Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Victoria AtkinsMain Page: Victoria Atkins (Conservative - Louth and Horncastle)
Department Debates - View all Victoria Atkins's debates with the Ministry of Justice
I am grateful to the Minister for her response. She says the Government are working “at pace”, but I can promise her it does not feel like that for the Afghans still stuck in Afghanistan with no idea if and how they will be able to get to safety or if and how the Government will deliver on their promises. It certainly does not feel like that to hon. Members who have been writing emails and making phone calls, desperate to get some kind of response from the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and who again and again, frankly, have just been fobbed off with standard, formulaic emails that do not address the problems we are raising with them on a daily basis.
The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme was announced on 18 August, and on 6 September the Prime Minister told the House that the scheme was
“upholding Britain’s finest tradition of welcoming those in need.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 21.]
Yet two months on and counting, we have still heard nothing. That is utterly shameful: lives depend on that scheme—not just those who are at risk from the Taliban, but she will know of the deep and growing humanitarian crisis gripping Afghanistan, with about half the population starving.
Can the Minister tell us how much longer do we have to wait until the resettlement scheme opens? If the scheme is going to be by referral, when will those at risk get information about how their cases can be referred and assessed? Has the Government’s derisory 5,000-person cap on how many Afghan nationals will be helped in the first year already been reached or exceeded before the scheme is even open? Will the Minister tell us, on behalf of all those desperate for safety, including former BBC staff and freelance journalists, how many places have already been allocated and how many are left?
Ministerial promises need to be kept, especially to Chevening families and alumni, so when will the scholars at Sussex University and others elsewhere be told if they are to be included in the ACRS? Will former Chevening scholars and their families get the help they are owed? Those who have been very high profile in their support of Government programmes, especially the president and vice-president of the Chevening alumni, live in daily fear. Why have they not been prioritised, and why have some current scholars been allowed to bring their wider families to the UK, and others not?
Local authorities such as Brighton and Hove, a city of sanctuary, want to know: when will they get firm written assurances that they will receive the promised package of financial support?
Lastly, will the Minister stop sending Afghan family members of British citizens still in Afghanistan into Kafkaesque nightmare situations with referrals to a visa process that the Home Office itself admits is not currently possible from within Afghanistan? Will it instead issue the visa waivers and the emergency travel documents that will help people get the safety they so desperately need?
This morning I attended an Afghan community day, hosted by the Stronger Communities team in Southampton, and supported by Hampshire County Council, Southampton City Council, and Test Valley Borough Council. That was for Afghan families who are already settled here, or who have come here as part of the ARAP scheme. Their big concern is about families still left in Afghanistan, and they are desperately looking for detail and information about how the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will work. My hon. Friend is right to point out the complexities, and we know that this will be harder than the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, precisely because of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Will she please give us some hope that the application and allocation scheme is on its way, and that we will be able to provide our constituents with some sort of update?
I echo the concerns raised so far. It has been two months since the Kabul airlift, and as we know, many of those who needed to be evacuated, having been accepted as high risk, were left behind in Afghanistan and now face persecution under Taliban rule. I share the frustrations of many about the slow progress of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and we are still waiting for details from the Home Office about how that scheme will operate in practice. The Government’s website offering guidance on the scheme has not been updated since 13 September. At the same time, there have been increasing reports of violence against women and girls, and members of the LGBTI community in Afghanistan, and efforts must be made to step up help for those in desperate need.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned Chevening scholars, and my office has raised concerns on behalf of Chevening scholars who remain at high risk in Afghanistan due to their links with the UK. They were eligible for evacuation but were not called forward, and since raising those cases I have had no response from the Government. Will the Minister provide an update on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and inform the House what measures have been taken to ensure that those most at risk are guaranteed safe passage and access to neighbouring countries? What support will former Chevening scholars who are a priority for assistance and still in Afghanistan be eligible to receive, and through which mechanism? I am not sure whether the Minister answered the question about whether they will be guaranteed a place under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. What steps will she take to speed up the community sponsorship scheme to help those in Afghanistan who may not qualify for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme?
I really sympathise with the Minister, who is trying to pick up the pieces left behind by the US Administration’s appalling behaviour in withdrawing from Afghanistan so suddenly and with so little regard for the people left behind. With regard to the people in Afghanistan who are most at risk and therefore cannot show themselves easily to the authorities without risking extreme persecution, is her Department giving special thought to how they might be catered for, perhaps separately from the more routine—if I dare use that word—cases that are currently being dealt with, under the proposed new scheme?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on asking some pretty basic but vital questions about the resettlement scheme. We all want to support resettlement, but we all need to know more, too. Even the expression “up to 20,000” is far too vague. What does that mean? Is the Minister confident that 20,000, or even close to it, will be achieved?
Thirty of Scotland’s 32 local authorities are among those that have committed to supporting Afghans under the different schemes, but specific offers are made more difficult because we have seen delays in matching families to properties, and worries that vital housing stock will have to sit empty for weeks and months. What can be done to speed up that process so that more properties are released?
If over 3,000 Afghans in the asylum system were granted refugee or humanitarian protection as a matter of urgency, more properties could quickly become available, so is that happening? Crucially, when does the Minister aim to have people who are already here out of bridging hotels, and how many are currently in them? Does she share my concern that hotels are being targeted by far-right activists? What lessons do we learn from that for asylum accommodation policy?
Why are there delays in issuing Aspen cards and biometric residence permits? Does the Minister agree that more mental health support is urgently required for those stuck in these hotels? Finally, will she comment on the shocking revelations yesterday that the number of people dying while accommodated in the asylum system has increased hugely, and explain what the Department is doing to understand why that is the case and what the implications are for its future asylum accommodation policy?
I thank the Government for the Foreign Office briefings on Afghanistan that I received while visiting Doha recently. Will the Minister look into using the Qatari embassy in Afghanistan to help facilitate our consular requirements? The folly of our decision to withdraw is beginning to unfold, with more than half the population in Afghanistan facing starvation and a very tough winter. The Taliban clearly cannot cope without international support. We are doing our best to look after Afghans here through Operation Warm Welcome, but may I ask the Government to engage further with the Taliban to secure greater access for United Nations organisations, such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF, to prevent the largest humanitarian disaster in decades from unfolding?
The last time we debated the Government’s response to the situation in Afghanistan, I raised the case of an Afghan doctor with family in Luton North who are desperate to get her and her family to safety. Despite being under serious threat as a doctor who publicly spearheaded vaccination and women’s rights campaigns, and despite Ministers knowing about her case at the time, she was still turned away from the Baron hotel. Despite emailing all the details of the case to every relevant Minister, I am still yet to receive a response months later. When will we get individual responses to cases and updates on individuals’ resettlement applications?
I am glad to say that Cumbria’s councils stand ready to accept as many Afghan refugees as they have space for, but the few early cases that we have had coming through the system have shown some of the troubles that I think my hon. Friend the Minister has alluded to. A family of three was expected at a council in Cumbria; a family of seven arrived, and obviously there was not a property there for them. I recognise the need to cleanse data and work on internal systems, but there appears to be a missing feedback loop—a simple phone call could alert councils to some of the challenges they are facing. Can she update us on what that process looks like?
There are family members of UK citizens and residents whose lives are at risk from the Taliban in Afghanistan but who have no legal route to safety because the Government have not put in place any interim biometrics provision, even though I have raised with the Home Office several ways they could do so. I have also been told that Home Office caseworkers are not deciding any family visa cases because they are still waiting for updated country-specific guidance. There is also no suggestion that there will be provision for them in the resettlement scheme. May I ask the Minister urgently to look into sorting out biometric routes and the updated guidance, and providing for a family route within the resettlement scheme? Those are the families most at risk of being exploited by the criminal gangs if there is no legal route in place.
I am sorry that I was momentarily late, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not want to pursue cases on the Floor of the House, because I know that would not be right, but my hon. Friend the Minister is aware that I have been lobbying her about two Afghan nationals currently in Tehran who are trying to get over here. I have written to her and I hope she will see that piece of correspondence. There is a broader issue about Afghan nationals in countries outside Afghanistan; I know my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), sitting behind me, is also concerned about that, so I raise these concerns on behalf of both of us and, I am sure, other colleagues in the Chamber. We have to do as much as we can to bring people who manage to get out of Afghanistan, but are not yet here, to this country.
I ask again the question posed by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas): how many of the 5,000 places currently allocated have already been filled, and how many of those people are already in the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend will be aware that those of us who visited the refugee centre in Doha a little while ago were very concerned to hear about the unaccompanied children with links to British families, who did not seem to be processed as quickly as those of other countries. Can she assure the House that she will ensure that those children are processed as quickly as possible? The longer they are in limbo, the more harm will be done to them.
The Minister knows the warm welcome that my constituency, the Welsh Government and our councils have already provided to Afghan refugees—and have done for decades, as I think is worth pointing out. However, I am afraid that I am still dealing with well over 300 individuals who have been referred to me by constituents, including some cases that I think would be relatively straightforward for the Government to sort out. One of them involves an individual who should be eligible for ARAP, who worked for the British Council as a contractor. They have left Afghanistan and are in a third country. I have spoken to Ministers directly, but I still cannot get an answer for that person, although it seems to me that it would be relatively straightforward. It is not about getting them out of Afghanistan; they are already out. Their whole family is in Cardiff, and it would make sense to join them. May I discuss the case with the Minister and her colleagues and try to resolve it, along with other cases?
I thank the Minister for all she does. In Northern Ireland, it will be the Northern Ireland Assembly that looks after the allocation of Afghan refugees. At the very beginning of the process, the managing directors of two companies in my constituency, Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct, each offered 20 places in their workforce to Afghanis; they also offered housing and accommodation. Minister, can I ask: after all this time, what is happening?
I, too, visited Doha, and like others I was a guest of the Qatari Government. Two things struck me very strongly. First, things will only get worse over the next few months, because the situation in Afghanistan will be utterly miserable for many millions of people. There will not be food for people to eat; we heard stories this morning of a family selling a baby simply to be able to feed their other children. That will provide a security issue for this country and the rest of the world that the Government need to take on board.
The second point, which has already been made, is that when we went to the refugee camp, all the staff said that other countries were being magnificent and dealing with people very swiftly, but the UK was being very, very slow. That is a Home Office responsibility. I would just like to see a bit more of a sense of urgency from the Minister. How on earth can the scheme still not be in place? We have had 20 months to prepare for this.
Like many Members across the Chamber, I have been contacted by countless constituents with family members still in Afghanistan. The Home Office tells me to direct them to gov.uk, but it was last updated on 13 September; when will it be updated? When will the children from Afghanistan who are already here be able to go to school, or at least have English language lessons?
I understand that about 200 contractors who worked for the British Council are still in Afghanistan. About 30 of them were approved under the ARAP scheme, but were unable to get out; the rest have applied, but many of them have not even been told yet whether they would qualify. I appreciate the difficulties—which the Minister has made clear—of trying to help people who are still in Afghanistan, but I urge her and her colleagues to pay close attention to these people who worked alongside our British Council staff and played a really important role, which is the reason they are at risk.
Among the scores of constituents who are trying to get their Afghan families out—the hon. Lady has essentially banned me from pursuing their individual cases—is one who came to see me last week. She is dreading every day a call to say that one of the members of her family—one worked for UK aid agencies, one is a doctor helping women, another is a member of an Uzbek minority—has been slaughtered by the Taliban. She feels utterly let down by the UK Government, but members of the Twickenham community stand ready to support and sponsor this family. Can the hon. Lady tell the House whether her limit of 5,000 refugees might be extended where sponsorship is available from either local community groups or faith groups based in the UK?
The Government had 18 months in which to plan to evacuate Afghanistan, and have had a further two months since it fell, but the Minister for warm welcome still cannot say today when the resettlement scheme will even start, which does not suggest a sufficient sense of urgency. Can the hon. Lady tell me when the meeting with her that she offered on 8 September will finally happen? My team have been chasing it for seven weeks. Will she also agree to meet my local authority, and agency representatives, who have been supporting the hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers placed in Southwark—though no warning was given to Southwark Council—since the start of September?
We are two months on from the crisis, but many Afghans still have no certainty about their future. Amnesty has accused the Government of moving “at a snail’s pace” in their efforts to assist at-risk Afghans. I want to request two things of the Minister. The first, which a number of colleagues have already touched on, relates to the unaccompanied children in Doha. There are some 200 of them. America, Canada and other countries are dealing with this, but there are 15 children there who have connections with Britain. Can they be looked at urgently? Secondly, there are many family members who are stuck because they are children or husbands who are British citizens, but the wife is not. This also needs to be dealt with urgently, and the family route needs clarification.
My office in Middlesbrough has been inundated with cases of British nationals and their wider families who are trapped in Afghanistan, including children and also the new wife of a constituent. She has threatened to self-immolate if she is left to the devices of the Taliban. I urge Ministers to treat this with the utmost urgency, because time is something that these people do not have. They need to see progress urgently. If we are to do this, will the Minister please give consideration to visa waivers to accelerate the process, because time is absolutely of the essence in reaching every one of them?
The Home Office Afghan citizens resettlement scheme has yet to make it clear how vulnerable Afghans who are still in Afghanistan will be categorised for eligibility. We know that there are particularly high-risk groups, including high-profile women, human rights activists, LGBT+ people and journalists. Could the hon. Lady explain how her Department is making full use of the information already provided by such desperate people to the Foreign Office’s public hotline and emergency email address? This is readily available evidence for identifying and prioritising those people who are most at risk. Will she also tell the House what has happened to this data?