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Safe Asylum Routes: Afghan Refugees

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered safe asylum routes for Afghan refugees.

It was a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I declare a non-pecuniary interest: my daughter is the chief executive of the child refugee charity, Safe Passage.

I do not know what the Minister’s majority was at the last election, and I do not know what his strategy is for the next one, but I am sure that he does the math. So let us do the math on the Government’s promises to the people of Afghanistan. When the Government announced the ACRS—the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme—they said that they would provide safe passage for 20,000 people over the next four years at a rate of about 5,000 a year. Although the scheme was launched in January 2022, it effectively backdated itself to August ’21 and the Government said that they were going to count towards their quota all the people who had already been evacuated under Operation Pitting. That was pathway 1.

Since the first year, the number of Afghans arriving under the scheme has plummeted. Pathway 2 allocated 2,000 places. In the last full year to June, just 66 people had been resettled under pathway 2. Pathway 3 allocated 1,500 places, but only 41 were resettled under this pathway. According to my maths, that makes 5,000 promised, 3,500 allocated and 107 actually resettled. If the Minister’s election agent managed to get just 2% of the electorate and just 3% of the actual turnout to vote for him, I think he would sack that election agent because he certainly would not be sitting here.

In June last year, when pathway 3 of ACRS was launched, the Government said that they would prioritise certain groups over the next 12 months, so can the Minister tell the House how many of those 41 individuals were from those priority groups? How many had worked for the British Council? How many had worked for the GardaWorld contractors? How many were Chevening alumni, to whom this Government promised safe passage?

The Government also promised to extend the eligibility for this pathway to wider vulnerable groups in the second year, beginning in June 2023. It was mooted that that might include religious minorities and LGBTQ individuals, who face particular threat from the Taliban. Three and a half months into the second year, can the Minister tell the House why he has still not published the criteria for the wider eligibility? It is very difficult for someone to apply for a scheme when they do not know what the criteria are. In practice, it means that we recognise that there are many families that are unsafe and to whom we may have an obligation, but they still have no route to come to the UK safely. When will the Minister make a firm commitment to broadening the scope of pathway 3 and publish plans for the next stage?

If the Minister thought his majority was shaky when I compared it to the resettlement scheme, he ought to get even more jittery when I talk about the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. ARAP, according to data published by the Ministry of Defence, has received more than 141,000 applications. I will not embarrass the Minister by asking him to tell the House precisely how many Afghans managed to come to the UK and build a new life under the ARAP scheme in the 12 months to June this year. I will just tell him: it was 73—not 730, and not 7,300 out of the 141,000 applications. That at least would have been 5%. The Minister would not have lost his deposit. It was not 5%, not 0.5%, but 0.05%.

We should remember that we set up the ARAP scheme to honour our debt to Afghans who worked with our UK forces on the frontline: the interpreters, the people that the Taliban regard as traitors, who risked their lives working alongside us then and whose lives continue to be in mortal danger now. Some of them have been waiting for more than two years, regularly contacting the MOD to show their documentation, and having to flee into exile in another country to escape the Taliban, who are hounding them down. What can possibly be delaying the processing of those applications? The Minister knows that many category 1 applicants are currently in Pakistan, but the Pakistan Government are threatening to deport them back to Afghanistan. What plans does the Minister have to expedite those applications?

Let me digress, because I want to give the Minister a moment of relief. I want to praise the Government for the way in which they have handled the Ukrainian resettlement scheme. It has been swift and efficient and our country should feel proud of the support that we have given.

We managed to achieve that for our fleeing European neighbours, so why have we not been able to do the same for the Afghans to whom we owe such a debt of honour? The answer is simple. We had 540 Government staff working on the Homes for Ukraine scheme. A freedom of information request by the Afghan Pro Bono Initiative revealed that the number of full-time staff handling the ARAP scheme was just 36—do the math, Minister. Why are there 36 times as many people processing Ukrainian applications as there are Afghan ones? Category 1 of ARAP is for people who served alongside British forces and who are

“at high and imminent risk”.

They urgently need to be brought to safety, yet the Minister knows that only five people received a positive category 1 decision in the whole period between April 2021 and January 2023. That is one every four months.

Will the Minister update the House and say how many positive category 1 decisions have now been made? Will he also reflect on the prioritisation of staffing resources and explain why there is less allocated to those we deem to be in serious and imminent danger of retaliation and persecution in Afghanistan because of their allegiance to us than there is to the general refugees from Ukraine, for whom I have every sympathy, who are fleeing their country in a time of war? Let me be clear: I do not want the Ukrainians to get fewer resources; I want the Afghans to get as many. Will the Minister commit this afternoon to increasing the number of caseworkers on the ARAP scheme?

I turn to the issue of family reunion. When Afghans were evacuated to safety in the UK in August 2021, many families were separated. Those who were subsequently resettled under ACRS pathway 1 were promised that their family members would also be resettled under the scheme. In April last year, the Home Office stated that further information would be “made available soon”. I do not know what counts for “soon” on whichever planet the Home Office is on, but let me tell the Minister that here in Blighty, it ain’t 17 and a half months. The problem with pathway 1 is that it sounds great: “You have been granted indefinite leave to remain. You’re safe.” The problem is that even though someone thought they were a refugee, ILR does not confer access to refugee family reunion. Anyone applying under this route can simply be told that their application is rejected as invalid.

Families who have been separated in the most tragic circumstances, including parents who have not seen their children for more than two years, are waiting on the Government to simply do what they said they would do: publish a new mechanism to reunite them with their loved ones. Will the Minister commit this afternoon to a date when he will publish further information on how Afghans resettled under ACRS pathway 1 can bring their loved ones to safety?

I believe the Minister will have been briefed by his excellent officials that I am likely to bring up a specific case in the context of family reunion. It is the case of my constituent Mr Sayed Hassani, which I have spoken about before in the Chamber. Mr Hassani’s wife, four daughters, two sons and sister were called forward as part of Operation Pitting back in August 2021, but they were unable to board the plane as scheduled because of the explosion at Kabul airport.

The five women are living under constant fear. I say five because last year my constituent sent me a photograph of his 15-year-old daughter in her coffin. She had committed suicide for fear of being taken by the Taliban and raped in a forced marriage. But her three sisters, her brothers and their mother are still there with her aunt. The boys and one of the daughters were born after their father became a British citizen, and they therefore have a right to British citizenship and a British passport. The three other women have had to put themselves at enormous risk by travelling across the border to Pakistan, where they were eventually able to get their biometric data done. Mr Hassani just needs his family safe and together again. I have the details of the case and would like to give them directly to the Minister after the debate for his urgent attention.

I welcome the unsafe journey policy that the Government introduced to mitigate the fact that there is no visa application centre in Kabul, but it is not working, Minister. The standard of proof is too high, and many women and unaccompanied children face horrendous dangers when trying to leave Afghanistan and cross the border, simply to prove that they really are who they say they are. Will Minister commit this afternoon to reviewing the criteria of the unsafe journey policy and make sure that we are not putting some of the most vulnerable people at even greater risk?

We need safe and effective routes for people from Afghanistan. The thing about safe routes is that they undermine the business model of people traffickers. In 2019, before the UK pulled out of Afghanistan, just 69 Afghans crossed the English channel in small boats. In the first eight months of this year, the number of Afghans crossing the channel in small boats was 4,800—one in every five people crossing the channel. If the Government really do want to cut the number of small boat arrivals in the UK, they know how to do it. It is in the title of this debate: create safe asylum routes for Afghan refugees.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on securing the debate. I am grateful for his contribution, and I suspect that there will be some interventions from other interested right hon. and hon. Members. Clearly, 30 minutes is not long enough to do justice to a topic as complex and important as this, but I hope that I can provide some reassurance in my remarks and when answering interventions.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. As chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, I put on the record our thanks to the Prime Minister for his direct intervention in changing the guidance to allow contractors who are hiding from the Taliban in Afghanistan to continue their applications in the safety of a third country, typically Pakistan. I put it to the Minister that there is now a logjam not only because there is a shortage of houses in the UK to which to send people from Pakistan, but because the ACRS pathway 3 scheme has a quota of 1,500, which we are nearing. Can the Minister provide an assurance or update as to what the Government will do, from a housing point of view, to get those contractors to the UK as soon as possible? Can the Minister also undertake to lift the cap to allow those eligible under ACRS to come to the UK?

In a moment, I will come to the specific question around the numbers and how they relate to both British Council workers and GardaWorld employees. If time allows, I will come on to my hon. Friend’s question about the limiting factor of accommodation as well. Clearly, it is a significant challenge for us. The primary responsibility rests with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry of Defence in particular is responsible for bringing forward service family accommodation and ensuring that it is available and of a suitable quality, so that once families have been granted their visas, they can come to the UK safe in the knowledge that they will have somewhere to stay, rather than being housed in a hotel, which I think we all agree is an unsatisfactory way for anyone to live for a prolonged period and which we have consciously moved away from. My hon. Friend will have seen the effort to which the Government went in the first half of this year to close the hotels that were housing 8,000 Afghans who had arrived around the time of Operation Pitting.

The Minister will be aware of the case, which I brought to his and the Secretary of State’s attention, of the gentleman who worked in the British Army alongside one of my constituents. He had to leave Afghanistan and live under threat in Pakistan with his wife and four children. We are keen to get him back to Northern Ireland—to Newtownards, to be specific. There is a job and house waiting for him; all we have to do is get him there, because he served our country. I gently remind the Minister that we still await a successful outcome for that gentleman.

Let me make some progress, if I may, and I will return to those colleagues who wish to intervene. To address the hon. Member’s point, we sympathise deeply with the situation that many Afghans find themselves in, including those who are suffering because of their work in standing up for human rights and the rule of law, as well as those, such as women and girls and members of minority groups, who are facing wider persecution at the hands of the Taliban. Those are the reasons why we as a country have made the commitments that we have, and it is critical that we continue to deliver on those. The Government remain absolutely committed to the people of Afghanistan and the schemes that we established in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul.

Since June 2021, around 24,600 people affected by events in Afghanistan have been brought to safety in the UK. They include British nationals and their families, Afghans who loyally served the UK and others identified as particularly at risk, such as campaigners for women’s rights, human rights defenders, journalists, judges and members of the LGBT+ community. The number includes 7,000 individuals brought to safety after Operation Pitting. Because of the various ways in which cohorts are defined, detailed international comparisons have to be made with some caution, but on most measures the figure is significantly more than the numbers brought to safety by many of our European neighbours. I stress that this is not just about the number of Afghans who have arrived in the UK, but about the manner in which we support those people in order to integrate them into the United Kingdom and ensure that they can begin to establish themselves here and lead fulfilling lives.

I will finish this point and then I will give way, to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) first. All Afghans relocated to the UK through ACRS and the ARAP programme are immediately granted indefinite leave to remain, including the immediate right to work, alongside access to the benefits system, healthcare, education and employment support. I will give way to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, because she contacted my office before the debate.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. As he knows, I have a constituent who was instructed by the Government to make the dangerous journey, with his young family, to Pakistan for final checks, as he is eligible under ACRS pathway 3. They have been in Pakistan in one room—all of them in just one room—since May. Their documents are expiring. Pakistan has ordered Afghan asylum seekers out of the country by November, and this family are petrified that they will be sent back to Afghanistan in 13 days’ time. I am desperately raising this case. The Minister will know that I have used all kinds of ways to try to reach him to ask, please, whether something be done this week to ensure that this family are not sent back to real danger in Afghanistan in less than 13 days’ time.

The case that the hon. Lady raised was brought to my attention today, but I will certainly ensure that my officials look into it and revert to her with a full and proper answer. We are aware of the recent statements by the Government of Pakistan, which suggest their willingness to return some of those staying in Pakistan to Afghanistan. That is obviously a deeply concerning development and something that plays into all of our thoughts on how this scheme should operate in the days and weeks ahead.

I will in a moment. If I may, I will just finish this point. The Home Office is granting or rather is deciding visa cases every week, and those individuals will then have the ability to come to the UK, but clearly and understandably people want to come to the UK in the knowledge that accommodation is waiting for them and that they will be fully supported with the integration package. They are able, if they have had the decision made, to come to the UK, but what we need to do is to work with the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and local authorities to bring forward as much accommodation as possible, so that those individuals can make the journey to the UK knowing that the full package is available to them from the moment that they arrive. As I said in answer to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), none of us wants to see large numbers of individuals coming to the UK to languish in hotels for prolonged periods. I give way to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

I am incredibly grateful. I have in my constituency two children who came here under the UNHCR scheme. Both families went to Pakistan and were waiting to come here under the ACRS. One family has already returned to Afghanistan; and clearly, the other family is in danger of doing so. These are Hazara families at extreme risk, so what can the Minister say to give these families some comfort that they will be reunited with their children here in the UK?

We do have a family reunion policy. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Brent North feels that it is insufficient, but it has enabled more than 40,000 people to come to the UK to reunite with other refugees. I would be very happy to look into the specific case that the hon. Member for York Central raises. I know that she raises it in a sincere way on behalf of her constituents and she is clearly very concerned.

As time is short, let me answer more specifically some of the other questions that were raised by speaking to the pathways that underlie the scheme. On pathway 1 specifically, we recognise the challenges of the evacuation, which caused families to be split, and are working to establish a route to address this. Once in operation, this will allow eligible individuals to refer one spouse or partner and dependent child for resettlement. We are working to get the route operational as quickly as possible, and I can say that we expect to receive referrals in the first half of 2024 if not sooner.

I will answer, if I may, my hon. Friend’s first question. On pathway 3, I am pleased to share that we will now consider for resettlement all eligible, at-risk British Council and GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni who expressed interest during the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s window of opportunity. This means that the Government will exceed the original allocation of 1,500 places for the first stage of ACRS pathway 3. These are individuals who directly supported the efforts of the UK and the international community in Afghanistan. It is important to ensure that all those who are eligible, at risk, and remain in Afghanistan and the region, are able to reach safety in the UK. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will shortly contact all remaining individuals assessed as “eligible in principle” under the first stage of ACRS pathway 3 with advice on their next steps. We remain committed to honouring our commitments under these schemes, including, where capacity allows, working with international partners and non-governmental organisations to welcome wider groups under the second stage of pathway 3. I hope that answers my hon. Friend’s question.

I thank the Minister for that. It is excellent news that the quota system has now been pushed to one side for those individuals that he specified. I suggest to him, however, that there is still a sense of urgency. If people are stuck in Pakistan and cannot get over to the UK, with Pakistan suggesting that it is going to repatriate back to Afghanistan, there may still be a big problem. Will the Minister confirm that he will look at this as a matter of urgency? We need to cut through the red tape and help these people who helped this country.

I can assure my hon. Friend, and indeed all right hon. and hon. Members here, that we are considering that with great urgency. Those who are in Pakistan are supported by the British Government, or by partner organisations such as the International Organisation for Migration, which will provide them with accommodation, food and support. I appreciate, however, that those conditions are not desirable, and the recent statements by the Pakistan Government are concerning. That is why we are looking again at what more we might be able to do. I will give way one more time.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On pathway 1, regarding those who had been separated during Operation Pitting, he said that a spouse and a dependent child would be able to come to the UK. Where there is a non-dependent child, or more than one—I think he said one—dependent child, is the Minister really now saying that those smaller families in Afghanistan who had been called under Operation Pitting, that perhaps because of the explosion were not able to get to the UK in safety, are now going to be divided yet further and separated yet further? Surely, that cannot be what he meant.

No, I think the hon. Gentleman misheard me. I am happy to restate for the record that, once in operation, this will allow eligible individuals to refer one spouse or partner, and dependent children, for resettlement. There is no suggestion of splitting up children from their parents.

On the question of non-dependent children, that is not in our proposal, but I am happy to revert to the hon. Gentleman with more detail on that.

Colleagues have covered many of the points I was going to make, but I want to ask a question just specifically on that point. My office has received many stories similar to those of hon. Members here about people in horrendous situations. Particularly on ACRS pathway 1, it would be very helpful if the Minister were able to publish some more guidance that offices can use. My understanding was that, under ACRS pathway 1, people cannot access the refugee family reunion procedure, so there is then a danger that if they apply, the application will be rejected as invalid. We do not want to advise them to do that then be deemed invalid, when actually we know from what the Minister has said today that there should be a pathway for family members to come to the UK safely. Some guidance on this from the Minister would be so helpful for all of our offices, if that is possible.

I will be very happy to do that. I appreciate that all those represented here today, and in fact most Members of this House, are working with constituents in this situation. I will instruct my officials to review the information that we have available and send it to the hon. Gentleman and other interested Members. If he feels it is insufficient, then he should please give us guidance.

One of the questions at the heart of this debate is our ability to house people satisfactorily here in the UK. With the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, we worked intensively over the first half of this year to ensure that almost all individuals in the Afghan bridging hotels were moved on into settled accommodation. The remaining individuals are in pre-matched situations where they are awaiting their property becoming available, so will swiftly move out of that accommodation. That is a success, but we need to ensure that we do not find ourselves in that situation again. It is for that reason that we have exercised a degree of caution in bringing individuals to the UK without accommodation available.

We want to work with as many local authorities as possible to find further homes that we can then match with families in Pakistan awaiting entry to the United Kingdom. We all appreciate the pressures on local authorities: their own housing lists for the domestic population; handling Homes for Ukraine, the Syrian scheme and the Hong Kong scheme; and the consequences of illegal migration. Together, those factors make it an extremely challenging period for them. Since 2015, we have welcomed 530,000 people into our country on humanitarian grounds—more than at any time in our modern history—and much of that pressure lies with local authorities. That does not mean we should prevent individuals from coming to the United Kingdom. We need to work intensively with local authorities to bring forward more properties swiftly.

A further avenue is to ensure that service family accommodation units are brought up to scratch, made available and matched with individuals and their families in Pakistan, or indeed in Afghanistan. Understandably, the Ministry of Defence is leading that work, and we are doing everything we can to encourage them to bring forward their hundreds of properties very swiftly.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I know he is very keen, and this was his debate. Then I must wrap up.

Will the Minister address the mismatch in staffing resource? It seems disproportionate that there were 540 staff working on the Ukraine scheme and there are 36 on the Afghan scheme. I do not want in any way to downplay the Ukraine scheme—it has been a great success. However, we need to see similar priority given to the Afghans.

I would be happy to take away the hon. Gentleman’s comment and consider it. In my experience, the challenges he has described in this debate are not primarily related to the number of caseworkers dealing with individual cases. The biggest challenge facing the UK on this issue is the availability of accommodation. The more homes we are able to bring forward—whether that be by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities procuring homes under the schemes they have available, the Ministry of Defence bringing forward service family accommodation, or each of our own local authorities bringing forward accommodation—the more families we will be able to bring into the UK with ease. The alternatives are for individuals to wait in Pakistan, to come to the United Kingdom of their own volition, having had their case decided by the Home Office, which is happening at significant pace, or to come and spend time in contingency accommodation. Our recent experience with that was not positive and I would be loth to return to it, although we do not rule it out.

I will bring my remarks to a close by thanking the hon. Member for Brent North for securing the debate, and all those who have contributed. I appreciate that 30 minutes is too short to address all the questions hon. Members have on this issue. The Government believe that the UK has a generous offer to those affected by events in Afghanistan, and we are delivering on that offer. That is most clearly demonstrated by the fact that 24,600 people are now beginning their new lives here, and that more will follow. We remain committed to our Afghan schemes, but we need to deliver those commitments in an orderly manner. That is the duty of a Government, and it is also what the public expects. We can only welcome, support and accommodate individuals arriving under our safe and legal routes as part of a sustainable and well-managed immigration scheme in partnership with others, in particular the local authorities who have to support those individuals and their families.

Finally, I call on all Members to support our Afghan schemes, work with their local councils, and support the work we are doing under the Illegal Migration Act 2023 to consult with local authorities on their capacity to take further individuals. That consultation will be published soon.

Question put and agreed to.