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Former Afghan Special Forces: Deportation

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 11 December.

I thank the shadow Minister for asking this Urgent Question.

The Afghan relocations and assistance policy is far more generous in design than predecessor schemes such as the ex-gratia scheme. None the less, ARAP is a specific scheme intended to support those who worked for, with or alongside the UK Armed Forces in support of the UK mission or national security objectives in Afghanistan. While we are acutely aware of the difficult circumstances in which many Afghans find themselves, not everyone will be eligible even if they worked for the Afghanistan security forces. Many Afghans have worked in proximity to UK Armed Forces, but this may have been in service of the Afghan Government, in a nation-building capacity, or though working directly with other nations.

CF333 and ATF444, known as the Triples, were Afghan-led taskforces set up to counter drug trafficking and organised crime and they reported into the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs. They are therefore a component of the Afghan national security forces and are not automatically in scope for relocation under ARAP. Regrettably, we cannot relocate all former members of the Afghan national security forces under the ARAP scheme. That means that some Afghans, whose bravery and heroism are in no doubt whatever—indeed, I served alongside many of them myself—such as certain members of the CF333 and ATF444 taskforces, will not be eligible for relocation under ARAP. Each ARAP application is assessed on a case-by-case basis. All applications, including those from former members of the Triples, are scrutinised on their own merits and in line with our published policy and eligibility criteria, available on the Government website, and in line with the Immigration Rules. All applicants, irrespective of job role, will be eligible only if they individually meet these criteria outlined in the published policy.

I must emphasise this point for the record: any suggestion that we are making blanket decisions—eligible or ineligible —for any cohort of applicant, or that we have any preconceived position on any application to the scheme, is simply untrue. That is not the approach that Defence takes on processing applications as a matter of policy. The MoD consults the evidence provided from each applicant and our own internal records and engages with internal stakeholders and other departments when determining eligibility in line with the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Immigration Rules.

My Lords, 200 special forces are unable to leave Pakistan or are under threat of being returned there. They fought alongside our troops. Why have we let them down, and why are they facing deportation back to face the Taliban? Why can they not come to this country under the safe passage they were promised?

His Majesty’s Government are fully aware of their responsibilities under both the ARAP and the ACRS. They are implementing both schemes to the agreed guidelines at pace, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and here in the UK.

My Lords, the UK has a responsibility to relocate these soldiers, otherwise it is likely that they will either die or spend their lives in prison. Will the Minister make it possible for these soldiers to pursue an expedited application process through either the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme or the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, so that they can reside safely in the UK?

CF333 and ATF444, known as the Triples, were Afghan-led task forces set up to counter drug trafficking and organised crime, and they reported to the Ministry of Interior Affairs. They are therefore a component of the Afghan national security forces and are not automatically in scope for relocation.

My Lords, answers to questions on this issue tend to be full of bureaucratic detail and process. This hardly seems appropriate for people who are facing rapid expulsion from Pakistan and almost equally rapid assassination by the Taliban. Why will the Government not set up a mechanism to pursue this issue proactively and urgently, in order to sort it out? If the Minister needs any advice, perhaps he could turn to the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, who has a lot of experience in this area and could point him in the right direction.

I do not disagree with quite a lot of what the noble and gallant Lord said. However, perhaps I may just take a moment to advise noble Lords of the scale of the challenge. There have been 142,000 applications under the ARAP scheme, 95,000 of which are unique—in other words, there are a certain number of repetitions. From April 2023 until the end of August 2023, the bureaucracy coped with 75,000 of those applications. To date, we have settled nearly 14,000 Afghans in this country, and we are hoping to settle another 2,800 by the end of December. There are 2,500 people with approval currently in Pakistan, with whom we have very good relations, and they all have the document which allows them to leave. In fact, 500 were approved last week. While I am not saying that we are on top of it, we are very close to getting there.

I thank my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup for probably setting me up to fail. I had the privilege of working with some of these Triples during my own service in Afghanistan and was very involved during my time as Minister for the Armed Forces. I accept that this is not straightforward, but I must add my voice to those saying that we owe an absolute duty to these people and we must sort this out. That said, there are many applications, and a lot of false ones. From our perspective, the biggest challenge seems to be our lack of paperwork and documentation, which is causing the delay. While I encourage my noble friend, as others have done, to do everything he can to support these armed forces personnel, please can we learn the lesson from this episode and ensure that we keep the right documentation in future?

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House why it is no longer possible to provide a breakdown of the jobs of people applying for relocation under ARAP? It is impossible for us now to tell what the success or failure rate is among members of the Triples, or those who do any other job. After all, for the past 10 years or so and until recently, I have been able to find out exactly how many Afghan interpreters have been relocated. Why is the data not now collected on how many applicants are soldiers, interpreters or anything else?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. The accuracy of the data held on large numbers of people requires double- checking and checking again. At the heart of approval under ARAP is the accuracy of exactly what these individuals did.

My Lords, in responding to a question about specific individuals in the other place, the Armed Forces Minister told the House that His Majesty’s Government

“do not have the employment records of the Afghan special forces”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/12/23; col. 631.]

Today, I was informed by a very reliable source that, until at least August 2021, our embassy in Kabul held nominal records for members of CF333 and ATF444, for the purposes of their “top-up pay”. They were in our employment and, until at least August 2021, His Majesty’s Government held their employment records. Surely, they still exist?

My Lords, I am not certain that the word “pay” is accurate. I think expense recompense is more appropriate, which is different: you gift something and get something back. If the records are there, we will follow them down. I was not aware that they were held.

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House whether HMG are in direct contact with the Pakistan Government and authorities specifically on this issue, now?

My Lords, I assure the House that His Majesty’s Government are in direct contact with the Pakistan Government at the very highest level. They are being extremely co-operative about not returning to Afghanistan people who may be at threat as a result of the recent conflict.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that it is important to follow guidelines to make sure that applicants fall within them. If there are applicants who do not fall within the guidelines but whose lives are clearly in danger, will the Government make exceptions for them?

My Lords, ARAP has got to the stage where things are considered case by case. There is opportunity to be flexible within that.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of Reset, as laid out in the register. The British population have a lot of sympathy with these Afghans. What work has been done to learn the lessons from Ukraine and see what levels of community sponsorship might be offered to such Afghans who qualify under these schemes, and to welcome them here? I recognise that this is a Home Office question, so I understand if the Minister needs to write.

The right reverend Prelate makes a very good point. Since Pakistan changed its method of treatment of its illegal immigrants, we have managed to bring several hundred people back directly from Pakistan. In fact, another 181 are arriving today or tomorrow. They will go into transitional accommodation before they get into their proper accommodation, as was the case before 17 October. We are certainly on the right route with this.

My Lords, I do not recall the part of the Companion that says that bishops have pre-emptive rights, but never mind. As well as being brief, answers should actually answer the questions put. May I now give the Minister the opportunity to answer the question put by my noble friend Lord Coaker?

My Lords, we absolutely respect that these individuals were brave, fought alongside us and gave support when necessary. Guidelines obviously need to be adhered to, because we are not in a position to offer resettlement to every member of the Afghan national forces. There must be limits, and the way in for these particular fighters and their support staff is through ARAP.