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Afghan Relocations: Special Forces

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 1 February 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on Afghan relocation and assistance policy eligibility for Afghan special forces.

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on developments relating to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme, and to answer the specific question raised by the hon. Gentleman in relation to former members of commando force 333 and Afghan territorial force 444.

Many colleagues across the House are passionate advocates for applicants to the ARAP scheme—whether they served shoulder to shoulder with them in Afghanistan, or represent applicants and their family members who are residents in their constituencies. We owe a debt of gratitude to those brave individuals who served for, with, or alongside our armed forces in support of the UK mission in Afghanistan. Defence is determined to honour the commitments we made under the ARAP scheme, which is why we have robust checks in place and regularly review processes and procedures.

Although many former members of the Afghan specialist units have been found eligible under ARAP and safely relocated to the UK with their families, a recent review of processes around eligibility decisions demonstrated instances of inconsistent application of the ARAP criteria in certain cases. The issue relates to a tranche of applications from former members of Afghan specialist units, including members of CF 333 and ATF 444—known as the Triples. Having identified this issue through internal processes, we must now take necessary steps to ensure that the criteria are applied appropriately to all those individuals.

As such, I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence will undertake a reassessment of all eligibility decisions made for applications with credible claims of links to the Afghan specialist units. The reassessment will be done by a team independent of the one that made the initial eligibility decisions on the applications. The team will review each case thoroughly and individually. A written ministerial statement to that effect was tabled this morning, and I commend it to colleagues. A further “Dear colleague” letter will follow by close of business tomorrow.

It is the case, however, that ARAP applications from this cohort present a unique set of challenges for eligibility decision making. Some served in their units more than two decades ago, and some while the Afghan state apparatus was still in its infancy or yet to come into existence all together. It is also the case that they reported directly into the Government of Afghanistan, meaning that we do not hold comprehensive employment or payment records in the same way as we do for other applicants.

I fully understand the depth of feeling that ARAP evokes across this place and beyond. I thank Members from across the House for their ongoing advocacy and support for ARAP. We have that same depth of feeling in the MOD and in Government, and we will now work quickly to make sure that the decisions are reviewed, and changed if that is necessary.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

The Triples Afghan special forces, trained and funded by the UK, are some of the top targets for Taliban reprisals. Around 200 Triples face imminent deportation from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and at least six members of the Triples are reported to have been murdered by the Taliban since the withdrawal from Kabul. Ministers have allowed media speculation to build for almost a week before setting out to Parliament today the Government’s plan to U-turn and look again at the applications.

The Minister highlighted inconsistencies in processing the applications—failures, flaws. How was that allowed to happen on his watch? How long will the reviews take, and what new information will be factored in? Tragically, today’s decision could be too late for many. Does the Minister know how many of the Triples who were wrongly denied support have already been deported to Afghanistan, tortured or killed? What conversations has he had with Pakistan to halt deportations of those who could now be granted sanctuary? There is no time to waste.

The least the Triples deserve is clarity over ARAP policy, but for months a public spat has played out between the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Minister for Armed Forces. We should all remember that the people who matter here are those Afghans who have been left in limbo, fearing for their lives and their futures. That is why clarity matters. Britain’s moral duty to assist Afghans is felt most fiercely by those in the UK forces who served alongside them, many of whom sit on both sides of the House. British personnel who have offered references to former Triples say that they were never even contacted by the Ministry of Defence. Many of their ARAP applications were denied. Will such basic errors happen again, or will that be reviewed properly?

The British public do not understand why Afghan special forces personnel who served and fought alongside our troops and who are eligible for safety have not yet received sanctuary here. Will the Minister now sort this out?

I know that the hon. Gentleman, who has been advocating for some cases and is as passionate about the matter as anybody, will feel aggrieved, as will many colleagues around the House. The responsibility of any Minister is to own any failure of process that happens in their Department, and I accept that responsibility.

The reality is that these are very difficult decisions to make. The hon. Gentleman said that the Triples were funded by the UK Government. That is not entirely accurate; they were funded as a donor alongside many other donors, into the Government of Afghanistan, who funded the units. As he will well know from colleagues on his own Benches who commanded units that worked closely with the Triples, top-up payments were made in order to generate loyalty and, frankly, to avoid the Triples being poached by other coalition partners, which had similar forces of their own.

The records of those top-up payments were very ad hoc. I take my responsibilities for accuracy to the House seriously, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman in all seriousness that we have looked for employment records and none of those ad hoc records of additional payments is available to us. We have spoken to colleagues who have experience of these matters in the House and beyond, to ask for any records that they have, but even then a lot of the records produced are those that are put together by charities advocating for the Triples, rather than contemporary records of those top-up payments.

The reality is that whatever the challenges have been, some decisions were made in an inconsistent way. That is why they must be reviewed. We will aim to get the review done as quickly as possible—we anticipate that it will take around 12 weeks. Before that, we need to put in place the people who will do the review, who will be independent of everything that has gone before. In the first instance, it will be a review of the robustness of the decisions themselves, and where it finds that decisions were not robust, we will, of course, seek new information both from the applicant and from colleagues in the House who have advocated for them.

The shadow Minister makes some good points about what this means for people who are in Pakistan. It is impossible to say who, of those who were not already in the pipeline as approved applicants, has been deported. We do not track that, so I cannot answer his specific question but, of course, we will alert the Government of Pakistan to those who are included within the review, so that they can enjoy the same protection from deportation as those who have already been approved and are awaiting their onward move to the UK.

The shadow Minister necessarily points to the politics and the alleged disagreement among Conservative Members —that is the nature of his role—but I am simply not motivated by such things. The reality is that we are trying our best to bring as many people to the UK from Afghanistan as possible. Some decisions are relatively straightforward, because we hold the employment records, but others are far more complicated. Although there have undoubtedly been some decisions that are not robust and need to be reviewed, I put on record that the people involved in making those decisions, across the MOD, have been working their hardest and doing their best. I stand up for their service and for what they have done, and I take responsibility for their shortcomings.

I have been approached by people who were involved in training these soldiers—333, 444 and BOST 170—and they tell me that they are the most loyal, bravest and most effective soldiers who were operating in Afghanistan. As a result, they are the soldiers the Taliban feared the most, which I guess is why the Taliban have been executing them in front of their families whenever they catch them.

The Minister rightly says that we owe them a debt of gratitude, but this is more than that. It is a debt of honour. Can we ensure that, both in our administration and in our relationship with Pakistan, we do everything to deliver on that debt of honour as quickly as possible?

We certainly will. It is important to mention that the Government of Pakistan have often been the subject of questions in relation to ARAP over the past year or so. In my experience, they have been incredibly co-operative. We are hugely grateful to them for that.

The limit on the speed of flow is not any problem with the Government of Pakistan, but the challenge of getting people out of Afghanistan. The reality is that, no matter how many decisions we review and no matter how many additional people we add as eligible for the scheme, there is a limit to how fast we can move people over the border into Pakistan. That will take time.

I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for securing this urgent question.

The Department’s latest numbers show that 11,684 people have been granted entry to the UK, and that 6,377 have been given indefinite leave. What has happened to the remaining individuals? Are they still waiting for a decision? Have any been ejected? As others have said, those who are targeted by the Taliban cannot wait. The Minister indicated to the shadow Minister that we are about to have discussions with Pakistan, but what discussions have already taken place? We are all concerned that Pakistan is ejecting people.

Finally, the fear of persecution due to religion or political beliefs is a qualifying factor under the refugee conventions. What consideration has the MOD given to the compatibility of that qualifying factor with the ARAP scheme?

To take the hon. Gentleman’s last point first, the MOD is not considering asylum claims, which are a separate matter for the Home Office. The MOD is considering the cases of people who claim to have served alongside UK armed forces. Although I do not doubt the seriousness of the right to asylum, the MOD makes no decisions in that regard. We have no responsibility for that part of immigration policy.

Turning to indefinite leave to remain, I will need to write to the hon. Gentleman with the detail, because my understanding of the immigration status of those approved to come to the UK under ARAP is that they have it immediately: they are effectively citizens, in that they have the right to immediately come here, live and work. There is no further immigration phase required after their arrival, because the approval of their visa to come affords them all the rights that indefinite leave affords them in the first place. However, I will write to the hon. Gentleman to confirm that my understanding is correct and that he has not picked up something that I was not aware of.

On Pakistan, I refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier answer. I genuinely could not wish for better engagement from the Pakistan Government with our high commissioner in Islamabad, and I am grateful to the Pakistani high commissioner to London, who has similarly made himself available to me whenever I have needed to speak to him. The issue with people in Pakistan is challenging: Pakistan has a very large cohort of people whom the Pakistan Government regard as illegal migrants and whom they are seeking to deal with. That is their sovereign choice as a nation, and it is not for us to tell them that they must not. However, where we have been able to tell them that people are part of our scheme, those people have been protected from deportation. For that, we are very grateful indeed.

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis), we clearly owe these individuals a debt of honour. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people who are affected and how many families there are? What is the Ministry of Defence doing to reach out to the families of these brave men and women to ensure they can come here, as they should have the right to do?

We think that about 2,000 decisions need to be looked at again. Some of those will be entirely the right decision—they just were not written up and documented particularly well—so it is difficult to say at this moment how many of the cases that we will review will require further scrutiny. What I can say to my hon. Friend is that once we have carried out that initial review of the robustness of the decisions that were taken, we will notify people if their case is up for review and additional information might be required. While I will set out the detail of that process in the “Dear colleague” letter that will follow, my expectation is that we will also reach out at that point to any colleague in the House who has advocated for that case, so that they are aware that it is up for review and can similarly put forward whatever evidence they have.

I am grateful to the Minister for meeting with me recently to discuss this matter, but given the unique nature of the relationship between UK forces and the Triples, and given the commitments that have been made previously, it is beyond bewildering that we have not got to this point sooner. The Minister spoke about instances of inconsistent application of ARAP criteria in certain cases, and has said that he takes responsibility for that, but can he give an assurance today that he will work at pace to put it right, and what does he think it will mean for our international reputation? Will people trust us in the future?

I am grateful for the constructive engagement that the hon. Gentleman has had with the Department ever since the evacuation from Kabul. Our meeting the other day was most instructive, and much of what he said caused us to reflect in the way that we have done. He should take much credit for that.

We are working at pace—the hon. Gentleman has my assurance that we will continue to do so, but we have been doing so all along. This is an incredibly difficult process that is consuming ever larger amounts of horsepower within the Department, and rightly so, because we owe these people a debt. However, as has come up previously at Defence questions, we must be careful not to set the expectation among our partner forces that everywhere that the UK armed forces operate, now and in the future, there will be an immigration angle to such partnering. I accept that there is reputational damage to the MOD and that has an effect on my reputation, too—that is right; that is ministerial accountability—but I push back gently against the idea that it will have an impact on the willingness of partner forces to work with us. I do not think it is helpful if partner forces think the reward for working with us is a visa: that does not work at all.

I appreciate the Minister’s comments and his commitments today, but it is more than two years since the chaos of the collapse of the operation in Afghanistan and this surely has come much too late. There are still many people—not just the Triples, but interpreters and people who worked alongside the forces—trapped in countries that are hostile and threatening them with transportation back to Afghanistan. Can he commit today to ensuring, with some urgency, that all cases are looked at quickly and speedily, and that we get as many people to safety as possible?

The cases are being looked at urgently. In the wider ARAP cohort that the hon. Member described, that process has been much easier. Some time ago, I directed the excellent officials who work on this, instead of working through the pile of applications, to go to the employment records we hold for interpreters and other locally employed civilians, and to focus on finding them in the pile of applications rather than going through all the applications that may be spurious or less credible. We will do so as quickly as we can, but it takes time, and even once eligibility decisions have been taken, if people are undocumented, and many of the ARAP cohort are, it is incredibly challenging to get them out of Afghanistan and into a safe country, and that limits our rate of flow enormously.

On those in other third countries, we do all that we can through the excellent staff in our embassies and high commissions to facilitate their movement out of those countries. However, there are some countries with whom we have quite challenging diplomatic relationships, particularly at the moment, and that makes it particularly difficult. That does not mean that we do not keep trying, and I am very grateful to our ambassadors and high commissioners for their efforts, but, fundamentally, we cannot tell sovereign countries what to do.

Back in September, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs told this House that about 1,000 Afghans were accessing homelessness support, and that was after the Government had evicted 8,000 Afghans, including ARAP personnel, from UK hotels. Could the Minister confirm that there are still 1,000 Afghans accessing homelessness support?

Due to the high number of former Afghani soldiers whose lives are at risk as long as they remain in Afghanistan, what conversations has the Minister had with Cabinet colleagues on the possibility of additional safe routes to the United Kingdom?

These things are discussed regularly, as the hon. Gentleman would imagine. There is an additional route to the United Kingdom in the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. Indeed, our ARAP and ACRS offer covers all Afghan citizens who served alongside our armed forces or worked alongside our diplomatic missions—or who were simply prominent in Afghan Government and society, and for whom we therefore feel that relocation is necessary for their protection—up to a point. ARAP and ACRS are matched, not quite in their generosity but in their scope, by schemes in many other countries that were a part of the NATO force in Afghanistan and/or the wider donor community for Afghanistan, so the opportunities for people to leave Afghanistan and resettle elsewhere are enormous. We should be proud of the UK schemes, which, today’s announcement notwithstanding, are incredibly generous. We are moving at the best pace we can to move people out of a country where that is very difficult.

I think the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis) could not have put it better when he talked about the debt of honour we owe all those who served with our armed forces in Afghanistan. I am sure that Members on all sides of the House will be appalled at the fact that, years later, the situation is still not completely resolved. The Minister rightly highlighted the challenges posed by lack of documentation in some cases, but given that, for those individuals, obtaining documentation will often mean applying to a Taliban-controlled passport office, will the Minister say how the Government are ensuring that those affected have a route to get the necessary documentation in a safe and efficient manner?

No, I am not going to share that detail with the House, because it is in absolutely nobody’s interests for the Taliban to know how we are doing that.

I think happy birthday is in order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If you are like me, you do not count the years, you just make the years count.

I thank the Minister for his very positive answers. I ask this question simply because I met a gentleman in Pakistan about 12 months ago on this issue. He worked for the British Army alongside those in the special forces, so it is wonderful news that special forces in Afghanistan will have their applications reviewed. I wholly welcome that but want yet again to highlight the need to do the right thing by others as well as those who put their lives on the line in Afghanistan as part of the rebuilding effort and who have found themselves hiding away, out of sight—in Pakistan, for example—because they are not yet safe. I ask the Minister for consideration to be given to reviews of applications for interpreters and those who provided sustained assistance to our forces and who live life in darkness and in fear.

As I said in response to earlier questions, the interpreters and those who worked alongside us in a supporting function are much easier to find within the pilot applications, because we have the employment records and are therefore able to confirm their service easily. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me about the specific cases raised with him, I will endeavour to get him answers as quickly as I can.