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Afghanistan: Humanitarian Situation

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2022

2. What recent discussions she has had held with international partners on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. (905225)

6. What diplomatic steps her Department has taken to help secure safe routes for refugees as part of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. (905229)

11. What diplomatic steps she is taking to help secure safe routes in third countries for people seeking to leave Afghanistan. (905234)

The UK has supported more than 3,400 people in leaving Afghanistan since the end of the Operation Pitting evacuation and we will continue in our efforts. The UK is contributing £286 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan in this financial year and we have disbursed more than £145 million already so far. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad visited Qatar on 17 January to discuss these issues directly with the Qatari Government.

What was a monumental military miscalculation has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe, with Gordon Brown—bless his cotton socks—warning of 23 million people, including women and children, facing starvation. That is 97% of the population below the poverty line. What are the Government doing to ensure that aid bypasses the Taliban and reaches those in need, who include constituents of ours—British nationals who are still trapped in that nightmare, harbouring hopes of getting home?

As I said in response to the hon. Lady’s initial question, the UK has committed £286 million and already distributed £145 million. We recognise that there is a pragmatic need to have a relationship of some sort with the Taliban. However, our conditions for that have always been clear. They need to renounce violence, not be a haven for terrorism and not take part in reprisal actions. Aid diversion is always an important consideration and that is as true in Afghanistan as it is anywhere else. We are seeking to support the Afghan people, not prop up the Taliban regime.

Yesterday I heard the shocking story of a refugee stuck in Iran, unable to leave because he has been told he needs to register with the Iranian Government. There have been cases of refugees in Iran being returned to their countries of origin, so he is too scared to register. Will the Minister act to ensure that cases such as that do not occur, secure a safe route and meet me to discuss this special case?

I invite the hon. Gentleman to write to me about the case. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad speaks with countries in the region that border Afghanistan. The House will be unsurprised to hear that our relationship with Iran is more strained than the relationship we have with other countries in the region. Nevertheless, we recognise that land routes across to Iran are an exit route for some people who are in fear of their lives in Afghanistan. It is not possible for me to comment on individual cases without more details.

Afghan citizens at risk cannot move, because without safe destinations and third countries to escape to, they will not be safeguarded by the specific measures in place against many of the risks they are experiencing in Kabul. With the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme inoperable and Government promises to protect minoritised groups and human rights activists and campaigners in tatters, what discussions is the Minister having with the leadership in third countries to guarantee a safe destination? How is the UK contributing to the safety of those people at this time?

I refer the hon. Lady to the answers I have already given on this issue. We have supported more than 3,400 people in leaving Afghanistan since the end of the Operation Pitting evacuation in August. That includes more than 2,200 Afghan citizens who either worked for the UK or worked in support of the UK’s objectives, or who are vulnerable—female judges, LGBT activists and injured children, for example. The UK is absolutely playing its part and we will continue to liaise with other countries, both in the region and those bordering Afghanistan, to help alleviate the terrible situation that Afghans find themselves in.

The all-party parliamentary group on Afghanistan invite the Minister’s Department to give an update on what representations the Department has made to international counterparts about the force used by the Taliban against those protesting against deteriorating living standards, in line with the comments by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

I will pass my hon. Friend’s comments to our noble Friend Lord Ahmad, who I know takes these issues incredibly seriously. He visited New York in October to hold events with Afghan women and to speak in the UN’s annual debate on women, peace and security. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has visited a number of countries in the region and beyond to solicit their support in alleviating the situation in Afghanistan.

The Open Doors world watch list identifies Afghanistan as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. Will the Government put the protection and support of Christians around the world and in Afghanistan at the heart of their foreign policy?

Freedom of religion or belief remains an incredibly important strand of UK foreign policy. The plight of Christians in Afghanistan is dire, but indeed that reflects the plight of a number of other religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. A cornerstone of our foreign policy is our pursuit of genuine freedom for all, and freedom of religion or belief is an important part of that—without it, is anyone really free at all?

Many of my constituents have connections to people stuck in Afghanistan who they believe would have had a pre-existing visa entitlement to come to the UK. What steps will the Government take to ensure that those people who would have been entitled, had the Afghan Government not fallen, can come and join their families in Wycombe?

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office have maintained a close working relationship on such issues throughout this situation. Entitlement for foreign nationals to settle in the UK is ultimately a Home Office competency, but we will continue to work closely with the Home Office on such issues.

The situation facing millions of Afghans right now is unimaginable—starving families lining up for food; parents selling their babies and handing teenage daughters to the Taliban for cash; a mother so desperate that she sold her kidney and two of her daughters. Yet amid this horror the UK Government slashed the overseas aid budget, actually cut their support for Afghanistan from 2019 levels and, with only two months to go, disbursed only half of the humanitarian aid and assistance they promised. With 5 million children now on the brink of famine, will the Government show leadership by releasing the remainder of the pledge and taking the action proposed by the UN, Save the Children and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown by convening a humanitarian pledging conference to raise the £5 billion needed? Failure to act will cost more lives.

I remind the hon. Lady that the £286 million that we have allocated to Afghanistan was put in place in the autumn, and we are still ensuring that the money is distributed. She made the important point that doing so quickly can sometimes come at the cost of doing so carefully. We want to ensure that our money reaches the people who are in need and is not diverted to support the Taliban regime. The UK remains at the forefront of international efforts to support Afghanistan, and I am proud of the work that my Department and the whole UK Government have done.