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Operation Warm Welcome

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 25 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many Afghan refugees accepted under Operation Warm Welcome are currently living in hotels.

My Lords, the cross-government effort to ensure that people were brought from Afghanistan to the UK as quickly as possible meant that it was not always possible to arrange local authority support in advance of arrival. In those cases, we have put in place hotel bridging accommodation. There are approximately 12,000 Afghan people living in 80 bridging hotels. That figure changes regularly as people move in and out of hotels.

My Lords, following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Government deserve praise for evacuating some 15,000 people to safety in the UK and for then launching what they described as

“one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history”

to resettle Afghan citizens. While many are indeed rebuilding their lives, too many, as we have just heard, are still stuck in hotels, with their children unable to access schools, with difficulty getting GP services and being unable to work because of problems with visas. Can my noble friend give a target date for moving into permanent accommodation the judges, doctors, members of parliament and other brave men and women who worked alongside us in Afghanistan?

My Lords, I am afraid I cannot announce a target date as it is subject to the number of housing pledges, the “jobs first” approach and other options. However, we continue to work with local authorities to source appropriate accommodation as soon as possible for families who were evacuated to the UK, and we are most grateful to the 323 local authorities that have pledged support.

I want to ask the Minister about a government promise that needs to be kept. I know personally of an Afghan interpreter who did great work with our Armed Forces and even translated for the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, when he visited the country. Unsurprisingly, the interpreter fled for his life and is desperately worried about his family, who remain in Afghanistan. I appeal to the Minister for advice. First, does she accept that his wife, young son, widowed mother and brother can be defined as “immediate family”? Secondly, if I write to the Minister with details of this case, will she undertake to look at it with a view to giving them visas to come to the UK? Thirdly and finally, does she accept that we owe a debt of gratitude to people of this kind and their families, and that they deserve to have the safe future in this country that was promised?

The noble Viscount will of course appreciate that I cannot talk about individual cases at the Dispatch Box, but I appreciate his concern for his friend and his family. I would definitely appreciate the noble Viscount writing to me and then we can take the case forward.

My Lords, NGOs are reporting that there is no co-ordination on cross-departmental issues relating to the two separate Afghan refugee schemes. They are telling us that any request is pointed to a different department: MoD points to FCDO, the FCDO points to the Home Office and it points to the Department for Levelling Up. It feels like nothing is getting done. Will the Minister undertake, as a matter of extreme urgency, that a publicly named Minister and civil servant be given responsibility for cross-departmental working relating to the Afghan refugee schemes?

I hope I can satisfy the noble Baroness in naming that Minister. It is my honourable friend Victoria Atkins, who is based in MoJ, DLUHC and the Home Office, and is responsible for the Afghan resettlement scheme.

My Lords, early reports seem to indicate that at least some of the victims of yesterday’s appalling tragedy were from Afghanistan. The whole country was absolutely appalled and horrified at this disaster. Does my noble friend agree that the only way to prevent a repeat is to make sure that the UK bears down on those Mafia-style people-smuggling gangs, and to work with France to prevent further refugees leaving its shores?

Yesterday’s tragedy brought into sharp focus the human cost of criminals, caring nothing for human life, recklessly bringing people across the channel—and in what did not even look like boats yesterday. I totally agree with my noble friend.

My Lords, the refugee burden on counties in the south-east of the UK is unfair. What incentives are being offered to families in other counties to open their doors to some of the persecuted Afghans? Are the UK Government considering schemes to place some of the hundreds of those waiting in hotels into settled communities, as is being attempted in Canada, for long-term social, economic and cultural benefits?

The noble Baroness gets to the heart of what an ideal system looks like, which is integration into communities. There is of course a community sponsorship scheme; I pay tribute to the Church of England, and the Catholic Church in my own area, for the work they have done on that. On what we are doing to incentivise, we are giving £20,500 to local authorities over three years to support each person’s integration. As I say, we are most grateful to those 323 local authorities which have pledged their support.

I believe the Minister said that there were 12,000 in hotels. How many have been resettled into permanent homes? I do not think she gave that figure but, as she said, there is no shortage of local authorities ready to provide support. There are of course issues with shortages in housing, for reasons that we all know. Is the scheme backed by full costs for a year going from central government to local councils?

We brought 15,000 people here and 12,000 are in bridging hotels. There is slightly more complexity to it than there being no shortage of offers, because some of the families are quite big. Sourcing accommodation suitable for large families is therefore perhaps more of a challenge than it might be. But we are working at pace and across government to try to get people permanent accommodation.

Will my noble friend place in the Library a list of those local authorities that have taken refugees and a list of any that have refused? What is being done to vet hotels, following that dreadful incident where the young child fell out of a window and was killed?

I am not willing to provide a list of local authorities because one thing we were clear about, right at the start, is that this is not a name-and-shame exercise. There is gratitude for those local authorities which offer to take people and families. I can confirm to my noble friend that the hotels are of a good standard. Yes, it was an absolute tragedy about that poor child but the hotels certainly meet our standards.

I too commend the Government on providing places for people fleeing Afghanistan but want to ask a number of questions about the schemes that exist. Is the ARAP scheme, which evacuated people who had worked in conjunction with our military, our embassies and so on in all sorts of capacities, still operating? For example, a policewoman who fled violence—one of the pioneering women police officers—is currently in Islamabad. Her temporary visa there is running out. She was working on prosecutions of people for assaults on our British military. Is the ARAP scheme still operating for the father of one of the judges I have in Athens who we managed to evacuate? The father was the writer of the constitution of Afghanistan, at our behest and that of the West. Are we still running a scheme for people who helped and made those things possible? Secondly—

I just want to ask about a resettlement scheme being set up for Afghan citizens, which we keep being told about. When is it going to come into operation?

I will give the short answer to the first question, which is yes. The challenge on that is getting people out, as the noble Baroness knows because we have talked about it. We are still working on the ACRS, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, at pace to try to get it up and running. We intend to take around 5,000 refugees in the first year and up to 20,000 in the coming years. It is one of the UK’s most ambitious resettlement schemes ever.

My Lords, LGBT people are particularly at risk from the new regime in Afghanistan, so I welcome the lead which the United Kingdom has taken in already bringing such people to safety. I thank the Government for working in partnership with NGOs such as Rainbow Railroad, Stonewall and Micro Rainbow to achieve this. Will my noble friend the Minister commit to continuing to prioritise such people and ensure that they can be safely settled here in the UK?

I wholeheartedly share my noble friend’s concerns. The people who are still there must be terrified. We will of course prioritise them, along with other very vulnerable people who remain in that region.