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Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy

Volume 814: debated on Wednesday 15 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking through the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy to support (1) individuals, and (2) groups, working on Official Development Assistance funded projects on gender and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

My Lords, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy was set up to facilitate the resettlement of Afghan nationals who worked with the UK Government in Afghanistan. A number of gender and women’s rights activists were evacuated as special cases under Operation Pitting, and those still in Afghanistan may be eligible for resettlement under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme.

I thank the Minister. What precise assessment has the FCDO made of the number of affiliated academics and/or researchers currently in hiding? What on-the-ground assistance can be relied on to ensure their safe evacuation within the next few days?

As the noble Baroness will know, safe evacuation within the next few days is incredibly challenging, first, because of the lack of consular assistance and, secondly, because of the dangers in getting people out. But the schemes that we are running will enable people like those the noble Baroness talks about to ultimately find safety in this country.

My Lords, I ask the Minister to reiterate the Government’s current advice to those desperate Afghans who are fleeing to the border, because there seems to be a contradiction between departments on that advice. What help and advice under the UK resettlement scheme can the Government offer to the many Afghan women judges who are in hiding from the Taliban because of the years in which they headed up specialist courts in the 34 provinces to protect women and girls?

I wholeheartedly concur with the noble Baroness on consistency of approach across government. It is no time for there to be differences in what departments are saying. In terms of the people that the noble Baroness refers to, I am going to read from the policy statement because it clarifies it:

“The scheme will prioritise … those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech, or rule of law (for example, judges, women’s rights activists, academics, and journalists)”.

My Lords, the Minister has just stated what the policy will do. Can she tell us when we are going to get details of the resettlement policy? At the moment, there are thousands of people in hiding with no idea of how they are going to get out of Afghanistan and what they need to do to give this Government the right information to enable them to get out.

My honourable friend Victoria Atkins has started to outline some of the detail of what we are doing so far, and I think more will come. The policy statement makes very clear the types of people we will be prioritising—that is, the people who are most vulnerable to the Taliban.

My Lords, development contractors delivering projects for women and girls on behalf of the UK Government routinely employed local staff. Currently, the ARAP scheme does not recognise them as it recognises people employed directly by the Government. But these people are at risk; they are receiving regular and legitimate threats to life. Can my noble friend the Minister look at expanding the ARAP scheme to ensure that these people, as and when we are able to get them out of Afghanistan, can receive the help that they need?

I thank my noble friend for that question. As she acknowledges, the ARAP scheme has already been broadened both before and during Operation Pitting. It was extended to include those who resigned from service, who were dismissed for all but serious misconduct or criminal offences and additional family members of certain contractors who worked alongside the UK and represented its interests. It is not our intention to broaden the scheme, but those who worked as contractors in support of women’s rights were eligible for evacuation as special cases and will be eligible for resettlement under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.

My Lords, in a society where women are discouraged or prevented from achieving economic independence, the fate of widows, whose number has grown exponentially in the conflict, is even more calamitous than in many other countries where they are merely ostracised. The plight of widowed mothers and their dependants in Afghanistan is that they are easy prey to exploitation of the worse kind and must not remain in the dark. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will commit to working with specialist NGOs to develop programmes to support such women with, or if necessary, without, the acquiescence of the new Government of Afghanistan?

The Government, particularly the Prime Minister, have made it very clear that we will work with the new regime. Prioritising the sorts of things that the noble Lord talks about is incredibly important—because they are the most vulnerable cohort of people that we are trying to both help in the region and resettle out of the region.

My Lords, last week I raised the vulnerability of the LGBT community in Afghanistan with the FCDO Minister, and I called on him to work with the Home Office to ensure that the resettlement scheme can help. Can the Minister tell us what cross-departmental work has taken place since to help to facilitate safe passage for the LGBT community, including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, mentioned, those who have worked on ODA-funded projects in Afghanistan, making them particularly vulnerable?

I recognise all that the noble Lord has said. Of course we work with things like the UNHCR. If I may go back to the policy statement, the point that comes after the first one that I read out refers to:

“vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk, and members of minority groups at risk, including ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT.”

LGBT people must be some of the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan at this point in time.

I welcome the noble Baroness’s statement. When it was clear and obvious that the Taliban were about to take over, the Government of Greece agreed to get women MPs out of Afghanistan because they were in very evident danger. That enabled those women to use their existing networks. Will our Government, in consultation with other international Governments, identify groups of women and girls who will be prioritised so that we can use what remains of their networks while we do not have a consular presence to get them out quickly?

The noble Baroness mentions a very sensible point: this is a global crisis, in many ways, because helping these people requires a global response, and co-ordinating effort is eminently sensible. I cannot give her details on what is going on, but there is a co-ordinated approach across government, and certainly lots of bilaterals are going on at this moment with my noble friend Lord Ahmad and other Ministers across the world.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to join other Members of the House to press the Minister to facilitate, as a matter of urgency, safe passage for those Afghan citizens who worked specifically on UK-funded academic research to advance the UK’s international development agenda? They have risked their lives undertaking fieldwork in areas of policy and practice that the Taliban see as a threat to their objectives.

As I said to other noble Lords, the ACRS will prioritise those people who have assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and who face particular risk from the Taliban because of their stance on democracy and human rights or because of their gender, sexuality or religion.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, quite rightly pointed out that, with Afghan women MPs being helped to come out of Afghanistan, some of their networks have been broken up, as have some of the family structures. Could the Government undertake also to work with the diaspora in this country to ensure that some of these networks and families are being reunited and brought to work again?

I declare an interest, as I chair the UK board of a peacebuilding charity that still operates within Afghanistan. The Minister indicated that UK officials have been in direct talks with the Taliban about the relocation, which is very welcome. However, of course we would all want to see continuing programmes within Afghanistan, so can the Minister confirm that UK officials will continue to talk with Taliban authorities? In the debate during the recall, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, told me that no UK aid will go to the Taliban Government directly. What is the Government’s policy on continuing to provide overseas development assistance for these vital programmes that we would all wish, in an ideal world, to continue?

If the noble Lord is amenable, I will ask the FCDO to outline precisely the details of that because it is slightly beyond my purview today.