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EU Borders: Refugees from Afghanistan

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 9 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the European Union about refugees from Afghanistan who may have a right to settle in the United Kingdom being processed through EU borders.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in doing so, draw attention to my entry in the Lords register.

My Lords, the UK has committed to resettle up to 20,000 at-risk individuals through the Afghanistan citizens’ resettlement scheme, in addition to relocating those who supported our Armed Forces or the UK Government in Afghanistan through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, or ARAP. We continue to work with EU partners to co-ordinate our response to Afghanistan and support those most at risk.

My Lords, I am grateful for that response but it does not really answer the Question. We all know that, over recent years, significant numbers of potential Afghani refugees have come through Europe to relocate either in other European countries or, if they felt that they had a connection to here, here in the United Kingdom. I would be very concerned if there was any suggestion at all that the Government’s more difficult relationship with the European Union might inhibit safe passage for those who have a right to come to the United Kingdom to move perhaps from the eastern European border to here in order to be processed suitably. Will the Government guarantee that there will be discussion with the European Union to ensure that not only are there processes in place in Pakistan and in neighbouring countries but, where potential Afghani refugees have come to the European Union in order then to move to the United Kingdom, there will be a system in place to allow them due consideration?

One thing I can assure the noble Lord of is that today the Home Secretary is meeting EU Commissioner Johansson and that migration, including the provision of safe and legal routes, is also being discussed today at the G7. An EU resettlement forum, also attended by the US and Canada, is also due to take place on 27 September. Finally, let me say to the noble Lord that anyone who makes a journey to Europe should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach.

In our mid-August debate, I asked—without getting an answer then or since—about the fate of the 3,200 Afghan asylum seekers already here in this country. They are unable to work, they have to subsist on £5 a day and most of them must be traumatised by events back home. They are stuck in this limbo of a backlog of asylum cases that is now longer than ever before. Clearly, it is now as impractical to send them back as it would be immoral to do so. Clearly, they need to be given permission to stay. Clearly, their cases should now be approved en bloc. Can the Minister tell us when that will happen?

The noble Lord talked about a mid-August debate—I do not recall, but I may have misheard him. On asylum seekers, I certainly agree with him on several fronts, including that asylum applications should be expedited as quickly as possible. However, I do not agree that we should grant asylum to people en bloc because we need to be very sure that the people we welcome here are not a threat to this country.

My Lords, in discussions with the European Union, are the Government seeking to distinguish between those Afghans who left after the Taliban takeover and those who fled the Taliban before the takeover and reached Europe some time ago? Surely they should all be treated equally.

Again, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, every asylum application should be treated on its merit. If a person left Afghanistan some time ago, before the Taliban takeover, and their application is in the system, that application will be treated on a case-by-case basis. Clearly, others came through Operation Pitting and the ARAP scheme. I repeat: anyone who finds themselves in Europe should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach.

My Lords, can the Minister clarify two of the answers that she has just given? The Government maintain that all refugees must claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in and that they will seek to return any asylum seeker who travels to the UK, particularly through EU countries that the Government consider safe. Is the Minister really saying that, if those Afghans who helped the British forces are unable to fly back to the UK and have to travel by land through EU countries, they will be refused entry to the UK because they travelled through EU countries?

Let me clarify: no, that is not the case at all. If anyone has been accepted through the ARAP scheme or Operation Pitting, they can go to a VAC or be processed in any country in the world, so I am absolutely not saying that. What I am saying is that if someone is not coming through a legal route, they should claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach.

I think that the answers to the last few questions show the difficulties since the Government have not yet outlined the full details of the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, confirmed when it will begin or confirmed how many people are expected to join it. We are seeing some of the difficulties arising from that. The Government’s responsibility to Afghan citizens who have worked closely with our troops over the past 20 years extends beyond giving them the basic right to settle in the UK. The Home Office and other departments must surely support their integration into British life by beginning to help them to find permanent accommodation. In their Statement on Afghanistan this week, the Government said:

“Years before this episode, we began to fulfil our obligation to those Afghans who had helped us”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/21; col. 21.]

Can the Minister say how many evacuated Afghans are currently being housed in hotels and other temporary accommodation, and how many are now in permanent accommodation?

The noble Lord raises the issue that many of the people who have now arrived here are still in quarantine; many of the people whom we have flown here will be in quarantine until tomorrow, I think. He is absolutely right that it must be a prime consideration that those people can eventually be found permanent accommodation.