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Pakistan: Evacuation of Afghans

Volume 740: debated on Wednesday 8 November 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on the evacuation of Afghans from Pakistan.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question.

The Government have reacted decisively and swiftly to relocate people to safety in the United Kingdom following the collapse of Afghanistan the year before last. The UK Government remain committed to relocating eligible Afghans and their families under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and we will continue to honour that promise. The Government’s policy, rightly, was to ensure that eligible Afghan families had secured accommodation in the UK before travel was facilitated for their relocation. We wanted to give them the best possible start to their new lives, to provide the best value for money for the taxpayer, and to ensure Afghans were integrated into UK society in the best manner available.

However, developments in the region have impacted our security assessments and previous assumptions. That has led to the Government’s removing the need for settled accommodation for individuals eligible under ARAP prior to relocation to the United Kingdom. The safety and security of ARAP-eligible Afghans has always been of paramount importance and we make no apology at all for changing the policy to react to the changing context.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence continue to work to ensure that eligible individuals under the ARAP and the ACR scheme are supported in Pakistan. The safety and security of ARAP and ACRS-eligible Afghans is paramount in our minds. The MOD continues to monitor the security assessments in that country, but following this cross-Government decision the Prime Minister has asked me to co-ordinate across Government to support the MOD in developing a new relocations plan for ARAP-eligible persons. As Members know, previously the policy was that only those who had secured accommodation in the United Kingdom would travel to the United Kingdom. We are changing that policy as a result of changing conditions on the ground.

The MOD has worked hard to stand up a total of more than 700 service family accommodations for mixed purposes, or transitory and settled accommodation. I pay tribute to the Minister for Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), for his work on that. Our new plans will see approximately 2,800 ARAP-entitled personnel moved from Pakistan to the United Kingdom by the end of December 2023. Entitled personnel may move straight into settled accommodation on the MOD. Where service family accommodation is unavailable, families will move into transitional accommodation as a first step. Where SFA is not suited to the needs of ARAP-entitled personnel, alternative accommodation will be procured.

This Prime Minister and this Government are determined to see through our commitments to those who served with the UK forces in Afghanistan. I commend this statement to the House.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.

I am afraid that the Minister’s answer gives no reassurance whatsoever to constituents who have contacted me in a state of extreme panic over the last few weeks. Members have had no information on what is currently happening. It has been clear for some time that Pakistan aims to expel Afghans, who went there for safety, back to Afghanistan. I have been trying to get clarity on how many people there are in Pakistan to whom we have a duty and an obligation, and who are waiting for the UK Government simply to process their paperwork so that they can leave and come to their families here in the UK. I have not had those answers from the Minister.

One constituent contacted me whose sister and her five children have been threatened with imprisonment in Pakistan if they do not leave. Her other family members—her parents, her brother and her cousin—have been returned to Afghanistan, and she cannot contact them. She does not know where they are or what has happened to them. Given that they fled from the Taliban in the first place, she is terrified for them. She has been given very unclear advice by UK officials in Pakistan on what exactly they are entitled to and whether they will be able to get on a flight at all.

Another constituent, a gentleman, contacted me on 25 October after seeing the news that there will be charter flights from Pakistan carrying Afghans who have been processed. He has been trying to get answers on the status of his family, including whether they have a valid application, whether they can get on a plane and whether they can come to safety with him. He was stuck there with his family at the fall of Afghanistan, and he is extremely distressed about the situation. Again, I have been asking questions of various Departments and have had no answers whatsoever. What advice should I give to my constituent?

There have been no updates to MPs, despite there being reports in the news of charter flights and of people coming. We have also heard on the news that people in Islamabad—people who are entitled—have been warned by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to hide indoors. The British high commission has apparently warned people in hotels in Islamabad not to go outside due to the risk of arrest and deportation, so who is eligible for these charter flight? Is it people on the ARAP and ACRS schemes, people with valid family reunion paperwork or people who are still waiting for their paperwork to be done? We do not know, and I have families in my constituency with four of five members who have been processed and one who has been left behind. Can the Minister tell us exactly how many people in Pakistan are waiting for the UK Government to process their paperwork so that they can finally come to safety? We have a duty to these Afghans, and we are failing them yet again.

I must be completely clear to the House that this is not an issue of delayed paperwork. Afghanistan collapsed, and the UK conducted Operation Pitting to retrieve Afghans from Kabul and bring them to the UK. They went into hotel accommodation because we did not have enough housing. That was the right thing to do at the time.

Since then, it has become clear that it is entirely unsuitable for these families to be in hotel accommodation for long periods of time. They were therefore held in Pakistan, and rightly so. The situation in Pakistan has now changed, and we will now accelerate the process and get them into SFA accommodation in the UK so that we meet our duties.

I do not want to see anybody detained or deported from Pakistan if they are entitled to be in the United Kingdom, and I will work to achieve that outcome. I caution against spreading rumours of things that I am not seeing on the ground. It is an extremely challenging environment but, ultimately, we have a commitment to these people and I am determined to see it through.

On the Afghan population in hotels, I have heard the same questions, demands and allegations that we would not be successful before, but we were. I hear the hon. Lady’s questions, but the situation has changed. We have now changed our response, and we will relocate these people back to the United Kingdom.

It is reassuring to hear that this is not a paperwork issue, because it has now been more than two years since the fateful airlift. It was also particularly problematic to find accommodation for Afghan families because they tended to be large families and the accommodation was not available.

I am more worried about the change of policy in Pakistan and the influences on and within the Pakistani Government. What conversations are Ministers having with the Pakistani Government about the aid we pay to Pakistan, some of which is to cover the many Afghan refugees who fled into Pakistan, to keep them safe and out of danger until we can take those to whom we have a duty? Surely that should be a subject of conversations with the Pakistani Government.

My hon. Friend is right that those conversations are paramount in our mind, given the shift in policy from the Pakistani Government towards Afghans. We are driving through protection for those to whom we have a duty, where they have been approved to come to the UK. We must ensure that we continue our existing agreements with Pakistan, and the Foreign Office is working hard to do that. Now that we have an accelerated plan, I hope that those in Pakistan who are eligible to be in the UK are protected from any of those policies, that we look after them and that we bring them back to the UK, as has been our promise from the start.

We owe many Afghans a debt of gratitude for supporting British aims in Afghanistan. In the summer and autumn of 2021, the UK Government rightly promised to honour that debt by offering those Afghans resettlement in the UK. However, the Government’s Operation Warm Welcome fast became “Operation Cold Shoulder”. Of those Afghans who made it to Britain, 8,000 were crammed into hotels over a two-year period. They were then evicted, without consultation with local authorities, leaving many Afghan families facing homelessness this winter.

Worse, the Prime Minister last November personally gave instructions to Ministers that no more flights should be chartered from Pakistan to bring Afghans who have a right to resettlement here to the UK, despite more than 3,000 Afghan refugees being stuck in hotels in Pakistan, when the British Government had promised those very individuals refuge in the UK through the ARAP and ACRS.

Keeping those loyal-to-Britain Afghans in limbo was shameful enough, but even more disgracefully the Prime Minister changed tack only when the Pakistani Government started threatening to send those loyal-to-Britain Afghans back to Afghanistan to meet their fate at the hands of the Taliban. In short, the Government of Pakistan have strong-armed our weak Prime Minister into delivering something that it was our duty as a country to deliver in the first place. That is a truly shameful and humiliating state of affairs.

What we now need to know from the Minister is: how many flights has he chartered? When will they be running from and until? What assurance has he received from the Pakistani Government that they will extend the deadline for Afghans who are to be expelled back into Afghanistan until after all the UK flights have been completed? Are the Government aware of any cases of Afghans eligible under ARAP or ACRS who have been forcibly returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan? If so, what steps are the Government taking to bring those people to safety as a matter of urgency? Finally, what progress has he made on clearing the record high asylum backlog and securing accommodation for these Afghans, whom we desperately need to get out of Pakistan as rapidly and urgently as possible?

It is hard to take the hon. Gentleman seriously when he comes out with statements that are demonstrably untrue; I know that he would not want to mislead the House, but he mentions engaging local authorities and I literally drove round engaging them. As he well knows, this stuff is not correct. Having served in Afghanistan and, during the summer, having driven round every hotel to visit Afghans personally to ensure that none of them slept homeless and that we saw through our duty, I will take no lessons from anybody about how we feel towards this Afghan cohort. Clearly, I will not go into the details of which flights are taking off when.

This Prime Minister and this Government are clear that as the situation has changed we are seeking to get guarantees from the Pakistan Government that those entitled to be here will not be deported from that country. If that does happen, the hon. Gentleman will be able to recall me to this House and I will have failed, but that is not going to happen. This is much like my promise on homelessness; he spent the entire summer saying that something would come to fruition but, again, it never did. On this side of the House we have to govern in the real space, where we deal with operational decisions on a daily basis; we cannot whip ourselves into a lather to try to score points off some of the poorest people in the world. We are determined to see through our commitments to the people of Afghanistan and I look forward to his working with me in that pursuit.

The situation with Pakistan expelling more than 1.5 million Afghan people from its borders is deeply worrying. I am glad that the Veterans Minister is here today and is going to focus on the very small number of people who may be entitled to come to the UK—it will be just a few thousand. Many hundreds of thousands face the threat of needing to go back into Afghanistan, into the hands of the Taliban, where the economy is in a dreadful position and the country is reeling from the earthquake. These people fear for their lives. What representations are the Foreign Office and our allies making to the Pakistan Government to ask them to think again? What support are we giving to those stuck in a humanitarian crisis on the border?

I will be honest with my hon. right hon. Friend that there are clear distinctions in my role to deal with those who were in Pakistan who are entitled to be in the United Kingdom. Wider Pakistan engagement is a job for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which is busily engaged in that. My priority is to ensure that those who are entitled to be in the UK—those who have been approved to come to the United Kingdom—are not subject to wider Pakistan policy in Afghanistan, but that wider policy is being influenced by the Foreign Office, which is working on that every day. The situation has changed and we are reconfiguring ourselves to deal with that, to ensure that we honour our promises to people.

Although I welcome the decision, may I say to the Minister that it would have been much better to tell the House about it in a statement rather than an urgent question? We all know the huge pressures on accommodation in the United Kingdom and on local councils, so can the Minister say what engagement has taken place with local councils? What does “transitional accommodation” mean and how does it fit with the Home Office policy of not using hotels?

The policy of not using hotels is absolutely right and remains. In the summer, there was a huge effort to try to remove that barrier to settling into the United Kingdom and the policy remains. However, in extremis, that will not be a barrier to people coming to the UK where they are at risk of deportation. We are going to keep those people safe. As we speak, we are working up our policy on how to ensure that we integrate this cohort, much as we did in the summer. Discussions with different Departments are ongoing. When we have agreed the policy, I will come to the House to share it with everybody. I hope it will be along similar lines to previous policy, but it requires collective agreement. We will work hard and go around the houses to ensure that the Afghan families who are in Pakistan but entitled to be here are given every opportunity to settle in the UK. We have a good record on this and I am determined to keep that going.

As the Minister will know, it was my pleasure to work on the removals around Operation Pitting with colleagues from the Ministry of Defence and the FCDO. I welcome the steps that the Minister has taken to finally move many of those people out of hotels. It is no secret that, back in late 2021, I expressed concerns about just putting people into hotels and hoping offers of accommodation would come forward. Anyone with any knowledge of housing supply knew that the size of the families involved meant that would take some time, so I congratulate him on what he did this summer. Will he reassure me that we are thinking through what would be suitable family accommodation for the people we are bringing into this country, and that we will not just be sticking people in hotels intended for businessmen to stay in for a couple of nights rather than for families to live in for months? What type of accommodation does he have in mind for this cohort?

We will divide up the cohort. Some of the families are exceptionally large and not what we are used to in this country. To deal with that, the funding was designed specifically so that we could do really pioneering work, such as knocking through adjoining properties to create properties big enough for Afghan families. There is a challenge with large Afghan families, but they are not the majority of the cohort. We can accommodate the majority of the cohort in service family accommodation, but where we cannot do that I am hoping to design schemes that will allow us to use funding in a flexible manner, to ensure that these people are accommodated correctly, in line with the promises we have made to the people of Afghanistan.

There are still outstanding issues with regard to the processing of Afghan cases here and I want to use this occasion to make a special plea to the Minister. I have a constituent who is a former senator in Afghanistan. The processing of his case is still being delayed, partly because of some problems about location that we have tried to deal with. I met him this week and I think he now has serious mental health problems as a result of the stress he is under. I will write again to the Minister and I would welcome his personal attention on this case.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman and to all hon. Members who have personal cases to email me as I am happy to take them over. I have been brought in very recently and I will do what I can to get answers in those cases. A lot of cases are not simple—they are not black and white. As everybody across the House knows, I will always be honest about the challenges and we will do everything that we can to look after these people.

In the interests of impartiality, I will quote from The Guardian, which puts the figure of Afghans currently stranded in UK-funded hotels in Islamabad at 3,000. Indeed, according to reports, those hotels have been raided by Pakistani authorities. What assessment does the Minister make of that figure and of what has been happening? Furthermore, what discussions has he been having with our high commissioner in Pakistan and his opposite number in the Pakistani Government?

This is a cross-Government effort, so people from the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office are in contact with the high commissioner in Pakistan every day. We are well aware of this challenge. There are two separate issues here: one is the wider Pakistani policy towards Afghans, which is not part of my work in this space; and the other is that being applied to those who are entitled to be in the UK and have been pre-approved to be in the UK. It is the latter that I am concerned about. We are determined to get assurances on them and we will keep working until we do. I have already made a commitment that if a single one of them is deported back whence they came, I will have failed, but we will make sure that does not happen.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on securing this urgent question, particularly as it has given us some clarity today. The Minister has talked about accommodation. What I am hearing from my country contacts through the all-party parliamentary group on Afghan women and girls is that the focus seems to be on families, and that only families are being evacuated. That means that single women, many of whom have worked in politics and teaching, and those from the LGBT+ community are feeling particularly vulnerable, and they are most at risk of reprisals if they are deported back to Afghanistan. Can the Minister clarify what is happening for those single applicants?

There is no de-prioritising of single applicants. Often they are easier to reintegrate and to accommodate in the United Kingdom because they are not a wider family. There are lots of stories going around the people in this cohort because they are very scared and vulnerable. Obviously, the hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this with me, but that is not something that I have seen. None the less, I will go back and look for it.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group for Hazaras and, since the Taliban took over, Hazaras in particular face increasing risk of targeted killings, discrimination and persecution. What specifically are the UK Government doing to help the Hazaras stranded in Afghanistan so that they can resettle in a third country, or indeed in the UK, and start a better life?

I completely recognise my hon. Friend’s passion in this space, but I have to be disciplined about what is in my remit and what is not. That is a question for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and I know that it is engaged on that issue. The Foreign Secretary will have heard his question today. If not, I will make sure that he has seen those remarks and that my hon. Friend gets an answer.

I am assuming from what the Minister is saying that, since this egregious change in policy, he and his colleagues in Government are having regular discussions with the Government in Pakistan. During those discussions, have he and others sought any assurances that people in Pakistan who have live applications to come to Britain will not be deported back to Afghanistan?

The entire strategic objective that we are trying to achieve is to make sure that those who are entitled to be in the UK, who have served with UK forces, who are part of the ACRS pathway and who are part of the cohort that we are talking about are not deported back to Afghanistan. We are working night and day to get those assurances. I am determined that we will get them and that we will look after those people properly.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and the work that he has done on this topic over the past few years, but I am trying to understand the resources that he has available to him. It would be helpful if he could update the House on that point. May I also ask whether any proportion of the aid budget is likely to be allocated to him for this specific issue?

At this moment, funding on this issue has not been agreed. Certainly, when I was doing this programme in the summer and clearing the hotels, the budget and resources were not a constraint. We had a bumpy start and the task was challenging, but we got there in the end: all those hotels were cleared and people were put into accommodation. The Prime Minister is committed to that, and I know that we will do the same over the next few months.

I have raised before in this Chamber the case of a very talented Afghan man who worked for the British Geological Survey, which has a base in my constituency. He fled to Pakistan with his daughters, fearing for their lives, but now he has lost all hope. He was accepted for Pitting but did not make it to the airport, yet he has been cruelly rejected for ARAP, despite having worked for a Department for International Development project. He kept the British team safe in Afghanistan, and I want to know why we cannot include him and his daughters in the evacuation, before he is handed over to the Taliban.

To be candid with the hon. and learned Member, I am happy for her to write to me about this case, but staff and civil servants are dealing every day with heartbreaking cases of people who fall either side of the line, and there is no deliberate decision to exclude anybody. We are trying as best we can in an incredibly difficult environment to respond to the applications and ensure that those who are eligible to be in the United Kingdom are here. If that individual is eligible for the ARAP scheme, that scheme is still open and he must apply to it. I am aware that some in the 333 and 444 communities in Afghanistan have been rejected and they are not entirely sure why. We are re-engaging in that process to ensure that it has integrity, and I am happy to look at the hon. and learned Member’s case again.

Just 66 people have been resettled in the UK under ACRS pathway 2, and eligible applicants who have the support of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan are still waiting for their paperwork to be processed, including the mother and brothers of a constituent of mine, a courageous female journalist who has been granted asylum. Their lives are at demonstrable risk from the Taliban and they now face the horror of deportation. I have written to the Home Office repeatedly about this case. They meet all the criteria. They would have a place to live if they were able to reach here. Will the Minister meet me about this case to see what can be done?

Sure. There are three different pathways to ACRS, and clearly some of them are larger than others. The latest immigration statistics show that by the end of June, 9,800 people had been granted settled status under ACRS. I accept that there are pathways where we could do more in this space, but the idea that we have only relocated about 60 people is not chiming with the data that I see every day. I want to ensure that everyone who is entitled to be here is here. I will go out and make the case for who is entitled and who is not, and we will do everything we can to ensure that those who are eligible are here. I am happy for the hon. Member to write to me about that case, and I will look at it personally.

Let me try the Minister with this one, because he says that he wants to ensure that no one who is entitled to be in the UK is deported. My constituent is a British citizen whose children and wife are currently in Pakistan, threatened with deportation to Afghanistan. They were invited to the Baron Hotel. An explosion meant that they were unable to get there. Mr Ullah is terrified because he worked with the allied forces, but because he is a UK citizen his family are not eligible under either ARAP or ACRS. Family reunion visas would cost more than £20,000. Return to Afghanistan means certain danger. He is penalised by his status as one of our citizens. In the light of his bravery and service to our armed forces, will the Minister use the budget that he says is not a problem to waive those fees and bring Mr Ullah’s family here to safety?

Immigration policy in this country is very clear, and the immigration policy outside ACRS and ARAP, which are what I have been asked specifically to deal with, is a matter for the Home Office, as the hon. Member knows. I recognise her question—I genuinely do—but it is a question on immigration policy for the Home Office. I will work night and day to ensure that everyone who is eligible under ARAP and ACRS is returned to the United Kingdom, in line with our promises.

The Minister has said a number of times that the Government have sought assurances from the Pakistani authorities that they will not target those Afghans who are eligible to come here. Has he received such assurances? If not, and if he does not, what is he going to do about it?

I can confirm that I have received verbal assurances from the Pakistani authorities that those individuals are not going to be deported. I have to work night and day to ensure that that line is held, and I have made it clear to this House and to the country that we do not want to see any one of them deported. As I have said to the right hon. Member, and to others, I do not want to see that line crossed. If it is, I will return to the House and make a statement on it.

The Hazari family of my constituent, a minor brought here under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees scheme, have had to flee Afghanistan and they have been waiting and waiting for their ACRS application to be processed. When can they expect that to happen, and when can they expect to be brought safely to the UK?

I obviously cannot comment on an individual case, but if the hon. Lady writes to me today, I will personally look at her case and write back to her.

I am glad that the Government are now acting on Afghans who have been in limbo for a number of years in Pakistan—an issue I raised with the Minister on 19 September. May I ask about the service family accommodation that he is intending to use for those Afghans? We know that there is a real crisis in the quality of service family accommodation, so can he guarantee that none of the service family accommodation that the Ministry of Defence is providing will have broken boilers, leaky roofs or black mould, which plague so much SFA that we have put our troops and their families in?

This Government have put £400 million of extra spending into SFA; I recognise the problems with the quality of that SFA, which have been a challenge over many years. I do not want anybody coming back into the UK and living in service family accommodation that is not suitable for them. The Ministry of Defence is bending over backwards, as is my right hon. Friend the Minister for Armed Forces, to ensure that this stuff is online and suitable. Investment is going in, but I am determined that individuals will live in housing that is suitable for them, and I will personally be visiting them to make sure that they are.

I have been trying to get a group of interpreters trained by the University of Leeds from Pakistan to here for the last two years. It would be useful if the Minister could let me know who is eligible for the flights and how they will be contacted. The Minister also said that he had visited every hotel in the country. I have a hotel in my constituency and I do not remember him informing me that he was coming, but I would welcome him coming to that hotel, because everybody now has to be in a shared room and the facilities are not good.

I would be interested to learn which hotel that is, because I do not want to see people in shared rooms, so I will speak to the hon. Gentleman after this urgent question. If he writes to me with the specific details of those interpreters, I will assess his case and determine which pathway is best to apply for and their certain eligibility to do so. However, I am particularly interested in the hotel and, if that situation is ongoing today, I will sort it out.

I have been contacted by multiple constituents who arrived in the UK via the ARAP scheme. They are extremely worried about their relatives, the hardship they have experienced and the threat of danger with the recent events in Pakistan. These cases range from somebody who worked for the British armed forces for eight years, a family member who is pregnant and has two children, and a judge who has previously imprisoned members of the Taliban. Will the Minister agree to look at those cases, and will he also say whether he has the resources to resolve these matters urgently?

I will look at every case. There is no policy decision to block those who are entitled to be in the UK from being in the UK. Many of us take this personally, and we will see this duty through. Of course I will look at every case and ensure that a decision is made fairly. There are individuals in the Ministry of Defence who are under extreme pressure and working incredibly hard to try to meet this challenge. It is very difficult. I am more than happy to look at cases again, but I do not want people to go away thinking that there is some blanket decision to reject these applicants and not to allow them the protections we promised then. That is categorically not the case and I am more than happy to look at individual situations.

My constituent’s parents fled Afghanistan for Pakistan. On appeal, they were granted adult dependent relative visas to join their family here, but before that decision was made, their Pakistan visa expired and they were forced to return to Afghanistan. Due to their being Hazaras, the fear of travel, their disabilities and medical needs, and the policy of the Pakistan Government, they cannot return to Pakistan to collect their paperwork to travel to the UK. Will the Government consider issuing some form of digital visa or travel document, so that they can fly to the UK and join their family here?

I am more than happy, as I have said, to look at individual cases. We are dealing with competing pressures here of UK visas and Pakistan visas running out, but I can only reiterate what I have said: where there is a duty to these people, we will see it through, and I will work night and day to achieve that endeavour.

I thank the Minister for his answers to our questions. Last time, I asked him about a specific family, and we sent the information through. I want to reinforce the point about the forced deportation of that gentleman and his family, who are also Hazaras. In his job, he assisted the British Army for seven to eight years. For 18 months, I have been endeavouring to get them into the United Kingdom because of the risk of harm to them as targeted attacks continue. Just this morning, it has been reported that there was an attack on a bus taking people from Pakistan back into Afghanistan—it was blown up. The danger is clear—for me, anyway; I see it very simply. This cannot continue for that gentleman, his wife and their four children. We have a job for them, a house for them and a future for them. We just need the Minister’s help. Will he help me?

The hon. Gentleman has already written to me about a case, which I think we have resolved. As I said, I am more than happy to look at individual cases. The eligibility criteria in these pathways are clear, and officials are working hard to ensure that they are as inclusive as they can be, but I will always look at personal cases and I look forward to receiving an email from the hon. Gentleman.