Because, to borrow a phrase from the Minister, this is a small but perfectly formed Westminster Hall gathering, we will start the Back-Bench wind-ups at 2.28 pm. Jim will do no more than 20 minutes and Debbie will do no more than five. The Minister has said—I think he will want to give a full answer—that if there is any chance we can squeeze out an extra two minutes for him, that would be good. I will manage the other three contributions, but just try to give the Minister a little extra time. I hope that is all right with the Labour Front Bench.
Only if I get my full 10 minutes.
You will get your full 10 minutes.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Pathway 3 of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir Charles. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to raise this essential issue. I am pleased to see many right hon. and hon. Members here to make contributions today, and we know why: because this is a critical issue. In the main Chamber today the Minister made a reference to it in an urgent question. I look across at the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). He kept his eyes down, so I could not catch whether he was happy or not, but perhaps today we will get some positivity. We will wait to see what happens.
There has been massive parliamentary attention on Afghan relocation schemes in recent weeks, both here and in the other place. That is important, because nearly 18 months after the fall of Kabul, the Afghan citizens relocation scheme still has thousands of available places. With respect to hon. Members present, it is important for those who are spending their lives hiding in Afghanistan, waiting and hoping for a decision on their expression of interest in claiming asylum in the UK.
For 18 years, tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan worked alongside British citizens to strengthen democracy and create a country where it was possible for women to work or obtain an education. It grieves me how the Afghanistan authorities treat women and others. It is disgraceful. They cannot get an education and cannot build a future. Afghan religious minorities are not allowed to operate or worship their God as they would like to.
A case that I have raised in this House many times has been with my office from August last year when troops were withdrawn, and still there is no end in sight. My constituent’s young wife, the daughter of an allied forces translator, was not deemed to be eligible for any pathway scheme and is now waiting for approval on a spousal visa. Does the hon. Member agree that still, a year and a half on, the policy for Afghan citizens remains too opaque and difficult to navigate?
I certainly do. I am sure that when the Minister responds, such questions will be fully answered. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue.
We all know what happened when the rapid Taliban advance in 2021 culminated in the fall of Kabul and Operation Pitting. We also know that as these events unfolded, the UK Government implemented the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and, exactly one year ago, the Afghan citizens relocation scheme. This debate serves as a moment to look back on the last year and assess, as the hon. Lady said, how far we have moved on that; many of us feel that we have not moved.
The ACRS has three pathways. The first is for people who have already been airlifted out of Afghanistan—there were some of those—and now need help settling in the UK. The second is for those who have already escaped to a third country, such as Pakistan, and are in the hands of the UNHCR. The third is the one that probably reflects our British values the most. It is no secret that I am very proud to be British. I look upon this great nation as a nation that delivers on its compassion and understanding, and therefore I want this scheme to be implemented in its totality. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay, who will follow me, will confirm that as well. We have a real problem. For those who have been identified as belonging to a particularly vulnerable group, two issues emerge in relation to pathway 3 time and time again. The first is a lack of clarity, and the second is a lack of urgency. Where is it? I cannot see it at all.
When the scheme was launched, a core component of pathway 3 was the focus on providing safe asylum routes to help members of minorities who were specifically identified as being at the most risk under Taliban rule, and I give the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay lots of credit for consistently speaking in defence of the scheme. The three groups identified were religious minorities, members of the LGBT community and pro-democracy activists. All three groups were deemed to be under a high risk of a violent attack but had been excluded from the ARAP scheme.
Even at the outset of ACRS, there was confusion about when people could expect to start receiving help. The scheme launched with the intended aim of resettling 20,000 people in five years. However, Afghans were only allowed to register an expression of interest seven months after the scheme formally opened. In the short time that that window was open, over 11,400 expressions of interest were submitted under pathway 3. The vast majority of those who expressed an interest had to wait, even though their lives were in danger. I have the utmost respect for the Minister, but that is why we are so frustrated about where we are.
The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay is likely to go into greater depth on this issue, and I want to give him lots of time to put forward his understanding of where the scheme is and where it is going. Last Wednesday, he led a Westminster Hall debate on British Council contractors who are eligible for pathway 3. Indeed, at the opening of the scheme, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) stated that, alongside GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni, they would be the priority group for 2022. Some 200 teachers, security guards and frontline staff were to be offered a safe haven in the UK alongside family members. These people represented those who worked on the frontline, who were recruited to teach British values across Afghanistan. They were people who we—this country and the United Kingdom Government—left behind, and it is clear that we owe a duty to them. As such, I was delighted to hear the Minister confirm during last week’s debate that half the contractors have had their applications granted. Maybe I will leave that point to the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. What appals me is the fact that we sought assurances in that debate, we received them, and we seemed to be finally making progress—I will go into that in a bit more detail later. The debate was on the Wednesday afternoon, and then I was phoned on the Thursday evening and informed by a Guardian journalist that the Government were retracting those assurances. We now have a mish-mash of assurances, some of which are in Hansard and some of which are not. That is one of the things we need to sort out in this debate—clarity—and I am looking forward to my right hon. Friend the Minister providing it.
In a couple of sentences, the hon. Gentleman has succinctly summarised where we were last Wednesday and where we are today. Unfortunately, we have not seen the clarity that is necessary.
There are questions to ask. How many people have been accepted under the ACRS? How many people fit into each category? How many of those accepted are still in Afghanistan, living under the threat of violence from the Taliban? Will the scheme continue in 2023, and when will the scheme finally open to at-risk minority groups, such as religious minorities, the Hazaras and LGBT people? Will the estimate of 20,000 still be reached? The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay covered the issues surrounding British contractors so well last week.
On 30 September 2022, a suicide bomb exploded at the Kaaj Educational Centre in Kabul. The school is in the Hazara district and was packed with hundreds of girls preparing for exams to enter university—young girls just wanting to have a life and to plan a way forward. They were brutally attacked, and some of them were killed. Some 54 students were killed, and over 100 were injured.
There has been a long history of the Taliban targeting the Hazara Muslims. Recent years have seen an increase in attacks, and at least 700 Hazaras have been killed by the Taliban or Islamic State Khorasan since August 2021. There appears to be a deliberate targeting of young Hazara girls—not just in violent attacks, but in an attempt to rob the community of ladies and young girls. I have three granddaughters, and I want them to have opportunities. If they were living in Afghanistan, they would not have any opportunities—that is a fact.
Taliban fighters have sought to remove girls from their communities through forced marriages, rape and forced engagements. I was shocked to find out that in some cases, those girls have been as young—it is hard to even say it—as three years old. What is going on in this world when we hear things like that? In Afghanistan, we see a clear attempt to destroy the Hazara community using violence and killings, but also through the forcible transfer of children out of the group; both acts can be indicators of genocide. The Hazaras are far from the only group at risk, but we need them to feature in this process.
Other religious minorities have also been devastated under the Taliban. The number of Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan fell from 400 to 150 in three years, with attacks by IS-K against both communities having been reported. There used to be 15,000 Christians in Afghanistan, but 13,000 of those have relocated to the United States of America, Albania or Brazil. The US scheme was set up after the ACRS, using in part the model that the UK promoted in our resettlement scheme—they liked our model so much that they made it their model for bringing people in. I speak up for the Hazaras, the Muslims, the Christians and others, because Christian minorities have to be protected if they are not going to get protection in Afghanistan. Since 2004, Afghanistan had enshrined freedom of religion within its constitution. Today, however, religious diversity in the country has been all but extinguished, with those who remain facing the risk of attacks, atrocity crimes or charges under sharia.
As well as religious minorities, thousands of pro-democracy activists have been left at risk. Some are journalists and some are activists, but many were excluded from the list, and I, like others, want them to be included on it. Members of these groups cannot sit around for five years waiting for a decision; they cannot wait. There is an urgency about this, and an ache among those of us who are speaking for a response from the Minister about where we are. In the year that the ACRS opened, not a single British Council contractor, GardaWorld contractor, Chevening alumnus or member of an at-risk minority was brought out of Afghanistan under pathway 3. What? Why have a scheme if it does not work? It is so frustrating. I am not being critical and nasty—you know that is not in my nature, Sir Charles—but I feel an absolute frustration with where we are.
The Scottish Refugee Council—believe it or not, I genuinely look to Scotland to see what it does, because many times it is far ahead of us—has reported that between January and June 2022, more than 2,000 Afghans sought safety in the UK by making a small boat crossing across the channel. These are desperate asylum seekers, not economic migrants; they are people who just want to live and to have a future. That report also notes that 97% of asylum claims from Afghans who have made those crossings have been successful.
The delay in opening safe migration routes for Afghanistan has directly contributed to some of the most vulnerable groups in the world risking their lives by paying criminal gangs to cross the English channel in a small boat. At best, a lack of clarity and urgency in the scheme is causing more fear, uncertainty and suffering for some of the most at-risk groups in Afghanistan. At worst, the delay and the lack of access are directly putting lives at risk. What is happening in Afghanistan is a humanitarian disaster on an immense level—a level of intensity that cannot be imagined, in my mind at least. A rapid response to disasters is key to saving lives, and we need that urgency. We need to see that rapid response, with our Government and our Minister working hard to make that happen.
However, Afghanistan is not the only humanitarian disaster that the UK Government are responding to. Two months after the opening of the ACRS, Russia invaded Ukraine. That invasion triggered the largest mass migration in Europe since the second world war as refugees fled Ukraine. I commend the Government’s quick action in that case, setting up the Ukrainian resettlement pathway, and I am proud of the response of my community, with many in Strangford supporting and hosting Ukrainians. We have a missionary society, Faith in Action, led by Donald and Jacqui Fleming and a fella called Tinsley. Those people are part of that response, and we have brought many Ukrainian asylum seekers—they are not here forever, but only for a certain period of time—to my town of Newtownards and across Northern Ireland, supported by church groups.
There is a marked difference in how the Government have responded through the two schemes. It has been reported by the BBC that fewer than 10 staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office are working on ACRS. In contrast, there is a team of 50 staff working on behalf of Ukrainians. To clarify, I am not saying that there should not be such a large team working on the Ukrainian scheme—I am glad that there is—but why is there not such a large team working for Afghans as well?
I understand that the Government’s role is to set priorities, and that many priorities have been re-evaluated in the light of Russia’s aggression. I still believe passionately that we are a generous country and, as far as I am aware, no statement has been made to the House on changes to the ACRS. However, one year on, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is clearly not working. That is the situation and why I have secured the debate to request change on behalf of those people.
Last week, the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay highlighted the failure to support British Council contractors who were being prioritised in 2022. The scheme fails to support minorities, leaving many with an uncertain future, forced to live in hiding, suffering regular attacks and worrying for their lives, not knowing what tomorrow brings, which concerns me. They are even faced with potential genocidal activities, as there has been against the Hazaras, Christians and others.
Looking to the next year of the scheme, it is vital that more information is made available and guidance for pathway 3 needs to be publicised. We need to fulfil the promises we made to British Council contractors and others employed to help further democracy in Afghanistan. I pray for Afghanistan and many other countries across the world every day, because I believe in prayer and that God gives us a job to do. While prayer is important, it is not the only thing that matters. Physical endeavours from our Government are also important.
I will draw my remarks to a conclusion as I made a commitment to you, Sir Charles, to keep to 20 minutes. More needs to be done to protect the three vulnerable groups that pathway 3 was built around. A stronger intervention is needed in light of the credible risk of genocide against the Hazaras. The all-party parliamentary group on Hazaras does fantastic work and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) has also raised the issue of Hazaras in the House.
I will pose some challenging questions for the Minister, but I do not wish to be judgmental. First, given the resourcing allocated to the FCDO and the impact of the crisis in Ukraine, is the ACRS still a priority for the Government? Secondly, does the Minister agree that we have a moral duty to help those who supported the British effort in Afghanistan and those at greatest risk because of their identity? Thirdly, with the evidence highlighted by the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee, the Hazara inquiry and others, is there enough evidence for the Minister to recognise the potential risk of genocide in Afghanistan in the near future? Fourthly, will the ACRS continue in 2023 and will it finally include at-risk minority groups, such as the Hazaras, the Christians and members of the LGBT community, as well as journalists who endeavoured to make Afghanistan a better country when Britain and other western nations tried to introduce democracy to Afghanistan?
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate and giving me the chance to promote the case I have outlined. I look forward to the contributions from other hon. Members, including the shadow spokespeople. We are all here with the same message, Sir Charles: we need urgency, let us help those people and let us do it right now.
As always, it is lovely to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I congratulate my dear friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate. He is always the last person to intervene in debates in the House, but on this occasion he was the first speaker. He has spent his life challenging and trying to make right injustice, not just in our constituencies and our country but across the world. He is an emblem of what being an MP should be about.
I should refer to the register of interests, as I am the vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Afghanistan. But my interest stems from the fact that one of my caseworkers is originally from Afghanistan. She was a judge and had to leave; there were two attempts to assassinate her because she had the audacity to set up education centres for women and girls. My passion for the subject is driven by her and I want to commend her for that.
Since the evacuation, Operation Pitting, in August 2021, Afghanistan has faced the worst political, economic and social conditions in 30 years. The brunt of that has been felt by women—it is absolutely appalling. There are 60 oral and written decrees restricting women’s lives: removing their participation in secondary and higher education and their employment in Afghan institutions; preventing travel without a male relative; limiting social lives and activities, including the right to protest and freedom of speech; and dictating what women wear. Can we imagine that? I know there are few women in the Chamber, but could the men in the Chamber imagine if that happened to them? It is absolutely horrendous.
Many of us will have seen on social media the public floggings meted out to women who dare to contravene any of those diktats. We have seen the results of the torture of women who have deemed to have stepped even further. Earlier this week, we learned about the murder of Mursal Nabizada, a human rights advocate, somebody who Marzia knew and a former member of the Afghan Parliament—the cowardice of the men who gunned her and her bodyguard down! I wanted to speak in the debate because unless we do something about the resettlement scheme that our Government committed to back in 2021, we will see more and more women killed—a femicide, if you like. I do not use that phrase lightly.
There are 70 women, former Afghan judges, who had that job taken from them in 2021 and are in hiding in Afghanistan. They sent many of the current Taliban gunmen to prison for a variety of abuses and offences. Those judges are on the Taliban’s hitlist, and if we do not do anything they will surely be targeted and gunned down. I urge the Minister to act. We promised in 2021 to resettle 20,000 people, and those women should be high on that list. We have settled just over 6,000, all under the first pathway apart from four. It is not good enough.
I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford that the Minister has a history of being an excellent advocate in this regard. Will he please indicate how many staff will be dedicated to this? I endorse the questions that have been asked by the hon. Member. We should not compare different schemes, but one cannot help but notice the difference between the attention that Ukraine has received and this.
Thank you for being absolutely on five minutes. I will give the three Back-Bench colleagues 10 minutes each, but I will stop them at 10.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on calling the debate.
This is a very unfortunate situation. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is an honourable man, and he has a good reputation when it comes to compassion and international aid, but I am afraid that he is overseeing, or is at least in part responsible for, a scheme that is simply not working. As was well pointed out earlier, the scheme was introduced with great fanfare a year ago, and to our knowledge it has not helped one person. Worse, there seems to be a lack of clarity about where we are with it.
Last Wednesday’s debate has been referred to a few times. We debated the ACRS scheme pathway 3 as it related to 200 British Council contractors who were stuck in Afghanistan. They are moving from safe house to safe house, and many of them are in fear of their lives, as they are being hunted. We have all had some harrowing stories and emails about how, for example, professors could not go to a hospital with their daughters, and a daughter subsequently dying because the Taliban had ringed the hospital. I opposed the mission of nation building in Afghanistan, but whatever one thinks of the mission, these people were brave enough to put their head above the parapet and say, “We will help to promote western/British values”—whether by teaching English, dealing with women’s equal rights or by other means. To many of them, if not all, if feels that we have turned our back on them.
I sought four assurances from the Minister last Wednesday. Have 100 of the 200 contractors been given the go-ahead to go to the border? Will the lack of paperwork not impede their entry into a third country? Will the ball now get rolling for the second 100, who had not heard anything after their initial application? They are quite literally in the dark. Finally, can we please ensure that talk of quotas—particularly the quota of 1,500 not just for the British Council but for the GardaWorld workforce and Chevening scholars, whom I also want to include, because we are thinking of them as well—will not impede people’s leaving if they have a right to do so under the scheme? I fully appreciate that there are sensitivities in relation to the issue of paperwork, so I will not dwell on or put the Government in a difficult situation on that. Sometimes things are best understood rather than relayed in detail in a debate like this, because there are local sensitivities with one or two third-party countries.
We received those assurances. It was on the record; it was quite categorical. Those who participated in the debate went away thinking, “Finally, we are making progress.” That was Wednesday afternoon.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
No. If the hon. Lady does not mind, I will crack on, because I want to ensure that I stay within my 10 minutes—for everybody’s sake. I apologise, and I am sure that she will make her point in due course.
The debate was on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday evening, I was phoned by a journalist, who told me that the Government were now retracting all those points and would be correcting Hansard. I did not get confirmation of that from the Government until Friday afternoon. I have the transcript. Hansard has allowed some corrections but not others, so we now have a mishmash of assurances given, some retracted through Hansard and some not. This is where I seek clarity from the Minister. This is causing great distress, not just for people here who are passionate about the issue, but most importantly for the people in the country who are trying to get out.
At the moment, marrying up the Government’s corrections —those that have been accepted by Hansard, but also those that were not, and therefore referring back to Wednesday’s debate—we seem to have the following situation. It is not 100 who have been given the go-ahead. I seek clarification on this, and I look to my right hon. Friend the Minister’s team to pass whatever notes that they can by way of clarification. This is the situation: on the first assurance, the number was not 100; instead, 47 have been told to head for the border. That is the latest figure. We do not know precisely what state that is in, in the sense of how many have reached a third country or whatever, but we know that 47—according to the correction—have been granted and told, “Right, off you go.”
I have mentioned the paperwork, which we will not talk about. My understanding, however, without going into any further detail, is that a lack of paperwork will not impede entry—exit from Afghanistan is one thing, and entry to a third country another one, but it will not impede entry here. That is how the situation stands, I believe.
The third assurance was about the second 100 of the 200 British Council contractors, who have not heard anything at all since applying, which was a year or so ago. They are still in the dark, according to the correction. In other words, they have not been contacted, despite us being told that some of them had been. I wait for clarification.
The final point was about quotas. In Hansard, last Wednesday the Minister made the point—this stands, because it has not been corrected; Hansard is not allowed to be corrected—that the quotas talk of 1,500 for the ACRS pathway 3, for those three groups that we have mentioned, still stands. Personally, I find that distasteful. It is almost shameful, because there was no mention of quotas when we asked people in Afghanistan to volunteer and no mention of quotas when it came to the extent of their courage in actually supporting the mission in the country. Yet here we are, talking about 1,500 as a quota, when we cannot really put a quota or figure on anything like that
I ask the Minister to address that point specifically. I know it is a little further down the line, because we have to start getting people out first, but I really do not want to hear any news about quotas, or the Government saying that people will have to wait in danger further, because last week the Minister was talking about a second iteration of the scheme. I seek that clarification from the Minister. I will finish early, but I hope he will allow time so that we can make the intervention if we do not think that we have it.
In summary, I say to the Minister: we need clarity and we need to ensure that we set the record straight, so that people not just here but, most importantly, in Afghanistan know where they stand. Above all else, if it is still correct that 47 have been given the go-ahead, roughly 150 British Council contractors and their families —also, GardaWorld workers and Chevening scholars—remain in the dark and have not been told anything. We need to get this sorted now. They need to be contacted and told that they can head for the border, paperwork or not. I seek those assurances from the Minister when he makes his contribution.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), on securing the debate, which is incredibly important. We have debated the issue again and again, because unfortunately we have not so far had a satisfactory outcome.
The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan is devastating for millions of people. That is especially true for women and girls, who fear for their lives. Once again, their liberties and rights are being extinguished. Since the Taliban returned to power, women have been removed from nearly all areas of public life. Girls are banned from going to high school, women are largely restricted from working outside the home and a male chaperone must accompany women when they travel long distances. The draconian rules put in place by the Taliban constrain women’s ability to earn a living, to access healthcare and education, to escape violence and to exercise their rights. I was outraged to hear about the killing of former Afghan MP Mursal Nabizada earlier this week. In Afghanistan, no woman is safe.
A country’s morality is defined by how it treats those in need. When leaving Afghanistan, the Government promised to do everything it could to support those who helped the UK’s mission. That included setting up bespoke Afghan resettlement schemes focusing on the most vulnerable, in particular women and children. Afghans put their lives at risk for our country.
The second pathway of the scheme is the only one that offers refugee status to those who are resettled in the UK. Pathway 3 is specifically for individuals seen to be particularly at risk in the region, but it does not offer refugee status. Does the hon. Member agree that that downplays the severity of harm faced by those eligible for pathway 3, and it could be used to excuse the low numbers resettled under what is a crucial aspect of the scheme?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I will come on to the three different pathways, but I agree. The Government underestimate the danger that absolutely everybody in Afghanistan still lives under, and we need to do more.
Pathway 1 is for those who have effectively already been settled in the UK. Pathway 2 is for those who have been referred by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Pathway 3 is for those who worked for or were affiliated with the British Government. None of those promises were exactly generous—pitiful, even—but the Government did not even fulfil them. We talk a lot about broken promises in this place. These are broken promises that risk lives.
The Government say that over 20,000 Afghan refugees have been resettled in the UK. However, many of those places have been granted to people who were already here. Women and girls in Afghanistan were meant to be a priority, yet they have been left without a specific route to apply to the scheme. In July last year, Foreign Office officials admitted that many of those who helped our country would not have the opportunity to resettle in the UK. How good is that?
Thousands of those who have arrived remain stuck in hotels up and down the country. Most of them have been there for well over a year now. One refugee compared living in one of those hotels to living in a prison. Not a single person has been accepted and evacuated from Afghanistan under pathway 3. Although pathway 3 makes provision for particularly vulnerable minority groups, those groups were excluded from the 1,500 places offered in 2022, and there has been no clarification on when places will be offered to them.
The Home Office has published some vague intention to work with international partners and non-governmental organisations to welcome wider groups of people who are at risk in Afghanistan, but no details have yet been released. It is a thin veil trying to disguise that the Government intend to do very little, or nothing. Only about eight members of staff are working on the Afghan resettlement scheme in the Foreign Office. In sharp contrast, the Government were recently able to find 400 new processing staff for the scheme to target Albanians, and £140 million to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
I think it would be helpful to clarify that there are 30 members of staff working on this.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. It is important to put it right on the record, but it is still in sharp contrast to the numbers that are targeting the Albanians. We need to do more, and I am sure the Minister recognises that.
As a country, we must recognise the positive contributions of refugees. I have recently taken on an Afghan refugee in my office. He fled Afghanistan in 2021 under harrowing circumstances, and he is a wonderful asset to my team. Even in his case, although he was working for the British Council, the parliamentary authorities have been curiously unhelpful in supporting me to give him full employment access.
My Bath constituency has welcomed Afghan refugees with open arms. I am grateful to the generosity of the University of Bath in providing warm welcome scholarships and sanctuary scholarships to Afghan students at a time when Afghan refugees were suffering, struggling and hoping for a better future. The university has generously provided financial assistance to Afghan scholars and students who wish to further their academic and professional development skills. I am also grateful for the way Afghan refugees have been welcomed and supported by authorities such as Bath Welcomes Refugees and Julian House, and by local constituents in Bath.
It is unforgiveable that the Government are not offering the support and help that many in Afghanistan need. Many are highly qualified professionals who simply wish to come here, find a job and make a positive contribution. Many of my constituents continue to ask for assistance in relocating their relatives and friends from Afghanistan. For more than 17 months, British Council contractors have feared for their lives in Afghanistan, or Iran or Pakistan where they have fled to, waiting for their eligibility offers to relocate to the UK. I would be thankful if the Minister could explain why British Council contractors on the Connecting Classrooms project have not been contacted regarding their resettlement applications and how the UK Government will support Afghan refugees trapped in Iran and Pakistan who are being threatened by the Taliban while they wait.
The Government must restore the international development budget to provide much-needed help to Afghan people. I know the Minister has been a very vocal supporter of that, and I am very grateful. I hope that within Government now he pushes for that again. Our Government must stand by their word and open safe and legal routes to those at risk in Afghanistan so that they can come here to the UK. By taking those steps, we can finally uphold our obligations to the people of Afghanistan. That means working constructively with local authorities so that Afghans in this country can finally start their new lives properly here in a home rather than a hotel room.
The invasion of Afghanistan was controversial at the time, but the Conservatives and the Opposition supported the invasion. Either way, the UK now has a duty to help those left behind, especially those who have risked their lives to help the UK. Washing our hands of what is happening now in Afghanistan would be the most cynical abdication of our country’s duty.
I call Olivia Blake, for 10 minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. Before I begin, I would like to point Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I receive support from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project for my work on these issues and am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the time for this debate and for talking with such heartfelt and genuine concern about this issue at a time when it has truly slipped down the agenda. I thank him for allowing us to voice our concerns to Ministers.
Just this week, community members and organisations supporting Afghans in the UK handed in a letter to Downing Street addressed to the Prime Minister to highlight the continued plight of those who fled Afghanistan nearly 18 months ago. As pathway 3 opens, it is right to anticipate some of the potential issues, as has been said, with the system, and reflect on the record of pathway 1 in order to avoid those issues. Since August 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that over 1.2 million Afghans have arrived in neighbouring countries, out of which 258,000 have approached those countries with protection needs. Put in this context, our commitment to help 20,000 people seems very small.
Nowhere is that more obvious than when comparing the numbers of people resettled through safe and legal routes to the numbers of Afghans crossing the channel in small boats and making claims for refugee status. Since the fall of Kabul, the number of Afghans arriving in small boats has increased dramatically. According to the Home Office’s latest data, between January 2022 and September 2022 Afghans made up a staggering 15% of all nationalities that came via small boat. Harrowingly, in total there were 4,781 arrivals—almost as many as the 6,000 people who have settled through pathway 1. That underlines the argument that the real crisis is the lack of safe and legal routes for people fleeing conflict and persecution.
The numbers we are accepting do not match our moral obligation to help. We are already seeing this reflected in the pathway 3 process. I agree with the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) that the first pathway 3 target to resettle 1,500 people is just so disrespectful and irresponsible. We are talking about people who have been contractors for the British Council and GardaWorld, and Chevening scholarship alumni too. During the eight-week window in which people were able to declare their interest in this pathway, 11,400 people applied. The number of people applying to the scheme vastly outweighs the number of people the Government aim to accept.
They say that later on the scheme will open to more vulnerable minority groups and women and girls, but how much longer can those groups afford to wait? The Taliban has now banned women and girls from education. Every month that they remain in Afghanistan, their vulnerability and the restrictions on them increase, so the Government must increase the scale of the pathway and the pace at which it is implemented.
To ensure that pathway 3 runs as smoothly as possible, we must learn the lessons from pathway 1. So far, just over 6,000 Afghans have settled in the UK through that strand of the resettlement scheme. Those who have made it to the UK under pathway 1 are yet to be able to bring their family members here, despite the Government’s promises that that would be possible.
Since Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated even further. Members of the Afghan community in the UK will be worried about their loved ones who are still there. I understand that Afghans on pathway 1 have been granted indefinite leave to remain without refugee status, which means that they cannot access refugee family reunion. They rely on the Government to keep the promises about family reunion that were made in the context of the resettlement scheme. I hope the Minister will confirm that they will honour that commitment and urgently ensure that family reunion can happen for those already here under pathway 1.
Currently, there are no concessions for Afghans with family members who are resident in the UK for regular family reunion visas. Regular family reunion visas come with bureaucratic hurdles and huge costs. The Ukraine family scheme shows a different way forward, and the Home Office can learn from that. It must act now and develop a proper family reunion mechanism for Afghan families. I ask the Minister to think again and look at the lessons learned from the Ukrainian scheme to see whether something else can be offered to Afghans who have made their lives here and are worried about their families.
It is clear to me that the Afghan citizen resettlement scheme’s criteria for relocation are far too narrow. Its pace and scale are insufficient and leave vulnerable people at significant risk. They either stay in Afghanistan, where they will be unsafe, or they are left with no option other than to attempt dangerous journeys across the channel or be in places whether they are not safe if they have protected characteristics, such as LGBT people and religious minorities.
We must urgently open safe routes so that people can relocate, and we must immediately prioritise family reunion so that Afghans already in the UK can be reunited with their loved ones. Those people must not have to make perilous journeys and be persecuted by other Government policies if they choose to do so.
I thank Back-Bench colleagues for their succinct and informative speeches. I ask the Opposition Front Benchers to stick to 10 minutes, as the Minister wants to be generous in answering and wants to take interventions. Thank you for your forbearance.
Thank you, Sir Charles. That is no problem at all.
I thank all hon. Members for their powerful contributions. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has done us a great service by securing this debate. In normal times, we would debate Afghanistan and the situation we have left it in much more frequently than we do. Obviously, other things have come to overshadow that, but he and other hon. Members have not let it slip, so I am very grateful to all of them for continuing to make the case.
The report by the Foreign Affairs Committee on the retreat from Afghanistan gives useful context. It described the withdrawal as
“a disaster and a betrayal of our allies that will damage the UK’s interests for years to come.”
It contains a section that succinctly describes what we are talking about. It says:
“Most damning for the Foreign Office is the total absence of a plan for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission, without being directly employed by the UK Government, despite knowing 18 months before the collapse of Afghanistan that an evacuation might be necessary. The hasty effort to select those eligible for evacuation was poorly devised, managed, and staffed; and the department failed to perform the most basic crisis-management functions. The lack of clarity led to confusion and false hope among our Afghan partners who were desperate for rescue. They, and the many civil servants and soldiers working hard on the evacuation, were utterly let down by deep failures of leadership in Government.”
Many of those described as having been utterly let down by the FCDO are now caught up in attempting to leave Afghanistan by using pathway 3 of the Afghan citizen resettlement scheme. As Members set out, they face huge peril, and it is right that we scrutinise very closely indeed how the Government are responding to their needs, given that stinging critique.
We welcome the fact that there is a bespoke scheme, but given what happened, it would have been totally unacceptable had there not been one. There are some positive features—for example, those who benefit from the scheme get indefinite leave to remain—but even here the absence of the full rights of refugee status for those on pathways 1 and 3 is regrettable. That point was made by the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier).
Overall, I am afraid our analysis is that the Afghan scheme has been totally inadequate. It has been too restrictive in criteria, too limited in ambition and too slow in implementation, and the consequence is that it will damage the reputation of the UK, as pointed out by Members in the debate last week. It will see a continued high number of Afghans resorting to irregular routes to the United Kingdom; there, they will meet the full force of the horrendous asylum reforms that the Government are implementing. I will make a few short points on those three criticisms: restrictive criteria, limited ambition and slow implementation.
First, there is the way that the three pathways are set up and their relationship with ARAP. The set-up is not entirely without logic, but I believe that there is a heavy stink of categories being tweaked for the Government’s convenience, rather than because it is fair or just. Given that he is here, I will take the liberty of quoting from the speech made last week by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), in which he pointed out that
“People who got out under Operation Pitting have been retrospectively shoehorned into various schemes.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2023; Vol. 725, c. 287WH.]
That has allowed the Government to inflate the number of people who have been resettled—if we can call it “resettled”—under the citizens resettlement scheme. In addition, the criteria for ARAP were tightened so that those who would have got status under that scheme have now been counted towards the ACRS. The Government can say that they have made great strides towards their vague—and, I think, unambitious—target of 20,000 in the years ahead when, in reality, little progress has been made at all since August 2021.
If we take a step back, the reality is that we are called on to deal with two types of cases. First, there are cases where people have been put at a degree of risk because they contributed to our mission in Afghanistan. To my mind, there should be no question about our obligation to provide a safe home to all those individuals, but the Government have, in essence, defined that group much more narrowly by reference to military objectives and a direct employment relationship, rather than the broader objectives of the UK’s presence there. Surely the uncapped ARAP schemes should also apply for the British Council staff, the GardaWorld contractors, the Chevening alumni and so on.
Our obligation to these people is such that there should be no question of there being a vague ambition of 20,000 people or, worse, what seems to be a 1,500 cap per year for those on pathway 3. Our obligation to those people should be diluted or restricted in absolutely no way at all, and that is precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay in his speech.
The second group of people are those in danger of persecution if they remain in or return to Afghanistan, not because of involvement in or support of the UK mission in Afghanistan but because of the general situation there, which has been described in detail by hon. Members. That is clearly a huge segment of the population and it is not an obligation that can lie solely on the United Kingdom, but we must play a role alongside our international allies. So far, our efforts in that regard have been absolutely inadequate. Pathway 2, for those outside Afghanistan and referred by the UNHCR, was supposed to reach 2,000 people in one year, but by September only four had arrived, if I am correct; I do not know if there is an update on that.
Meanwhile, pathway 3 supposedly prioritises vulnerable people from within Afghanistan, but it does not really do that at all. Someone gets such priority only if they have already established that they meet other eligibility criteria, such as being a British Council staff member or a contractor. It seems wrong that there is no more general pathway for vulnerable groups such as the LGBT community, religious minorities, political activists or women, in particular those who have taken up jobs such as acting as a judge.
Alongside that, there is the powerful point made by the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and for Sheffield, Hallam that there are no additional pathways for those with obvious links to the United Kingdom, such as having family here, perhaps being former residents or other such ties. Surely it makes sense for people who live here—with parents, siblings or others, perhaps, still in Afghanistan—to much more easily be able to sponsor them to come here. I commend the many organisations that wrote to the Prime Minister earlier this week to explain that family separation not only has a terrible impact on the individuals in Afghanistan, but puts a colossal strain on family members here in the UK. Those families need to be reunited.
The failure to provide routes for such people who have clear links to the UK—whether under pathway 3, a family reunion or anything else—brings me to my final point, which I just touched on. There is clearly a significant possibility that many of these people will therefore seek to make it here irregularly and, as has been said, that is borne out by the number of Afghans arriving in small boats. Members will have heard me speak at length in the Chamber about my opposition, and my party’s opposition, to the approach being taken by the Government to people arriving in small boats. I will leave that broad debate for another day, but surely even those who support the Government must be given pause for thought about the implications for Afghans who arrive in the small boats.
Given what has happened there, how can it possibly be right to criminalise and detain, and then pack off to Rwanda, people who were so badly let down by the Foreign Office in Afghanistan? Among them will be those who would qualify for some of the pathways but gave up waiting, as well as those who do not qualify for any of the pathways but, for utterly understandable reasons, have sought to have their claim heard in the United Kingdom. What is wrong with simply treating these people with dignity, hearing their asylum claim and granting it quickly in the overwhelming number of cases?
Finally, I mentioned those who qualified but gave up waiting. That brings me to the “too slow” criticism. It is painfully slow, as we explored in last week’s debate, and as has been expressed this afternoon. I was going to ask the Minister also about the number of staff who are operating here. He has given us an answer, but I thought that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) made a very good point about the number of staff who are working on other schemes.
The Home Office actually seems to enjoy creating extra work for itself, even though it struggles to get through what it has already been tasked with. For example, asylum claims now have to be reviewed every three years, and people are having to make a decision on admissibility six months before they will even look at the asylum claim. We have 2 million EU citizens with pre-settled status who will now be asked to apply again for full settled status. Why not ask the Home Office to stop giving itself so much additional unnecessary work and move those people to work on the Afghan scheme? It would be a simple solution.
It also seems that a lot of the infrastructure that the UK built up during the Syrian resettlement scheme has been allowed to rot away because, for years, the Government failed to explain their long-term resettlement strategy or numbers. That is something that they are still a bit guilty of. There is also another debate to be had about the deficiencies in how those who make it here from Afghanistan have been supported, but at least they are here, so I will leave that for another day, given the clock.
In summary, we owe the people of Afghanistan. Setting up the schemes was essential, but, in practice, they have been too restrictive, too unambitious, and too slow. We are not coming close to living up to our obligations, and there must be a significant ramping up of resources and of effort.
I am genuinely grateful to you, Mr Walker. It is an absolute pleasure to serve—
No need to worry, just some friendly heckling.
Oh, really? I will remember that. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing about this debate and allowing us all to discuss it today.
Hon. Members have rightly raised some horrifying cases. Last week, the BBC highlighted the case of Zuhra, who talked of her pride at having worked for the British Council in a massively high-profile role as a teacher who starred in promotional videos about her work. Now, because the Government have failed to offer her a way out, Zuhra lives in fear, constantly moving with her family to avoid being identified and targeted, while stifled by ever-increasing restrictions on women’s freedoms.
Despite the lack of any news about her application to pathway 3, Zuhra still has hope. Tragically, she blames herself for the danger her family is in thanks to her work for the British Council, but she still believes the Government will come through for her and her family. Will they? All I can say, after all that has happened, is that I pray that Zuhra is right to have hope, still, in this Government.
Let us face it: the abandonment of the people of Afghanistan during and following the withdrawal of international partners continues to be a source of absolute shame for this country. I personally advocated, as many colleagues did, for a Chevening alumnus who had reportedly been placed on the Taliban kill list. In total, I wrote to the Government about almost 900 cases of people in dire need in Afghanistan, following heart-wrenching cries for help from family and friends living in West Ham.
The bitter truth is that the Government utterly failed to match the urgency of those desperate pleas for help. Our Government did not prove capable of the same openness that our communities demonstrated when offering a welcome to those in dire need. In the months that have followed, the Government have time and again reduced the offer of sanctuary. We now know that, as of last month, just four people had been resettled under pathway 2 of the ACRS since the withdrawal from Kabul. I fully appreciate that this is not an FCDO responsibility, but that figure is appalling, and it weighs heavily on our international reputation.
Today, we are discussing the Government’s failure to deliver on the promise of pathway 3 of the Afghan resettlement scheme, which covers British Council contractors, GardaWorld security contractors and Chevening alumni. What links those three groups of people is that they all worked closely with the Foreign Office as an institution. They helped the UK to have a positive and secure place in Afghanistan and supportive relationships with its wonderful people over many years. Their vulnerability to reprisals today is the direct result of that work for us, and therefore the FCDO, along with the Government as a whole, owes them a debt of protection. Labour strongly supports protection for the more than 200 people who helped the FCDO in Afghanistan, and for their families.
Scott McDonald, chief executive officer of the British Council, is calling for urgent action to ensure that all those invited to provide biometrics are granted safe passage to countries neighbouring Afghanistan. He is surely right, because, as we know, an offer of protection from the Government is just the first step; many people will not have the right travel documents and will have to risk their lives trying to get them. It is concerning that we have not had clarity about what the Government are doing, despite constant calls from Members across the House. My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), the shadow Minister for peace and disarmament, has raised that point repeatedly since January last year. I also want to highlight the work of the chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), as well as that of all the other hon. Members present in the Chamber today.
Despite those cross-party campaigns, rather than clarity, we have had corrections to the record. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), told the House that half of the 190 former British Council contractors and their family members had been given the green light to come to the UK, but the Daily Mail has reported that just 47 have been invited to provide biometrics, and even those few will face extra security checks before they have any chance of coming here.
Then there was another correction. Last week, the Under- Secretary told the House that the figure of 1,500 was not “an upper limit” and that
“another cohort will be established from June”.—[Official Report, 11 January 2023; Vol. 725, c. 290WH.]
It now appears that 1,500 has been set as a maximum for pathway 3, and that any additional pathways that are opened will not be designed to help the same group of Afghans in need of protection.
If the Minister of State has any further details about future schemes that could be opened, and when, I am sure all of us would be very glad to hear about them today. However, if he cannot give us that, surely he can answer a very simple question: how many former British Council contractors are still stuck in Afghanistan, and when can we expect them to reach safety here? Will he also say whether he has had engagement with regional partners such as Pakistan to facilitate safe passage for British Council staff who are attempting to leave?
The Government need to face up to the consequences of their failure and recognise the true urgency of the situation. Former contractors continue to face daily beatings and intimidation from the Taliban because of their past work with the UK. Many say that they have heard nothing back from the Government about their applications for resettlement. The time this is taking, as a result of administrative barriers, is utterly unacceptable.
Meanwhile, the circumstances of life in Afghanistan have become even more desperate. As we know, the Taliban have implemented more and more of their brutal ideology, particularly on women and girls, and on religious and ethnic minorities such as the Hazara people, who continue to face targeted attacks. Frequently, it is former officials or workers who are targeted, regardless of the Taliban’s official statements that personnel from the former Afghan Government would not be persecuted.
Many of those promised an opportunity for protection in the UK following the Government’s disastrous withdrawal have been failed. What does that failure say to the many foreign nationals around the world who work closely with our embassies and programmes? What does it say about how we value the non-UK staff and contractors who are utterly essential to our diplomatic, consular and development services?
In responding to the urgent question last month, the Minister said repeatedly that this process is moving from the FCDO to the Home Office as the initial stage is complete. Frankly, that news will fill many with dread. I hope he will recognise that the fundamental responsibility for offering these vulnerable people protection remains with the FCDO. If—or perhaps when—the Home Office fails yet again to do its part, I hope that FCDO Ministers will keep a close eye and perhaps step in to unblock things.
This debate is about a duty that we, as a country, owe to the people in danger because of their work with us. It is about making good just a tiny part of the damage wreaked by the Government’s failures in Afghanistan. I hope that the Minister will provide concrete assurances today that the shameful abandonment of so many good people and their families will be remedied soon.
I thank all colleagues for providing the Minister with additional time to answer their questions and take interventions.
May I express my delight, privilege, personal pleasure and honour at serving under your chairmanship, Sir Charles? I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whose energy, knowledge and omnipresence we all admire and envy, and I congratulate him on securing the debate.
It is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. As the duty Minister, I am a poor substitute for the Minister responsible, but I will do my best. Let me make it clear that if I fail to answer any questions, I will write to hon. Members. A diligent team of Foreign Office officials will have noted every question and will ensure that I live up to that promise.
I want first to apologise to hon. Members—and, in particular, to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who has campaigned tirelessly on this issue—for the confusion around recent statements on pathway 3 of the resettlement scheme. I completely acknowledge the strength of feeling about what has happened, which he expressed today. It is right that the Government are held to account, not least since, as the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) made clear, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who have helped our country. I am grateful for the opportunity today to correct the misinformation that arose from earlier comments and provide clarity on the issue.
I am grateful for the contributions from all hon. Members. As I said, I will respond as best I can. Many of their questions are not susceptible to a yes or no answer, and I will try to explain why that is the case.
Since April 2021, the UK Government have brought almost 23,000 people to safety from Afghanistan. I completely agree with right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken about the importance of the UK’s meeting its commitments to resettle the remaining eligible Afghans in the UK. That includes hon. Members who spoke during the recent Westminster Hall debate on British Council contractors secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay.
On pathway 3, our commitment remains to resettle up to 20,000 people under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The scheme provides a safe and legal route for eligible people to come to the UK and rebuild their lives. Under the first year of ACRS pathway 3, as has been said, we will resettle up to 1,500 eligible Afghans and their eligible family members from three specific groups: British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni.
I understand the desire to resettle all those eligible as quickly as possible, and it is not merely lip service to say that we are working towards that. However, there are challenges and limits to what the Government can do. That means that, regretfully, we have not yet been able to relocate anyone to the UK under pathway 3. There has been progress, including for increasing numbers who are now safely in a third country, in accommodation, receiving support and being processed prior to onward movement to the UK.
Following last week’s Westminster Hall debate, I wish to set out four points in relation to the first year of pathway 3. First, I will deal with the numbers to be resettled. As I set out to the House on 12 December in response to an urgent question, the total number of British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni already informed that they are eligible in principle for resettlement, subject to passing security checks, stands at nearly 200. Including their dependants, that accounts for more than 750 of the 1,500 places available under the first year of pathway 3. Of the more than 750 individuals confirmed as eligible in principle, a sizeable number have now passed initial security checks and are being advised on next steps, including on travel to a visa application centre.
It is worth highlighting that individual cases progress at different speeds, for different reasons. Hon. Members may have seen Hansard corrections to last week’s Westminster Hall debate on British Council contractors, which make it clear that a considerable number of principals have been processed, informed and granted forward processing. None are yet in a position to travel to the UK.
Will the Minister give way?
I will in a moment.
Since then, we have heard accounts that some of those eligible in principle under pathway 3 are feeling more at risk as a result of specific figures being quoted. We are therefore ensuring that we do not provide a running commentary on how many individuals are at each stage of the resettlement process, which could draw unnecessary attention to those preparing to leave.
Before my hon. Friend intervenes, I remind the Minister to sit down at 2.58 pm to allow Mr Shannon two minutes at the end to wind up.
Clarity is required here. Will the Minister answer some straightforward questions about the 200 British Council contractors who have initially been told that they are eligible under ACRS pathway 3? How many have been told that they can now proceed out of the country—if they can get out—into a third country? How many are yet to hear anything from the Government after making their initial application? Our understanding is that roughly 47 have been told to go, with another 150 still in the dark.
If my hon. Friend will bear with me until I have finished making sure that I get these points correctly on the record, I will clarify most of the points that he raises.
As I said, I have been employing an Afghan refugee since 2021, and I talk to him a lot. May I suggest that some of the criteria that the British Government require for security checks are simply not realistic? For example, the provision of a secure address is often not possible. These people are moving around and hiding.
That point is well understood by the Foreign Office.
Members will be pleased to hear that since last week, even more eligible individuals from the cohorts, and their families, are now being supported in a third country.
Secondly, on those awaiting the outcome of their expression of interest, I assure Members that we continue to work at pace to allocate remaining places. We will notify individuals of the outcomes as quickly as we can.
Thirdly, on the point raised about quotas, the Government notified Parliament in June last year that up to 1,500 eligible people would be referred for resettlement in the first year of pathway 3. That includes dependants.
Finally, on future cohorts, the ACRS, on which the Home Office leads as a whole, will welcome up to 20,000 people to the UK. After the first year of pathway 3, the Government will work with international partners and non-governmental organisations to welcome other groups of Afghans who are at risk. The Government have not yet announced the composition or timings of additional cohorts but will keep Parliament fully informed.
Will the Minister clarify whether 1,500 is the number of people, and their dependants are in addition, or whether that figure is inclusive of their dependants?
The answer is that it is inclusive.
I think that will concern Members.
I come now to the Foreign Office’s role in the pathway 3 expressions of interest process. The Foreign Office is responsible for administering referrals in the first year of ACRS pathway 3.
I am not going to give way for a moment, but I will of course give way to my hon. Friend in due course.
For eight weeks last summer, we invited British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni to express interest in resettlement under pathway 3. The Foreign Office received more than 11,400 expressions of interest when the online window was open between June and August last year. We are assessing them carefully against the relevant published eligibility criteria and working hard to ensure that everyone who expressed interest is provided with a decision as soon as practicable. It remains a priority for the Government to honour the commitments we made to eligible at-risk people. We continue to work in close co-operation with British Council, GardaWorld and Chevening colleagues to support and resettle eligible individuals.
On Home Office security checks, Members will appreciate that the Government have a duty to protect the security of the UK and ensure the safety of its citizens. It would be wrong to make a blanket offer of sanctuary to those who may have committed offences that would be crimes in the UK or who pose a threat to our national security. That is why everyone who comes to the UK from Afghanistan is subject to rigorous security checks.
It is also why any offer of a place on the ACRS is contingent on an individual satisfying those security checks. We are pleased that for many the initial security checks have now been completed, which allows us to notify them of the outcome and provide advice on next steps. If my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay will allow me to proceed just a little further, I will give way soon.
Let me turn to the next steps for those who have passed the initial security checks. A number, having passed initial security checks, have been able to secure passports and visas to travel to third countries outside Afghanistan. Some are waiting for visas or passports to be issued and some have not yet applied for them. Members will appreciate that travelling from Afghanistan is challenging and takes time, particularly for those who are currently undocumented. Travelling throughout Afghanistan and across borders involves crossing multiple Taliban check- points, and people are often asked to provide documents to verify their identity. Those who attempt travel without them may put themselves at risk. The Taliban and countries surrounding Afghanistan require valid documents for travel across their borders.
We are committed to working in step with the international community, including by co-ordinating with like-minded partners and countries that neighbour Afghanistan on resettlement issues to support safe passage for eligible people and allow them to cross their borders from Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds. The House will understand that I am unable to go into detail about the resettlement journey, for obvious reasons; however, the Government remain grateful to partner Governments in the region for their continued support for our resettlement operations.
Once in a third country, those eligible are offered accommodation and support, paid for by the UK Government through our development budget, while they continue to be processed for resettlement and undergo biometric visa checks. A number have been referred to the International Organisation for Migration, which provides the majority of third-country support, including medical care, food and accommodation. I recently met the head of the International Organisation for Migration and I am very grateful for their ongoing support.
I recognise that the Minister would probably need an hour and a half just to explain where we are, but I have a quick question. Surely those people who were British contractors and applied through the scheme already have clearance. They must have had that clearance whenever they were working as British contractors in Afghanistan, or they would never have got the job. Is that not right?
People arrive by different streams, so that is true of some of them but not all of them.
The Government have also put in place support for eligible Afghans once they have arrived in the UK. As the House is aware, the Government have engaged extensively with local authorities and other partners to source suitable accommodation as soon as possible. We are committed to supporting people to settle, find jobs and rebuild their lives in the UK. Anyone resettled through the ACRS will receive indefinite leave to remain under existing rules. They will be able to apply for British citizenship after five years in the UK.
I applaud my right hon. Friend for trying to clarify the situation, but may I bring us back to basics? I asked the Government about how Hansard stands at the moment. Forty-seven have been given the green light to leave the country; we are therefore still talking about 150—security checks or not—of the 200 British Council contractors who have not been contacted at all. That is how the position stands in Hansard, and I have not heard the Minister correct it. May we have clarity on that, please?
Also, when it comes to the quota, is the 1,500 an upper limit on the three groups that we have been discussing, or is the Minister saying that in time there will be a further iteration so that there is in effect no limit for the three groups? That is the sort of clarity we lack.
On my hon. Friend’s second point, I am unable to say. Currently, the position is clear: 1,500 is the limit, and that includes dependents. I am very clear about that.
My hon. Friend asked whether anyone has been given the green light to come to the UK under this scheme, and about the 47 contractors referenced by the Minister last week. It might be best for me to be clear about the answer to that question: the total number of British Council and GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni informed that they are eligible in principle for resettlement, subject to passing security checks, stands at nearly 200. Including their dependents, that accounts for more than 750 of the 1,500 available places on pathway 3. Of those, a sizeable number have passed initial security checks and are being advised on next steps, including travel to visa application centres, as I said earlier.
May I press the Minister on that? We have heard that figure previously.
May I complete the point, because I am coming on to the precise number he asked about? I know there is a desire for specific numbers, and details of each cohort and their position throughout the process of settlement, but this is a dynamic picture that changes daily. Individual cases can progress at different speeds for a number of different reasons. Given the sensitivity of the security checks element of the process, I am sure that Members will understand why we have declined to give precise numbers of individuals. Importantly, we do not think it is helpful to those in-country for us to give a running commentary on numbers, which might draw attention to the ones preparing to cross the border. I ask my hon. Friend to reflect carefully on that point.
I will reflect carefully on that point, but I am not even getting any assurances privately about the numbers. It is all very well to quote big numbers, but— I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British Council, so I apologise but I will focus on that—we know that 200 eligible contractors, the majority of whom we have heard nothing about, are deemed to be at very high risk or high risk of their lives. The figure on the record—the Minister was not reticent about giving out figures last Wednesday—is that 47 have been given the green light. That suggests that 150—security checks or not—have not been told to proceed. They are in the dark still. If not now, when can we get some clarification on the British Council contractors?
Order. We are marching towards 2.58 pm.
I ask my hon. Friend to allow us to consider whether we can provide any further information, but I want to be absolutely clear and concise in what I say today. Those are the reasons why we are not giving out further figures.
I was going to say something about broader support for Afghanistan from His Majesty’s Government, but I will not. I think I will conclude—
The Minister was clear on the 1,500 cap, but he did not offer a defence of it. We are talking about people who in essence are now at risk because they assisted the UK mission. Why should we be saying to people, “Sorry, not this year—we’re full up”? Why should there be a cap?
There will always be arguments for and against figures. That is the settled position of the Government and I am not in a position today to comment any further on it.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) asked me about refugee status; all those arriving in the UK under the ARAP and ACRS have the right to work and access education, healthcare, and public funds. I hope that is helpful to her.
In conclusion, the UK Government remain committed to offering a safe and legal route to the UK for eligible British Council, GardaWorld and Chevening alumni affected by the appalling events in Afghanistan in August 2021. I acknowledge and understand the strength of feeling in the House about the speed of progress. The Government remain acutely aware of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and are working with partners to try to influence the Taliban. We are also working at pace to deliver on our commitment to relocate eligible Afghans who supported the UK mission and our wider values and are at risk as a result. I look forward to the day we can confirm to the House that we have succeeded in repaying that debt of honour.
Mr Shannon, I will give you a maximum of two minutes, because that is what is allowed.
I thank all Members for their contributions. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) has left the Chamber, but she very clearly underlined the issues for women—what they can and cannot do and how they are flogged. It was a reminder of just how brutal the Taliban are. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to the urgency of the matter. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) speaks with knowledge; there have been lots of moral questions coming from us all, but they came from the hon. Gentleman today in particular.
I understand that the Government are trying to be careful with what they respond to, but we need to see urgency. I commend the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for employing an Afghan refugee in her office; that is really positive and I thank her. She referred to the fact that the Foreign Office is committed to helping those who worked with the British authorities, yet they are not getting into the UK.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) brings a wealth of knowledge to this subject, for which I thank her. She referred to the fact that women and girls are banned from education, and underlined the urgency to process their applications. She said that what has been done for Ukrainians can be done for Afghans.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) brings knowledge to all these debates. He referred to how inadequate the scheme is and how more contributions are needed. He also referred to how we must work alongside our NATO and USA allies.
There was a real passion from the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown)—a nice ferocity, as I called it earlier. She mentioned the 900 people she had helped. I say well done to her: we all stand in awe of her contributions. We all summed up very clearly that life in Afghanistan is now critical and we need to make good our duty of care.
I thank the Minister for his response. I he was trying to be careful with what he said, but he has grasped that we all feel the urgency. What we are all looking for today—what the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay and all of us want—is a scheme that works, and works urgently. We sit here in frustration, watching people in a far-off land who have given their all for us. We ask ourselves, “Why are we not doing more for them?”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Pathway 3 of the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.