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Afghan Interpreters

Volume 833: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how many former interpreters who worked with the armed forces in Afghanistan, and former British Council employees, are in Pakistan awaiting relocation to the United Kingdom under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy or other schemes; and how much longer they expect this process to take.

My Lords, the ARAP scheme offers relocation to Afghans who worked with us in Afghanistan. The ACRS is designed to support those who have assisted with UK efforts in Afghanistan, including with the British Council, as well as vulnerable people. As of August 2023, we have relocated approximately 12,300 ARAP and 9,700 ACRS-eligible individuals. We will ensure that all eligible British Council contractors who remain in the region are brought to the UK, as the Minister for Immigration set out in the other place yesterday.

My Lords, I am of course glad that more than 20,000 have been relocated already, but my Question was about the thousands more who are still waiting and trapped. Does it not add insult to injury that thousands of Afghans who worked with and for the UK, and who were encouraged by the UK to flee to Pakistan to expedite the visa process, should now themselves be experiencing at the hands of increasingly hostile Pakistani authorities the kind of daily fear, harassment and deprivation they thought they were leaving behind when they fled the Taliban? They were told they would have their visas in a few weeks, but some have been waiting for almost two years and now face the threat of repatriation to Afghanistan. Why is this visa process taking so long? Why have these people been so badly misled, and what are the Government doing to organise housing for them to come to if, as reported, this really is the main reason for delay?

It really is the main reason for the delay. We obviously sympathise with the situation many Afghans find themselves in, including those who are suffering due to their work standing up for human rights and the rule of law, and those facing wider persecution by the Taliban. As the Minister for Immigration said yesterday, we remain dedicated to honouring our commitments to those people. We continue to develop plans across government to support new arrivals into suitable accommodation in the UK. Finding suitable accommodation is the biggest problem we have, but work is being done at speed.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the decision taken by the Pakistani Government on refugees? My noble friend will be aware that between 3.5 million and 4 million refugees have been in Pakistan for more than two decades, but most of them are undocumented, and the Pakistani Government took the decision—rightly criticised by human rights organisations across the world—that undocumented refugees should return to Afghanistan. This is a dire situation. The deadline is 1 November. What is His Majesty’s Government doing to protect those who protected us?

My noble friend raises a very good question. We estimate that currently, there are around 3,000 ARAP and ACR-eligible individuals in Pakistan. I am of course aware of the actions of the Pakistan Government regarding undocumented illegal immigrants in their country, but the Government are accelerating the arrival of ARAP-eligible individuals currently in Pakistan and we are doing our very best to move them into suitable accommodation as fast as possible.

My Lords, the Afghan Special Police Commando Force 333 was created, trained, mentored and funded by His Majesty’s Government, initially in support of British counter-narcotics objectives, but later for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist duties. It is now clear that several deserving members of the force and their families were wrongly refused under the ARAP process and, as a direct consequence, several have been murdered in Afghanistan. Can the Minister provide assurances that the new director of the defence Afghan relocations and resettlement team will be given full support, including from the Home Office, to ensure that all previous 333 refusals are reviewed?

I have no knowledge of the circumstances the noble Lord describes, but I obviously very much regret them if they are as he says. It is worth pointing out that, as it says on the GOV.UK website,

“The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) is for Afghan citizens who worked for or with the UK Government in Afghanistan”—

these are the key words—

“in exposed or meaningful roles”.

Given what the noble Lord has said, I will pass his concerns on to the Ministry of Defence and make sure it is aware of his desire for a review of these circumstances. In total, more than 24,600 people have been brought to safety. Work is continuing at pace, but I will make sure the MoD is aware of those special circumstances.

My Lords, it is welcome that the ACRS pathway 3 has been expanded to all those deemed at risk who applied with the original FCDO scheme last year. However, more than two years after Op Pitting, it feels like Afghanistan is a forgotten war and those who worked alongside the British military are forgotten victims. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about those in Pakistan. Do the Government have any understanding of how many people had visas to be in Pakistan, whose visas have now expired? I have the names of at least 63 linked with the British Council whose visas have expired; I can pass those to the Home Office, but there must be many more. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to deal with individuals whom we know we have documentation for? What are we doing about bringing them out of Pakistan and to the United Kingdom?

I say first to the noble Baroness that this is not a forgotten war and these are not forgotten people. As I say, these are people to whom the Government will honour all their commitments, whenever and however they were made. I am not party to the precise details of individuals whose visas may have lapsed. She is welcome to send me those details and I will make sure they go to the appropriate places.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, it appears that prior to June of last year, most applications for resettlement from members of CF 333 were approved. Subsequently, most were rejected, and indeed some prior approvals were rescinded. In following up on the noble Lord’s question, could the Minister obtain for the House some information on the source of and rationale for this dramatic change of policy, which, as we have heard, has resulted in some deaths?

I am happy to provide the noble and gallant Lord with that information; I will do my very best to find it.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that much of the world is not as stable as we would like, and that we have a duty of care to locally employed staff in our embassies, particularly in countries which are in difficulty at this time and could be in a similar situation to Afghanistan? Have we learnt these lessons?

My Lords, let us remind ourselves once again, as other noble Lords have done, that this scheme is for those Afghans and their families who risked their lives working with and for the British military in exposed or meaningful roles, as the Minister outlined. Can the Minister therefore explain why, according to evidence given to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry yesterday, many occupations such as mechanics and others who helped our troops in Afghanistan are often not deemed eligible, despite their being threatened or indeed killed by the Taliban? As the policy stands, the consequence for many of those desperate people and their families will be being isolated, facing the terror of the Taliban on their own. Does the Minister not agree with me that those who stood with our troops deserve better than that?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord that those who stood with our troops deserve the best we have to offer. I go back to the point I made earlier: the definition of people who are eligible for ARAP is those who served in exposed or meaningful roles. I cannot precisely define what those terms mean, but I think we can all imagine it. I will do more to find out whether mechanics and other job descriptions match these criteria, as I cannot answer that.

My Lords, surely the best we have to offer is a safe abode. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, indicated the absolute moral responsibility we have for these people, and my noble friend Lady Warsi said that we are talking about less than a fortnight for some of them. Can we not have an absolute, definitive statement that my noble friend will go back to the Home Office, talk to the Home Secretary and ensure that these people have the safety their service to this country demands?

I agree with my noble friend but as I pointed out earlier, the principal problem is the lack of availability of suitable accommodation, much of which is provided by the MoD. That is not to say that we are not honouring our commitments; we absolutely are, and we are accelerating the speed of arrivals into this country.

Does the noble Lord accept that it will be cold comfort for these exposed people to be told, “Yes, we accept our responsibility, but we cannot deal with you until housing becomes available”, at a time when they may be sent back to Afghanistan to an uncertain fate? The whole point of housing is surely that there must be some definite time; otherwise, they will be told that they will have to wait indefinitely until housing appears.

No one is talking about making anybody wait indefinitely. We are accelerating our work in this area as fast as we can, in accordance with the various prevailing circumstances that have been described.