest that, in doing so, the shadow Home Secretary was criticising our forces, which she absolutely was not doing. We would all praise the efforts of British forces on the ground, and the civil servants and non-governmental organisations, who worked so hard back in August to get as many people out as possible. What I gently say to the Minister is that their efforts should not be a shield for our political masters to hide behind.
Many MPs continue to receive desperate pleas on behalf of those left behind in Afghanistan. The United Kingdom Government machine needs to up its game, for this reason: the UK Government pursued a foreign and defence policy that encouraged people in Afghanistan to participate in creating a democratic state, where human rights were protected. Due to the failure of that policy, many of those people are now at risk, so we in the United Kingdom—having been at the heart of pursuing that policy, albeit with some allies—have a particular moral responsibility to take proper steps to help those at risk in Afghanistan.
Like many other Members of Parliament, I have been trying to help constituents with inquiries about friends and family, as well as people who have contacted me as a British MP seeking my help. However, I have been particularly engaged with the plight of female judges and female prosecutors in Afghanistan. We all know that women face particular oppression under the Taliban; when I spoke in a debate about LGBT rights in Afghanistan, I made the point that lesbians and bisexual women experience discrimination twice over in Afghanistan, both for their sex and for their same-sex attraction. This is most definitely an area in which sex matters, and women are particularly at risk.
The brave women who became judges, prosecutors, policewomen, human rights defenders and women’s rights activists under western rule now find that their lives are in mortal danger. That is also true for many of the men they worked alongside, but those women’s lack of freedom to move and to access the means to leave the country themselves, because of their oppression as women and the severe discrimination against them, makes the position of women all the worse. These women who worked as judges, prosecutors and so on are at risk twice over, both because of their civic contribution and because of their sex.
As the Minister knows, I have been working with a former Afghan judge and feminist activist to try to highlight the plight of lower-level female judges and prosecutors in provincial villages, whose lives are particularly at risk because they live in small communities and are therefore more readily identifiable. Marzia Babakarkhail came to the UK in 2008 after two attempts on her life by the Taliban, having served as a judge in Afghanistan. She is now a British citizen who lives in Oldham, and her story is featured in the People’s History Museum in Manchester, which is very worth a visit for anyone who has not been there. It houses the black Samsonite bag that Marzia was given by her mother as a gift to congratulate her on her success as a lawyer, which is one of the few possessions she was able to bring with her to her new life in the United Kingdom. Marzia is anxious that the UK Government should provide a new life in the United Kingdom for other female judges and prosecutors, and she is in touch with many of those who are trapped and left behind. They are in imminent danger of persecution from the Taliban, and from other dangerous criminals and members of terrorist groups who the Taliban have released from prison.
The Taliban’s opposition to the formal justice system of Afghanistan is well known. They are strongly against state-building and against the justice reconstruction efforts by what they call westernising forces, and favour sharia law as the source of justice, underpinned by a strict interpretation of Islam. In the past, they have targeted and brutally killed many judges, and since last August, there have been other, similar targetings. Many of the men who the Taliban have released from prison are heavily armed and are now free to trace and target their enemies without fear, and many of those female judges and prosecutors were involved in the indictment and punishment of those criminals and terrorists, so they are prime targets for revenge attacks.
As we speak and over the past few months, the Taliban have been conducting house-to-house searches, and many of these women are now in hiding, where they receive threatening phone calls asking them about their whereabouts. These women are contacting Marzia in fear and desperation, and she in turn is contacting me and other Members of Parliament.
As the Minister knows, in 2003 the convention on the elimination of violence against women was ratified by Afghanistan under western influence; based on that law, specialist courts were established in 34 provinces under the control of female judges. The Taliban and other conservative groups in Afghanistan considered that law to be un-Islamic, and the judges who enforced it to be infidels and foreign collaborators, so any of the female judges who sat on those courts, trying to protect women, are now at risk. As the hon. Member for Strangford said earlier, Baroness Helena Kennedy, who is—among her many good works—the head of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, has worked with a large team of pro bono lawyers in the UK and across the world to try to save some of those women. She has succeeded in doing so, and I commend her and her colleagues on their efforts.
However, Marzia is worried that junior female judges and prosecutors in the provinces will be overlooked, so I am working to raise their profile with the UK Government. At the end of last year, I brought Marzia into Parliament to meet Baroness Kennedy, the Justice Committee and the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), who has recently been knighted. The then Justice Secretary was very keen to assist, but unfortunately he lost his position in the Cabinet reshuffle and with all due respect to his replacement—the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab)—I have to say that he has not so far covered himself in glory over the issue of Afghanistan. However, doing something to help these female judges and prosecutors would be a way for him to make amends.
Regarding the Minister who is here today, she agreed this morning in the Chamber to meet Marzia and I; I look forward to doing so very soon. All I really want to ask her now is that, in addition to answering the questions of the hon. Member for Strangford and other hon. Members, she answers this question: can she reassure me that the meeting she will have with Marzia and I will recognise the United Kingdom’s particular responsibility towards these women? Will it bring tangible results for women who have been left behind in Afghanistan and are now desperate?
It is a pleasure, Ms Ali, to serve under your chairship for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate, and I wish all Members a happy new year.
We are now five months on from the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, which came at the end of 20 years of British involvement in Afghanistan. The chaotic and painful events of last summer brought home just how many links have been forged between our two countries over that time. That was also evident in the huge numbers of Afghans living in the UK who desperately sought to help their loved ones to leave the country as the Taliban took power; I was contacted by 65 constituents, who passed on the details of 400 people in total. Of those 400 people, as far as my office have established, seven have fled Afghanistan and reached a third country, but the rest remain in Afghanistan. Shockingly, in only 20 cases have I received an individual response from the relevant Department, rather than the stock numbered response from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I mention these statistics to highlight just how many people remain in desperate need in Afghanistan and wish to join their relatives in this country.
I will make a few specific points about the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and related issues, as they relate to cases I am dealing with, and I hope that the Minister can respond to them. First, there are Afghan citizens in the UK who had already submitted an asylum claim before the Taliban takeover but have not had a decision from the Home Office. The Home Office confirmed in an email to me that it is not making decisions on Afghan asylum claims until updated safety guidance on Afghanistan is published. Surely, however, the need to claim asylum from Afghanistan should be accepted if the Government accept the need for an Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.
It is also unclear how the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will apply to families where some members are UK nationals and some are not. Do the non-UK national family members have to apply for the ACRS, or is there another pathway for the families to travel to the UK together?
Finally, after the statement earlier today about the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme in the main Chamber, I said that I have constituents with leave to remain in the UK who are trapped in Afghanistan as they are not UK nationals and so have not been able to access consular support. In her response to me earlier this afternoon, the Minister said that the Government are working with countries in the region to find safe routes for eligible Afghans to be evacuated from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. I appreciate that these efforts are ongoing, but I would be grateful to the Minister if she could provide a bit more information as to when we are likely to receive an update and a bit more information about which countries in the region she has had conversations with. That would enable me to update my constituents, who are asking me for guidance about their cases. I hope that the Minister can respond to those important points. I take the opportunity to thank her for her response this afternoon regarding my follow-up-meeting request.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her statement today and also for her dedicated hard work on this really challenging but very important issue. I also commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. I very much support what he said, particularly regarding targeted religious minorities, which I want to focus on in my speech, particularly because I am concerned about those in my role as the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion or belief.
In the penultimate Prime Minister’s questions before Christmas, I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether the promised gift of resettlement for Afghans who are members of religious minorities would be available by the end of Christmas. If I am right, last night was Twelfth Night, so, being generous, may I give the Minister the benefit of the extra day and say thank you for getting the ACRS up and running now? I note, however, that it is only from the spring that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will refer refugees to the scheme, based on assessments of protection need. That sounds more like a Coptic Christmas timeline to me, but, more seriously, the delay in providing refuge and support for vulnerable religious minorities concerns me, and I know that it concerns many of my colleagues in the organisation of which I, as the Prime Minister’s envoy, am a member. That is the 33-country alliance of envoys, which is called the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.
The alliance issued a statement in support of vulnerable individuals being targeted in Afghanistan because of their faith or belief. I commend that statement to the Minister, not least because it demonstrates that there are international partners who most seriously do share our concerns about the vulnerable situation of those being targeted for their beliefs in Afghanistan. I will just read out a little from it:
“We hold grave concerns for…members of religious minority groups who are at risk, including Shi’a and Ismaili Muslims, Hazaras, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, non-believers, and others. We call upon all parties and international agencies to recognize the vulnerabilities of these individuals being targeted because of their faith or belief.”
The statement goes on to call for, among other things,
“a renewed humanitarian effort by the international community.”
I was interested to note today in the Minister’s statement her reference to the scale of the challenge and the need to co-ordinate closely with international partners, as indeed the alliance has done. It was very encouraging that, during the preparation of its statement, two alliance countries, the US and Brazil, got together; one supplied a plane and the other supplied the visas, and they were able to fly out 193 members of religious minorities from Afghanistan. It is that kind of international co-operation that I am sure the Minister is speaking of, but could I ask her, please, for more information as to how the UK is doing this and how we can fulfil the IRFBA statement’s intent?
I have of course spoken directly to members of several religious communities, as I know many colleagues have, so I will not go into detail as to the concerns that I share about the risks to these communities, but I am pleased that the Government have, rightly, included religious minorities in the criteria for eligibility for the ACRS, and I was pleased today in the House to hear the Minister’s assurance that the scheme is open now to vulnerable religious minorities and that that could be combined with community sponsorship. I will say a little more about that shortly.
First, with regard to the UNHCR refugee referral scheme starting in the spring, could the Minister clarify that it is based on the Government’s announced eligibility criteria, which specifically include minority groups, and that it is not wholly delegated to the UNHCR’s assessments of protection need? In terms of protection services, the principle of non-discrimination prevents the UNHCR from specifically targeting minority groups, so it means that arguably members of the LGBT community, who were rightly evacuated under the ARAP—Afghan relocations and assistance policy—scheme, might well not have been eligible under the UNHCR scheme. A further concern about the scheme is that religious belief is not a specific UNHCR eligibility criterion or an automatic indicator of need in its own right. In the past, that led to criticism of the operation of the Syrian resettlement scheme when it came to resettling religious minorities—specifically Christians—in the UK.
I hope that Members will bear with me as I cite some figures that bear that out. In 2017, the Barnabas Fund obtained data that revealed that in 2015, of the 2,637 individuals recommended to the UK by the UNHCR for resettlement, only 43 were Christians, even though Christians are widely accepted as constituting 10% of Syria’s pre-war population; only one was Shi’a, who were estimated to be 1.5% of the population; and only 13 were Yazidis. The following year, 2016, of the 7,499 individuals recommended to the UK by the UNHCR for resettlement, only 27 were Christians, 13 were Shi’a and five were Yazidis. Interestingly, it is estimated that Syria’s pre-war population was 74% Sunni Muslim, 13% Shi’a and Alawite, 10% Christian and 3% Druze, and that there were 70,000 Yazidis.
In the ACRS, the Government have made membership of a minority group a specific eligibility criterion, consistent with the new plan for immigration. Let me quote the wording of that plan for the record, because it is good and clear. It states:
“We will also ensure our resettlement offer encompasses persecuted refugees from a broader range of minority groups (including, for example, Christians in some parts of the world). We know that across the globe there are minority groups that are systematically persecuted for their gender, religion or belief and we want to ensure our resettlement offer properly reflects these groups. We will strengthen our engagement with global charities and international partners to ensure that minority groups facing persecution are able to be referred so their case can be considered for resettlement in the UK more easily.”
Although the Minister’s response to my question earlier today gave me hope, I would like more information about how the new plan is to be implemented, particularly because, to date, I am not aware of the evacuation to the UK of any individuals who have been targeted specifically because of their religion.
Despite good intentions, there is real concern that religious minorities will still not be included in the ACRS in the spring, or indeed in the first year of the scheme’s operation, if it is based solely on the UNHCR protection criteria. The Home Office does not have to rely solely on the UNHCR for resettlement assessment; it could conduct such assessments itself. It is clear that, in the case of Afghans in Afghanistan, the UNHCR does not have a mandate to deal with their situation; it can do so only if they arrive in Pakistan, for example, which is risky and causes many other challenges. The assessment could be done by the Home Office in house, as it is currently for some asylum applications, and it could be assisted by trusted partner organisations.
As I said I would, I come to the community sponsorship scheme. I suggest that one way to harness the Government’s commitment to the scheme, which is welcomed by the UNHCR and would provide a bespoke legal route of resettlement for religious communities, is to look at the Canadian scheme of community sponsorship for resettlement. Very substantial numbers of refugees have been resettled as a result of that scheme, which involved close to 2 million adult Canadians supporting local community sponsorship of Syrian refugees, many of whom were survivors of violence or torture whose life, liberty, safety or other fundamental rights were at risk. Many were vulnerable women or girls. Two thirds of the resettled refugees coming to Canada were privately sponsored by Canadian citizens under that scheme. Recent research suggests that comparative data emanating from that programme over the past 40 years demonstrates that sponsored refugees have better and quicker integration outcomes than refugees settled through more traditional Government schemes.
I will do so, Ms Ali.
I suggest to the Minister that we consider the main elements of the Canadian community sponsorship model and see how we could adopt them in the UK. May we meet to discuss this issue? Finally, I place on the record my commendation of the volunteers in my constituency, the Welcome Churches in Sandbach and the LOL Foundation in Congleton, which have done so much to support the Afghan refugees in Sandbach.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I am glad to be able to participate in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it. I will start by reflecting on his comments about the urgency of the situation.
The Minister said in her statement earlier that people on the ground have the best understanding of the security situation in Afghanistan, and that is certainly true according to my constituents’ accounts of their families who are stuck there. There has been a lot of reference to safe and legal routes, but the reality is that the Government cannot expect people to sit tight and wait for the Taliban to chap their door. People on the ground know the Taliban and have experienced living under them, so it is no surprise to any of us that those who can run do so and keep running until they get somewhere where they feel safe. For many of those people, that is the UK, because they have family here. We have an Afghan diaspora in Glasgow—people who fled before and have come to make their home in Glasgow.
The Government should not be going about their business, as they are with the Nationality and Borders Bill, by penalising those who got out, who sought safety and who managed to leave Afghanistan. They would not have wanted to leave the country and they had seen change in recent years, but with the Taliban coming in as swiftly as they did, people had no alternative, and many of them ran. Many constituents who have been in contact with me had family there—perhaps the husband was living in my constituency and the wife and children were living in Afghanistan. This is also a symptom of the hostile environment, because those families could not afford to bring their wives and children over, as they did not meet the minimum income threshold. Those families could have been safe, had it not been for the policies that the UK has been pursuing.
One of my constituents, who was visiting his wife and five children, is very worried about getting back. He feels defeated. He emailed me just as the debate was starting, saying:
“We are still waiting and still here. Everyone knows that the British government forgot their nationals in Afghanistan. I have sent too many emails but now I stopped sending them emails, because no response and no benefits and not worth sending emails to them, nearly five months now. There’s no way going out and we are waiting for them. Me and my family are fed up staying here. Everyone is in tension, depression and bad economic and hard situations… I just answer your email because you sent me, otherwise I stopped sending emails to anyone. The big issue is my wife’s biometric card is expiring soon on this 22 February. If that expired then all of my family will be troubled going back to Glasgow because I can’t leave her alone here as well. She has been in Glasgow for almost 10 years”.
He did not want to give me any more information than that. There is a lot more that he would say if he could, but that is the kind of situation that I have been hearing about. Like many of us, I have had scores of constituents get in touch and I know of only a handful who actually made it out. Those constituents have been on the phone to me and others, crying and desperate for their families. It has been incredibly hard to listen to, and I can only imagine the pain they feel as they wait without information. I will be glad if the Minister makes some progress towards that today, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
As my former friend on the Treasury Committee, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), asked very reasonably, what happens to the people who had applications in process? That includes many of my constituents who have applications in process and now do not know what is happening. I have a constituent who is in Afghanistan with his wife. They keep getting given appointments by the UK Government for the visa centre in Islamabad, but Pakistan will not issue them an entry visa for them to attend those appointments. What conversations has the Minister had with other consulates and embassies around the world? Those people could get out if Pakistan granted them the visa that would allow them to go and collect what they are entitled to.
There has been a lot of talk about vulnerable women and girls, but boys and men are vulnerable too, which is why they are also running. They are at risk of being recruited to the Taliban; they are at risk of losing their lives due to their service. We should not forget that many people are made vulnerable by this situation, and we must recognise that vulnerability. Many people worked as suppliers to the British Army. They were not recruited or directly involved, and they were not fighting on the frontline, but in the eyes of the Taliban they are part of the problem.
Finally, I will briefly mention those who have made it here and the support being offered. I thank the Afghan diaspora in Glasgow and the Refugee Council in Scotland for their work, but those who come here need financial, legal, medical and educational support, and there is a cost involved in that. The Government must recognise that and provide local authorities with funds to ensure that people get the support they need to help them settle. It is all fine and well for the Minister to say that we want people to integrate and work and not to be dependent on the state, but they need support in the early days to get that right.
Refuweegee, a Glasgow-based organisation, has already had requests from people who have been dispersed around Scotland but not had the support that they require to settle, and it has been falling on charities to pick that up. Charities do not have the spare capacity to do that and should not really be asked to; the Government should be providing that support. I ask the Minister to answer my questions and for support for my constituents and their families who are so desperately in need.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Ali. I will speak quickly. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this and, from a quick look at the Order Paper, many other debates in front of us—I cannot keep up with him.
On 18 August last year, just three days after the Taliban took control, the Conservative right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), a former Foreign Secretary, said this:
“There is something we can do right now: cut through bureaucracy and ensure that we look after every single Afghani who took risks for themselves and their families because they believed in a better future and trusted us to deliver it.”—[Official Report, 18 August 2021; Vol. 699, c. 1307.]
That was the rhetoric, the show of empathy, and the promises made by those on the Government Benches to help desperate Afghans in fear of their lives in the early days of Operation Warm Welcome. The right hon. Gentleman was not alone. Other Members proclaimed that
“Britain must fulfil its moral duty”—[Official Report, 18 August 2021; Vol. 699, c. 1335.]—
and that the
“Government are continuing the big-hearted tradition of the British people in offering safe haven to those fleeing persecution.”—[Official Report, 18 August 2021; Vol. 699, c. 1370.]
We have heard much of that again today.
In those early days of the withdrawal from Kabul, my office, like everybody else’s, received hundreds of emails and calls either from people who were in Afghanistan fearing for their lives, or from friends and relatives of people stuck in the most fearful of circumstances. With little to go on, the one lifeline and glimmer of hope that we could pass on to people was that, alongside the ARAP scheme, the Government would implement a resettlement scheme, with early figures suggesting that 20,000 refugees would be brought to safety. That figure, although arguably too low, at least gave some comfort that a plan was in place. Of course, we now know from whistleblowers within the Foreign Office that widespread failures within their Department meant that many cases were not even looked at, let alone dealt with.
It is now nearly five months since that pledge to resettle Afghan refugees was made, and only today have we had any clarity. Five months is a long time for people trapped in a country with a rising humanitarian crisis. Five months is harrowing for our caseworkers, who have been left to answer constituents’ pleas for help at home and abroad. Five months is insufferable for desperate relatives left with no other choice than to refresh a Government webpage that promises an announcement “soon”.
I will give an example of just how excruciating the situation can be for relatives. My office was contacted by an Afghan constituent who is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. She has seven siblings with nieces and nephew all currently stuck in Afghanistan, and she believes they are in danger because of who she is. Such is the stress and worry that her health has been impacted, and she believes that her recovery has been put in jeopardy by the torturous wait for a resettlement scheme to open. The scheme has now opened, but because my constituent’s family are in Afghanistan it is not likely to help them in the near future. What do I tell her?
The Minister told us today that the Government would be working closely with countries in the region to find safe routes for eligible Afghans to be evacuated, and that they were exploring a range of options, but she could not go into any detail. The situation is not new. They have had months to make these arrangements. It is far too late to start exploring options. As for the secrecy, I do not need to know and was not asking for the exact routes, but I need to know what progress has been made and what that is likely to mean for evacuating those in danger. I need something tangible to give people hope. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) made the good point that those who were previously entitled to visas are now unable to access them. How frustrating is that?
For the people we did manage to bring here, it is great that they have been invited here—great, but not charitable; it is just responsible. What about those still trapped in hotel accommodation in the UK? Last week, Prince William told Afghan refugees in hotels that he wished we could have brought more people here and asked, “Why is it taking so long to get people into permanent homes?” It is a good question. I understand that there are logistical challenges, but according to Home Office sources interviewed by The Times last week, it is more to do with the Chancellor forcing the Government to scale down their commitments in order to save money.
The Home Secretary and her team should be standing up to the Treasury, not simply moving people who are already in the UK into the ACRS, so that before we know it, bingo! We have managed to make up our numbers! As I said earlier, up to 20,000 could mean anything less than 20,000. It could mean 6,000 people, or 25. A limit of “up to” anything is utterly meaningless. The Government must understand that the failure to implement a resettlement scheme in time, and the fudging of figures has only and will only serve to drive those people into the hands of smuggling gangs or will force them to find alternative dangerous and illegal methods of entry.
Having sat on the Nationality and Borders Bill Committee with the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), I assure the House that despite the Government’s calls for anyone looking to find sanctuary in the UK to only use safe and legal routes, they are failing to provide them. The Minister on the Committee repeatedly said, “That is what the legislation is all about,” but guess how many mentions said routes got in that very weighty Bill? None at all. The scheme, in response to an emergency five months ago, is supposed to be a great example of a safe and legal route. Family reunion is another safe and legal route, but we have some of the most restrictive family reunion rights in Europe, which have only become more restrictive post Brexit. The ARAP scheme—the only active scheme to resettle Afghan refugees so far—has recently narrowed its criteria to make it even harder for applicants to qualify. I want to double check something that the Minister said in the Chamber earlier. She said nobody would be moved from the ARAP scheme to the ACRS scheme. I would be grateful for confirmation of that.
I also want to raise the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities issue again. As I said, all 32 Scottish local authorities are ready to support the Afghan resettlement scheme. The Minister said earlier that people on both schemes would get indefinite leave to remain, but that is not the same as refugee status. Refugee status confirms rights and entitlements to things like family reunion and education. That is of great interest to our local authorities, and they are keen to know the answer. Will these people have fewer rights than refugees? If so, why? After all, they are refugees, are they not? One thing the Minister failed to tell us today was how the already under-resourced Departments involved would deal with the resettlement effectively and transparently.
The UK Afghanistan Diplomatic and Development Alliance is a network of former civils servants, diplomats and development officials who served the UK Government in Afghanistan. It says that many more staff are needed here and in third countries to speed up the processing of refugees and the enormous backlog of applications. It is also calling for an effective appeals process. As the Minister said earlier, we cannot help everyone but we must ensure that those who fall through the net are given the right to appeal their case.
I will end by speaking about another Afghan man who I have been trying to help. He fits the description the Conservatives are so fond of: he is a youngish man fleeing alone. He must be an economic migrant and go straight to jail—except he is not. He has been waiting five months for the help he was promised and on Christmas Eve—
I have two sentences left, Ms Ali. He decided to make a dangerous, illegal and treacherous journey to Iran. He fell and broke his leg. He did it because his wife was getting so desperate. She is now in hiding alone in Afghanistan, and he is now lying with a broken leg on a mountainside in Iran and he cannot afford hospital treatment. That is how desperate we make people when we do not speed up. I really do wish this well. I want it to work. I hope the Minister listens to us and makes some of the changes that we have asked for, but that is what we do to people when we promise them help and we do not give them it.
I congratulate you, Ms Ali, on your chairmanship and I look forward to serving under you. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this crucial debate. I would like to echo the shadow Home Secretary’s thanks to our UK service personnel and all those who served in Afghanistan and assisted with the evacuation efforts from Kabul and Operation Pitting. No one can doubt their bravery and courage in the most challenging of circumstances. Their actions saved thousands of desperate people from untold suffering and, for many, death. It is nearly five months since the fall of Kabul and the harrowing scenes at Kabul airport as thousands of Afghans attempted to flee the Taliban. Those tragic scenes marked a failure of Government foreign policy in Afghanistan, and that is why the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme and today’s debate is so important.
It is about standing by those who desperately need our support at a time when, dare I say, our failure has helped to put them in an intolerable position. It is also about basic decency to those who believe in our most fundamental values of a free and democratic Afghanistan, no longer a base for terrorism. We simply cannot let down those who trusted in our country and who now deserve nothing less than our full support in their time of dire need.
I welcome some of the steps that have been announced today, including in respect of the resettlement scheme. Having said that, it is shameful that it has taken five months from the fall of Kabul—144 days and thousands of hours—for our constituents with loved ones stuck in Afghanistan to finally be given details of the resettlement scheme, how it will operate and who exactly will be eligible. How can it have taken so long?
Instead, what we saw as Members of Parliament was constituents with loved ones in Afghanistan who were desperate to talk to them, get them out and support them. A constituent of mine, Abdul Latifi, went through purgatory before eventually he was able to get out of Kabul with his six children, one of whom is disabled. While these constituents would hang on every word from the Home Office, because they wanted to bring their loved ones to safety, Departments seem to be engaged in briefing wars against one another. It is alleged that the promised 20,000 target for the scheme will be bodged, and there needs to be clarity on this going forward.
The Government promised that under the resettlement scheme they would bring to safety 20,000 of those who could not make it out of Afghanistan in time and who now fear for their lives under the Taliban. Allegedly, the Government want to now roll back on their pledge so that those already evacuated to safety under the ARAP scheme or by other methods will be transferred into the resettlement scheme to meet the 20,000 target.
The Minister said earlier in the House that British nationals evacuated from Afghanistan should and would receive a level of support for the trauma they experienced during the evacuation. I agree, but that support should be given outside of the resettlement scheme. The Minister went on to say that the Government have
“now granted the first people indefinite leave to remain under the ACRS”
and that that included British nationals evacuated from Afghanistan. Is the Minister really saying that British nationals, who have a special status, are being included in the resettlement scheme to the detriment of Afghans who are not British citizens? What is the point of the resettlement scheme if it is not wholeheartedly meant for them? This would be a serious breach of trust, and we will not support any watering down and bodged counting that undermines our moral commitment to the Afghan people.
When the Minister responds, I hope she can clear up the confusion emanating from the Home Office. I hope she can give a clear commitment that the resettlement scheme will be meant for those in the here and now still suffering under the Taliban. Can she please confirm that the Treasury will fully fund the resettlement scheme to ensure that those 20,000 places are filled with Afghans who are not already protected by ARAP or other schemes? Can she also confirm that there will be family reunion provisions that work for those families separated from each other during the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport, so that they do not ultimately have to end up in dangerous dinghies crossing the freezing English channel to be reunited with their families? This matters not just to those desperately seeking safety, but also to our country’s international reputation.
Our country has a proud history of providing a safe haven to those fleeing persecution. Any watering down of the resettlement scheme would be contrary to our most fundamental values of decency, honesty and fairness. That is why the Labour party believes that we should and can do better. The resettlement scheme, which is right in principle, must not be watered down or delayed any further.
It is also critical that the Government listen to the concerns that colleagues have raised here in the House about the operation of the scheme. Concerns were raised by the hon. Members for Strangford, for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and by other SNP colleagues. Concerns were also raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare). Members have real concerns and have been desperately trying to support those in dire circumstances in Afghanistan who are separated from their families and friends here in this country.
In conclusion, the bravery of our service personnel and Government officials who stayed on the ground in Kabul, at great personal risk during Operation Pitting, represented the very best of Britain. The Government must match their clear moral sense of purpose, do the right thing by the Afghan people, and without delay ensure a resettlement scheme of integrity—not watered down, not further delayed—that will genuinely help those left behind. If today has seen some welcome steps in the right direction, there are still some fundamental questions that the Minister needs to answer.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship on your first outing, Ms Ali? Well chaired, if I may make that observation. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate. I am terribly sorry that Government timing gave us a first outing this morning, but I hope he will forgive me. We very much wanted to make the announcement about the launch of this important scheme as quickly as possible so that the House was aware of it. He set out with great lucidity and understated emotion the awful experiences that many people continue to suffer in Afghanistan. “Worry” does not do justice to the terror that their family members and others feel about the experiences of people who are in the country. We understand the concerns, and the Government are trying everything we can to work with countries outside of Afghanistan to try to find safe routes. I will come on to that in a moment.
In today’s statement I referred to the three pathways that would operate under the ACRS. The first includes those who are already evacuated and in the UK, including women’s rights activists, journalists and prosecutors, as well as the Afghan families of British nationals. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), whom I also welcome to his place, asked me to clarify that. In fairness, we have said this throughout. Paragraph 25 of the statement of 13 September stated that
“some of those who arrived in the UK under the evacuation programme, which included individuals who were considered to be at particular risk…will be resettled under the ACRS.”
I know how it was presented in the press over Christmas, but we have always wanted to support those who have already been evacuated here. They faced risks and were therefore evacuated over.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington also asked about the funding of British nationals and British national families. British nationals sit outside ARAP and the ACRS. We are none the less supporting them, given the circumstances of their eligibility. However, we are not permitted under an Act from 2002—I think it is an Act from 2002—to include them in the ACRS, and we would not attempt to do so. Their families, however, who are not British, who are Afghan or other nationalities, we will support under the ACRS. We recognise that if they were evacuated in Kabul in those very difficult circumstances, as I said in the statement, we want to support them and recognise the needs that they have.
There is detail on the definition of British nationals. I do not have time to go into that now, but documents will be produced in due course so that colleagues understand the definition of a British national under the support. It is such a huge scheme that we will, I am afraid at some point, have to draw a line in the sand as to the treatment and support. I flag that because I know colleagues are concerned about it.
We also announced the two other referral pathways, including the UNHCR route. I listened carefully to the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) about historical concerns over certain elements of UNHCR programmes. I will task officials to look specifically at that. She will of course know that, through our third pathway—civil society—we hope to include people who have perhaps not been caught under previous schemes. I am happy to meet her to discuss that. The third pathway covers those who are at risk and who supported the UK and international community efforts in Afghanistan, including those who are particularly vulnerable.
Colleagues from across the House have asked many questions over preceding months about British Council contractors, Chevening alumni and so on. We have outlined our plans to honour those commitments to those who are at risk in those three groups, including staff from GardaWorld. Because this is an unprecedented scheme, we want to continue working over the next year with international organisations and NGOs in order to develop it in year two, drawing learning not only from our own experiences but from other countries that are attempting to look after Afghans as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) was absolutely right, and I applaud him for his comments on the wonderful diversity of our great nation in the 21st century. He also made the point about relationships with other countries in the region. He is absolutely right that we have to manage our relationships and treat those countries in the region, which face their own pressures, with enormous respect, and that we should work together to ensure that we are able, as an international community, to look after the most vulnerable. As I said in my statement to the House, we are working closely with countries in the region to find safe routes. I also said that the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), recently visited the region to see what more can be done. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) asked for more details. As I said in the main Chamber, I am afraid I cannot share those details with the House—I am told that they are classified—but we are working with a wide range of allies and partners and genuinely exploring every avenue. I hope that gives a little more context to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), as I appreciate her point about wanting to help constituents with their queries.
I am so grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who set out some really important details about not only some of the most senior judges, as she correctly identified in both her contributions today, but those on a more regional basis. I regret having to acknowledge that we do not have an unlimited ability to settle people, but I very much welcome her indication of looking for ways to encourage other countries to help us all in this cause of looking after such judges. I very much look forward to meeting her, as I promised earlier, to discuss that.
The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead asked specifically about British nationals. Again, it is very detailed, but eligible British nationals are those in need of housing and integration support who were evacuated from Afghanistan by the UK military, other NATO countries or a regional state during Operation Pitting, or who were assisted by Her Majesty’s Government to leave Afghanistan after Pitting, with that assistance commencing before today and their having entered bridging accommodation or presented as homeless to a council. I hope I have dealt with the point in relation to their families. We very much want to continue caring for them and working with them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised the community sponsorship scheme. The example of Canada is really encouraging. I love the idea of local communities working together to welcome families into their midst. We have looked very carefully at the Canadian scheme as we have been looking to review and expand our own version of the scheme. I hope there will be announcements in due course on how we plan to expand the scheme, not just in the context of Afghan evacuees, but also the wider resettlement programme as set out under the new plan for immigration. I hope those will meet with her approval.
I have been asked questions about stories in the press. We all value an independent and robust press—of course we do—but I have been struck by how united the Government are in working together to look after people under Operation Warm Welcome, and also to try to assist those who are still left in country and in region. As I said at the start of my statement today, this work is genuinely across 10 Departments, and anyone who has ever served in Government knows that getting even a couple of Departments together to work can sometimes cause logistical issues, to put it politely.
I have a brilliant team of Ministers who are leading in their own Departments on all the different avenues of work. For example, the Minister for Employment is developing the jobs employment programme for our new Afghan citizens. My counterpart in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities responsible for homelessness is working with local councils to ensure that we are keeping up to date with them and working with them.
The Minister mentioned local authorities. One of the councils in my constituency, Greenwich, is still waiting for the promised £100,000 from the Government. It still has not received that money for the work it did to support Afghans who have come into the country—
I am rising quickly because I have a minute. I appreciate that concern and the hon. Lady is right to raise it. The funding instructions are in place. If there are particular issues, I will ask my officials to pursue matters with the chief executive to ensure that the relevant forms have been filled in and so on.
It is absolutely right that the House scrutinises our efforts, but this genuinely is a scheme that I think we will look back on with great pride in years to come. We will want to welcome every single person who has come to our country, not just since Pitting, but in the future, and really include them all in our constituencies and in being great members of our country.
First, I thank each and every one of the hon. Members for their poignant and helpful contributions. The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) put her case forward on behalf of her constituents. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) said that children need to be comfortable in the system—I think we are all trying to ensure that. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) spoke of the need for visa help. He is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) also talked about the visa system—if someone is in Pakistan, how do they get into the system? There are clearly things that need to be done.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) put forward some very good ideas. I look forward to whenever she meets with the Minister and we get the feedback. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred to the UNHCR criteria, which the Minister gave an undertaking to look at. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) referred to the need for a tangible scheme for going forward. That is what we are all after—a system where we can see that.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), referred to the strategy for the Afghans. We cannot let them down. For 20 years, we have given them the flavour of democracy. With that in mind, when we left, we left them without any of that. That is where I feel our obligation is.
I thank the Minister. I know the Minister is committed—I have never doubted it for a second. There have been some teething issues to draw out. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) made comments on behalf of 65 constituents, who have 400 friends and relatives. She is right: we need to be able to tell people what to do, and we welcome whatever the Minister can do to help us as we move forward.
We look forward to welcoming Afghan citizens to our constituencies, to jobs and housing and participation in our communities. We have done it before with Syrian refugees. We will do the same again with the Afghans when they come through.
I thank each and every Member for their contribution. It is at times like this that it feels good to be here working on behalf of people to make a change. That is what I believe we have done today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.