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Pakistan: Afghans Eligible for Resettlement in UK

Volume 834: debated on Monday 18 December 2023


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the number of Afghan nationals eligible under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, or the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, who are currently in Pakistan and at risk of repatriation to Afghanistan.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham, and with her permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, Afghans in third countries, including Pakistan, who are eligible for resettlement to the UK continue to be supported by the UK Government, and flights from Pakistan to the UK continue to take place. The assessment of the number of individuals currently awaiting resettlement from Afghanistan and other third countries such as Pakistan is not available at this time as it is operational information and changes on a regular basis.

My noble friend has submitted a series of Questions to find out what is happening to the Afghans in Afghanistan, and those who fled to Pakistan, who are eligible to come to the UK. The Answers—and I have looked at them all—have come variously from the Home Office, the MoD and the FCDO, and they are all opaque, as was the Minister’s Answer. Does this not illustrate the challenges these vulnerable people face, as well as those who are seeking to help them? His own Answer to my noble friend spoke of action “over the coming years”. Does that seem sufficiently urgent, given the danger that those who assisted the United Kingdom during our time in Afghanistan now find themselves in?

The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs in the other place committed to bringing back 2,800 ARAP-eligible people by the end of this year, and we are well on track to achieve that. The Secretary of State for Defence also wrote a letter recently, which has been published, in which he talks about reviewing and improving casework processes and bringing in extra resources. Between January and November this year, we issued decisions on more than 75,000 applications, clearing virtually the entire backlog. There is plenty of work going on and there are very few open cases left. These people are being repatriated as fast as we can.

My Lords, has the Minister read today’s Daily Telegraph, in which the Pakistan Prime Minister cites the British-Rwandan scheme as an example of why they feel it is justified to have already deported some 450,000 people back to Afghanistan? Can he tell the House what JACS assessment has been made of the plight of minorities such as the Hazara, and what is happening about the 200 Armed Forces personnel who were trained and funded by the UK, and about whom General Sir Richard Barrons said, in that same article, that the failure to relocate them is

“a disgrace, because it reflects that either we’re duplicitous as a nation or incompetent”?

My Lords, I have not read that article. My right honourable friend James Heappey noted in the other place that it would have been more difficult to bring these people back to the UK had it not been for the support of the Government of Pakistan. We continue to co-operate closely in our efforts to bring out many thousands more, and no one with UK sponsorship has been deported. I am obviously not qualified to comment on other deportations, and I do not recognise the general’s remarks, but I will look into them.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the UK Armed Forces who served in Afghanistan. I recognise my noble friend’s efforts—he understands the challenge. The moral case for why we should support those who supported the UK Armed Forces in Afghanistan is clear to all noble Lords but, like others, I am concerned about the speed with which we are acting. It is urgent that we act faster. Aside from our moral obligation to these people, there is also a practical consideration: every time the UK Armed Forces serve overseas, we absolutely rely on the co-operation of national armed forces and civilians. If we are not seen as a trusted partner, that will make this very difficult in future.

I entirely agree with my noble friend that we have a moral obligation to deliver for these people. As he will be aware, this situation is about making sure that there are flights and accommodation available, and so on. As I said in an earlier answer, we are working at pace; flights arrived last week and will arrive this week. Things are happening fast.

Does the Minister accept that, by definition, these people are eligible because they have served our country and would be vulnerable if they were forced to return to the mercies of the Taliban? Many will come with eloquent references from our military, which served there at the time. How many people in this category have already been repatriated to Afghanistan and, as the Minister mentioned accommodation, to what extent is the failure to provide housing in this country a factor in the long delays?

The noble Lord asserts that all are eligible, but that is not necessarily the case. The eligibility criteria are published on GOV.UK; they are reasonably precise and, in the case of ARAP, are administered by the MoD. I can go into more detail if noble Lords wish. There is not a lack of accommodation; it is about matching families and individuals to appropriate accommodation. I believe that 700 service family accommodation units have been made available and are being filled.

My Lords, how many visas have been issued to eligible Afghans in Pakistan since the Government’s recent withdrawal of their policy to identify suitable housing here before they were allowed to travel? I understood that its withdrawal was meant to remove one of the obstacles to swifter relocation.

The noble Baroness is right that that policy has been suspended for the time being. I do not have the number of visas issued but, as of the end of September 2023, the total number of arrivals from Afghanistan or a third country was around 24,600. A lot have arrived in the last few weeks, so I do not know the final numbers, which are still provisional.

My Lords, I think the Minister said that the Government do not give a running commentary on the figures. However, the Minister for the Armed Forces said in the other place:

“There are around 2,000 people in Afghanistan who we need to move out and around 1,800 left in Pakistan who we need to bring in”.—[Official Report, 11/12/23; col. 635.]

Can the Minister comment on those figures? Will the schemes we are discussing deal with those 3,800 people? As the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, said, they need urgently to be brought back to this country because they served with us.

The noble Lord is quite right. I did not say that we do not give a running commentary; I said that the information is operational and changes on a regular basis. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs stated that we aimed to relocate 2,800 ARAP-eligible Afghans before the end of 2023; I am pleased to be able to say that we are on course to achieve that.

To be absolutely clear, has the eligibility of the two Afghan special forces units under ARAP now been substantiated in principle? If not, how will this Government sustain their pretension to moral authority in their international affairs?

As the noble and gallant Lord will be aware, ARAP is intended to relocate and support those who worked for and alongside UK Armed Forces. No applicant is ruled in automatically based on job description. The units in question were set up by the UK but were an Afghan-led component of the Afghan National Security Forces, reporting to the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs. Each ARAP application is decided and scrutinised on its own merits against each criterion outlined in the ARAP policy and the Immigration Rules, which are published online. Eligibility decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis. People will be eligible only if they individually meet these criteria.

My Lords, the Minister spoke about eligibility. Can he state unequivocally to the House that a wife and young son of an interpreter who served our Armed Forces would meet the definition of someone’s immediate family who deserve to come to the UK?

I cannot say that unequivocally, no. As I have just said, it is on a case-by-case basis. In principle, of course that is the case, but with the caveat that it depends on the case under discussion.

The Minister is a little short on numbers on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. When the scheme was introduced two years ago, the promise was that it would bring in 20,000 people a year. We know that thousands are lurking in hotels in Peshawar, Islamabad and Lahore, now with their permission to stay likely to be withdrawn. We know too that thousands of them have been accepted for resettlement here but are not allowed to travel because the accommodation has not been provided. They are supposed to arrange, from Peshawar, accommodation for their families in this country, which is absurd. Does the Minister accept that this may be one cause of Afghans being by far the largest group by nationality—8,600 last year—coming in small boats across the channel at grave risk to themselves? Does he not think that is a disgrace?

My Lords, the fact is that if people are not eligible under ARAP, they should not be coming on small boats and claiming asylum. Why would you forgo a legal and safe route to support a criminal gang’s activities? That rather eludes me. I do, however, understand why people are desperate to get out of Afghanistan in particular, but I go back to what I said earlier: the Government of Pakistan have co-operated, largely, with the UK, high-level negotiations are ongoing and as yet no one has been deported.