Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme

Victoria Atkins Excerpts
Monday 25th October 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Ministry of Justice
Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.

Victoria Atkins Portrait The Minister for Afghan Resettlement (Victoria Atkins)
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I promised in my statement to the House on 13 September that I would update the House regularly on Operation Warm Welcome. I am in the process of drafting a “Dear colleague” letter, which will be sent to colleagues later this week, but the hon. Lady has beaten me to it. I am, of course, pleased to appear before the House today in the meantime.

The Government worked at pace to facilitate the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory, assisting the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to help more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan to safety in the United Kingdom. A huge programme of work is now under way across Government to ensure Afghans brought to the United Kingdom receive a warm welcome and the vital support they need to build bright futures in our country. That work spans across Government, charities, other organisations, local authorities and communities. The aim is to give Afghans arriving here the best possible start to life in the United Kingdom, while also making sure that local services can work effectively to support people.

On 13 September, I made a statement, and the Home Office published a comprehensive policy statement, confirming that the Government have committed to take around 5,000 people in the first year and a total of up to 20,000 people over the coming years under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The statement also set out who would be eligible and who would be prioritised, and how we will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organisations to ensure the ACRS provides a safe route for vulnerable people at risk. While we appreciate the need to act quickly, it is also important that we do this properly and ensure that any scheme meets the needs of those it is being set up to support.

Our work to support Afghan citizens has not paused while the resettlement scheme is being developed. The Home Office is continuing to work with partners across Government, including in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, given that many of those requiring support are in fact British nationals, to provide permanent housing for the thousands already relocated here. Some of the people evacuated will form the first part of the 5,000 people being resettled.

I am pleased to tell the House that over 200 councils have agreed to house those who have been evacuated. I am extremely grateful for that and, as always, I continue to encourage councils that have not felt able to make offers or those that can perhaps offer more places of housing to do so. This is a national effort. We are all determined to give Afghan people a warm welcome in this country, and I look forward to working with colleagues across the House to achieve this.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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In answer to the hon. Lady’s many questions, she may recall that, in the course of the oral statement on 13 September and indeed in the “Dear colleague” letter that accompanied it, I had to be frank with the House in relation to the emails Members of Parliament had been sending—about people in Afghanistan who are not constituents, but whose safety they understandably want to ensure if they have emailed been and contacted by them—that due to the new situation as it then was in Afghanistan, we would not be able to work those cases as we would expect to in other casework scenarios.

Regrettably, the situation in Afghanistan has not changed since I last addressed the House. We do not have a British Army presence in Afghanistan and we do not have a British consular presence. There are, of course, many members of staff in countries around Afghanistan who are doing their absolute best to work with those who have made the journey into surrounding countries, but we must be realistic about the situation in country. We are working with international partners to find ways and routes out of Afghanistan, but we must do so with the international community.

The hon. Lady mentions the ambitious target of 5,000 that the Prime Minister set for the first year of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and that is in addition to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, under which many thousands of people were evacuated both before and during Operation Pitting. The majority of Chevening scholars were evacuated, and we are working with international partners to try to find ways for those who remain. The foundation on which the Government are working is to try to do things in what are difficult and fast-evolving circumstances, and to do what is right for people who have already been evacuated here, and those we wish to evacuate in future. I am afraid these things take time, but I hope I have the support of the House in creating the scheme in a way that best serves the interests of Afghans. I understand why the hon. Lady secured this urgent question, but I suggest we will achieve this through day-to-day work and by working together to ensure that the scheme addresses the concerns she raised.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I can certainly provide my right hon. Friend with that assurance. We want to get this right, which is why it is taking us a bit of time. I understand the concerns of colleagues, and also, as she said, the real concerns of Afghans already in this country. I have met many, and every one has raised concerns about their families and friends left behind. I understand that, but it will take a bit of time, and I ask the House to bear with us while we try to ensure we get it right.

Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I can deal with the hon. Gentleman’s point on Chevening scholars. The scheme has not been launched yet. We want to get this right, so I am afraid that I will have to give him the holding answer, which is that we are working on the scheme. I know that he would not expect me to give details, thoughts or running commentary on how the policy is being developed before we have, as a Government, come to a collective agreement on it so that we can best ensure that the policy meets the very real needs that many in this House have raised.

I imagine that only today, we will hear not just about Chevening scholars but, for example, about religious minorities, about people who are LGBT+ and about extraordinary women who have done extraordinary things in Afghanistan in the last 20 years in pursuit of equality and the rights of women before the law. Those are all categories of people that we have set out in the policy statement that we want to help, but we have to do this in a managed and measured way so that we get the scheme right and, over the coming years, it delivers the sorts of changes and help that everyone in the House expects.

Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for highlighting one of the factors that I must bear in mind while I am at the Dispatch Box and that the Government must bear in mind in public communications: the unintended consequences of what we say at the Dispatch Box, how that may reverberate into Afghanistan and the impact it may have on people still in Afghanistan. I know from conversations I have had with Afghans who have been evacuated that when pronouncements are made in this place or in the media, they really do have unintended consequences in Afghanistan. I am afraid that I have to temper all my answers to ensure that neither I nor anyone else in this place inadvertently creates consequences that none of us would want.

Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. May I also take the opportunity to thank the Scottish Government for the work they are doing to help us with our resettlement programme for Afghans? It really is appreciated. I know that the Scottish Government, as well as the Welsh and Northern Irish Governments, are working with us to ensure that we are able to offer accommodation to Afghans across the United Kingdom.

On matching delays, one thing we tried to do, and indeed have done, over the last two months since Operation Pitting finished was conduct detailed induction interviews with every single family in bridging hotels. There may be some who say, “Why didn’t this happen in Kabul?” Well, with the best will in the world our soldiers on the ground in Kabul, we will remember, were in an emergency and in highly dangerous circumstances. They were not able to conduct the sort of detailed interviews that we have been conducting over the last few weeks. We have been able to do that and are cleansing that data at the moment. Having that data now means we will be able to match homes to families much more quickly in future. Again, as hon. Members will appreciate, an offer of a two-bed flat is not much good if a family has five or six children. We have to match very carefully. We are also mindful that, where we can, we want to take into account, for example, community ties and links with defence. The Ministry of Defence is working with the Royal British Legion and others to try to ensure pastoral support for our ARAP friends as well. It is not simply a question of matching numbers to homes.

On bridging hotels, we have approximately 11,000 people in bridging hotels at the moment, which shows the scale of the task. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman’s eyebrows raised a bit with that. That shows the scale of the task ahead of us. This will take time. I have been frank with the House at every opportunity to make that clear. It will take us time, but we want to do it right.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of security. Again, I do not want there to be any unintended consequences, but we are very, very mindful of the security needs of our bridging hotels and the people who reside in them. Clearly, any actions to target them are not only unlawful and illegal, but despicable in moral terms. The police and others will work very hard to ensure that that does not happen.

On Aspen cards, we have been issuing them as quickly as we can. There was a slight technical glitch at one point with the provision of chips within cards—I will not bore the House with that—but we have managed to get over that. Aspen cards are very much a part of our support package to people in bridging hotels.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend and very much echo his observations about international partners in the region; it is important that we do everything we can to work with them. I will make sure, if they have not already heard him, that Foreign Office Ministers are aware of his concerns and his request that they continue to work with international organisations to achieve the ends that he set out.

Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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Again, I am afraid this is one of those answers that no Minister wants to give. I refer the hon. Lady to the “Dear colleague” letter that was published on 13 September. We simply cannot casework these cases as she and others would expect us to be able to do if they were in the United Kingdom or any other settled and developed economy. That is why we are working at pace with international partners to develop the ACRS scheme and to get out those who have been referred to it.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. If he would not mind contacting me afterwards regarding the accommodation point, I am very happy to take that up.

Yvette Cooper Portrait Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab)
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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.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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Given the range of issues that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee has understandably raised, may I invite the right hon. Lady to meet me to discuss some of them? There are matters that it would not be right to talk about on the Floor of the House, but I am very happy to meet her to discuss them further.

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)
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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.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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Very much so. In relation to those who are outside Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence and others are working very hard with international partners to secure safe routes where it is possible to do so.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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Because the scheme has not been launched yet, as we are still developing it, I do not have a precise figure for the right hon. Gentleman. However, I ask him not to take from that that the figure has been met or otherwise. At the moment, I am not able to help the House with that number; when I can do, I will.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con)
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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.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I am aware that colleagues on the Doha trip met those children, and I thank those colleagues for taking such an interest. I can assure my hon. Friend that this is being worked through. As always, there are safeguarding and other matters that we must turn our minds to, as we are doing, but we are trying to work through this as quickly as we can.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I would be very happy to discuss the matter with the hon. Gentleman. May I put on record my thanks to Welsh councils and the Welsh Government for the work that they are doing, and have done for many years?

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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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?

--- Later in debate ---
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Can the hon. Lady respond to me and my constituents, who wish to offer those people not only places in the two factories, but accommodation? The offer is there today.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I am delighted to hear that from the hon. Gentleman. This is one of the things I am working on at the moment. There are so many things our Afghan friends can offer us, in terms of employment opportunities and working in our local communities. I am really pleased to hear what he says. There will be more to announce on the principle in due course, but I am very happy to discuss the matter with him in more detail to see what can be done with the companies that he mentions.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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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.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, the Government are very aware of the potential security ramifications if the security situation in Afghanistan gets worse; that is why we are working with international partners to do what we can internationally to secure it. On the point about unaccompanied children, I am personally aware of the case, and we are working through it. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s urgency. As I say, we have to ensure that the actions we take are very much in the best interests of the children.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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If I may deal with the hon. Lady’s second point first, I am delighted to tell the House that the majority of children are already in school, or are being placed in school. We know that there are differences among local authorities, depending on availability of school places, but that is a key factor in the matching operation between families and offers of homes. As for the hon. Lady’s first point, again, I understand the concerns of constituents with family members in Afghanistan. As I have said previously, the situation at the moment means that we are unable to provide the help that we would wish to provide in normal circumstances, but I encourage Members to continue to refer to the website, because as and when we are able to update it, we will do so.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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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.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I well understand the motivation behind the right hon. Gentleman’s question. If people were called forward in the way that we have described in the policy statement, they may well form part of the three categories that we set out in that statement in relation to the ACRS. As for those who have not been called forward, again we are working very hard across Government and with international partners, but sadly I fear I cannot add anything to what I said earlier.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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I have not banned the hon. Member from acting on behalf of her constituents, and, if I may say so, I do not expect to see that wording repeated outside this Chamber, because it is not what I have said. I have been realistic with colleagues in explaining that I cannot respond to their requests in the usual caseworking manner because of the situation in Afghanistan. As for community groups, this is part of our work that we are considering for the ACRS. I am very conscious of the enormous role that they have played in the past through, for example, the Syrian resettlement scheme, and I want very much to build on those successes as part of this scheme.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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As I would say to any other Member of this House, if a request for a meeting has not been acted on, please speak to me at any time, because I will ensure that it happens. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have to say that I do not recall having that conversation with him; however, I will certainly act on what he says now.

As for the timeframe, the Ministry of Defence has been evacuating ARAP translators since, I think, 2014. It is right that we put even more energy into that effort from April this year, but as I have said, Operation Pitting was the largest evacuation in living memory. We are proud of the efforts of the military and everyone else involved in it, and we now want to ensure that the work that they did in Kabul is met with a warm welcome here in the United Kingdom.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
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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.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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On the matter of unaccompanied children in Doha, we have to ensure that the family members who have been put forward are who they claim to be, or who people have claimed them to be. We also have to ensure that they are able to take the child or children and look after them. This is taking a bit of time, and it is very much being done from a place of wanting to ensure the safety of those children once they are in the United Kingdom. As I say, we are very much working on this. In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s other comments, I do not feel that I can add anything to what I have already said.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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As I have said to other hon. Members, the fact is that we do not have British Army presence or consular presence in Afghanistan, and we are very much bound by those constraints now. I am very conscious of the impact on family members, and we have to try to find international solutions to this. We are working across the region with third countries to try to come up with solutions, but as I have said to the House repeatedly, there are no easy answers. I am very conscious of that in all our discussions.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
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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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins
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In relation to communications with the Home Office, as I said in the “dear colleague” letter, we are collating that data and will consider how to use it in due course. We have to look at how else we can support and bolster the claims that people put forward.

The right hon. Lady will appreciate that in a population of 40 million, half of whom are female, very many people will fall into the initial category of being vulnerable and scared for their existence. We cannot, however, accommodate 40 million people, so we have to make some incredibly difficult decisions. That is why it is taking us time to ensure that we get the scheme right. We are speaking to respected international organisations to ensure that we get the criteria and the methodology right, because as I said at the beginning, we want this scheme to work, and we want people, when they are here, to have the warm welcome of which we have spoken so much in recent weeks and months.