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Taliban Relations and Afghan Refugees

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs whether he has plans to develop formal relations with the Taliban, and whether he has made representations to the Government of Pakistan about the deportation of Afghan refugees.

As the noble Baroness knows, the situation with respect to Afghanistan is very difficult. My officials engage with the regime on priorities, including humanitarian access, without conferring any legitimacy on the Taliban. We are reviewing the recommendations of the UN special co-ordinator’s report to support the Afghan people and improve international relations. Specifically on the question of Pakistan’s deportation of Afghan refugees, we do not support these actions. I met with the Pakistan Foreign Minister on Friday, in Dubai, and raised this question with him. Pakistan has a history of welcoming vulnerable refugees, and we will continue to urge its Government to respect the human rights of all Afghans.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his Answer. The lack of recognition of the Taliban authority has inadvertently provided the Taliban and Pakistan with unrestricted freedom and influence over policies in Afghanistan. The current concern, as the noble Lord pointed out, is the enforced resettlement of thousands of refugees from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The Taliban policy of relocating Shia minorities in Sunni areas has dangerous implications. What measures, including further negotiations with the Pakistan Government, can the UK Government take to avert potential religious and other conflicts in the region?

I thank the noble Baroness for her Question and her deep interest in this subject. I think the reason the Pakistan Government are doing this is that they are concerned about the activities of the Pakistan Taliban within Afghanistan, and this is their way of trying to get the Taliban Government to address that. One of the points I made to them is that that might well be counter- productive and we think this is the wrong move. We will continue to raise this with the Pakistan authorities at every level and on every occasion. Obviously, we have a specific British interest to make sure that any Afghans who worked for our authorities in Afghanistan, and who have a right to come and settle here under either of the two schemes we have, are not inadvertently pushed back into Afghanistan. That is our number one concern.

On the issue of the regime and recognition, I am sure there will be other questions about this, but, fundamentally, as the House knows, the Foreign Office always says that we recognise states and not Governments, which I know is right. However, on this occasion, when you look at this regime and what it is responsible for, you see that it bans women from working for the United Nations; it is the only country in the world to ban girls from secondary school; it restricts women’s access to parks, playgrounds and other public spaces; and it has a complete ban on women attending university. We are some way off moving to recognise this regime. We need to keep the pressure on for it to change its approach.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary may recall when he was Prime Minister meeting members of Afghanistan Commando Force 333, a counternarcotics unit that later became a counter- insurgency unit, which was created, trained, mentored and funded by His Majesty’s Government. He will be appalled to know that former and deserving members of CF 333, and the similarly created and funded ATF 444, were wrongly refused resettlement under the ARAP process. Abandoned, several have been killed and/or tortured. About 100 CF 333 and ATF 444 applicants were rejected and are in Pakistan, fearing imminent deportation and a death sentence. Will the Foreign Secretary agree to meet with me and a delegation of noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords and Baronesses so that we can explain the compelling case for an urgent review of the rejected or rescinded approvals of their settlement applications?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. Of course, he has great experience of this, having been the Defence Secretary for a prolonged period when we were in that fight in Afghanistan, and he knows exactly about the issues he raises. I am very happy to take away the point he makes about those two units and to look at them specifically. Under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy—the ARAP scheme—I think 12,200 people have been repatriated so far. Of course, the Foreign Office scheme, for which I am responsible—the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme—has the capacity for up to 20,000 people. I am very happy to take away the specific points that he makes and see what we can do to help.

My Lords, after 9/11, when the West went into Afghanistan, we encouraged the women to come forward and play their part in public life, and they bravely responded. As my noble friend just said, since the Taliban came in in 2021, they have stopped women having access to education and basically pushed them back into their homes. Many are calling this gender apartheid. How will we ensure that the women of Afghanistan can play their part in their country, going forward?

I thank my noble friend for her question. It is appalling how women are treated in Afghanistan. I gave some of the points earlier about access to school, education and university, and even to public spaces. We have to use the maximum leverage that we have. Of course, while we need to help people in Afghanistan who are facing great food insecurity and huge difficulties around shelter and livelihoods—and we are helping—we can do that through United Nations organisations, rather than through the Government of Afghanistan. We should continue to do that and use the pressure that we have to say to the regime that it needs to change its ways with respect to women and girls.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary has already mentioned that there is a danger of people in Pakistan who have ARAP entitlement being sent back to Afghanistan, and a hope that we can persuade Pakistan not to let them go back. Could he show the House the Government’s commitment to people who have ARAP entitlement, or ACRS entitlement, and talk with his right honourable friends in the other place the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, and the Cabinet Office, about ensuring that every single person who has ARAP entitlement is able to come from Pakistan or Afghanistan to this country? We owe those people; what are we doing?

The noble Baroness is completely right; this is a cross-government effort. We have to make sure we identify these people, contact them and let them know about their right to come and live here. Then we have to work out, across the different departments of government, how to make sure that can happen in a way that works for them and their families. I can tell her that that is exactly what is happening in government at the moment.

My Lords, the noble Lord just mentioned the ban on UN aid workers in Afghanistan. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, here; in January, in response to an Urgent Question, he stressed the need for the Islamic world to speak out. I welcome very much the Foreign Secretary’s recent discussions with the Pakistan authorities, but what is he doing to support the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, in ensuring that we expand that to ensure that other voices are heard condemning this isolated regime banning women from attending hospitals and other humanitarian support? It is incredibly damaging.

From what I have seen in the last three weeks, I know that my noble friend is incredibly active in his travels, particularly around the Middle East, north Africa and much of the Muslim world. He is an incredibly effective spokesman for the Government in trying to make a change on these issues. One of the things that is necessary is to make sure that those states which often privately speak very frankly about these things make it part of their public narrative. The work we do on that will be really essential.

My Lords, now that the Government have helpfully dropped their requirement that suitable housing in the UK be secured before Afghans may travel from Pakistan to the UK, and returning to what the Foreign Secretary described as his number one priority, how many UK visas have been issued since the policy was reversed on housing requirements to those Afghans trapped in Pakistan who qualify under one of the two main schemes that we initiated?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I do not have the figures since that change, but the overall figures are that ARAP has seen 12,200 people repatriated and the ACRS has a capacity of 20,000. Perhaps I can keep her and the House up to date about the figures as they progress. We are doing everything we can to contact those people on the Pakistan-Afghan border, but at the same time it is important to make it clear to the Pakistan Government that it would be unacceptable for them to deport anybody who has the right to come here.