Thousands of Afghans accepted for relocation to UK still stranded eight months on

Thousands of Afghans who worked alongside the British military are still trapped in the country eight months after the fall of Kabul, as government resources have been diverted from processing their UK visas in an effort to deal with the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

Former interpreters and other local staff who were employed by the British army in Afghanistan and are therefore eligible for relocation to the UK say they are living in hiding with their families, in fear of death, with no set date for their transfer to Britain.

But despite this, the Home Office has redeployed resources from these cases in order to speed up processing times for the Ukraine schemes that were launched last month in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

The UK’s Afghan Relocation Assistance Program (ARAP), which opened in April 2021, was designed to transfer those who had helped the British military, along with their immediate family members, to safety in Britain.

Campaigners have called for the scheme, as well as those set up to help Ukrainians, to be given the proper resources to ensure that refugees are brought out of danger, after the Ukraine schemes were also criticized following considerable processing delays.

Sarah Magill, director of Azadi Charity, an organization supporting applicants to the ARAP scheme, said she had been made aware through working on these cases that resources had been “significantly depleted due to the government redeploying ARAP team members to respond to the invasion of Ukraine ”.

Ms Magill said she knew of more than 800 fully accepted applicants who were eligible to enter the UK but could not leave Afghanistan because the UK was not helping them to obtain travel documents.

The British government has admitted that there are 1,000 applicants – along with their family members – who remain there despite having been accepted under the scheme. Both the Home Office and the Ministry of Defense (MoD) are involved with the processing of applications.

“There is an obvious need to expand the ARAP task force urgently without depleting the secondment of resources to Ukraine, and we ask the government to ensure that action is taken urgently before more lives are lost,” Ms Magill said.

The Independent‘s Refugees Welcome campaign has called on the UK government to do more to help those escaping danger in Afghanistan and the Ukraine.

Around 8,500 individuals accepted under the ARAP scheme were evacuated in August 2021 during the UK’s mass evacuation of Kabul, known as Operation Pitting, while 1,500 have been relocated to the UK since.

But armed forces minister James Heappey admitted, in response to a newly unearthed parliamentary written question at the end of February, that 1,000 people with “confirmed eligibility” for the scheme remained in Afghanistan, along with their family members. This means the overall number of people stranded is likely to amount to more than 4,000.

The response to a separate parliamentary question reveals that thousands are awaiting decisions. Mr Heappey said that 10,071 applications were received in February and March, of which only 3,760 had been decided on – leaving more than 6,000 undecided from those two months alone.

One of those who have been accepted under ARAP but remain in Afghanistan is Ahmad*, who worked for the British military for seven years until the Taliban takeover last August. He said he was “fearing for [his] life” because he and his wife were unable to flee the country despite being told they would be relocated to the UK two months ago.

The 27-year-old said he and his wife were unable to obtain travel documents because they couldn’t afford to and it would put them at risk to attend the passport office.

“We live in fear, in hiding. If we need to buy food, we need to have someone else go out for us. We try to protect ourselves, but this won’t continue. The Taliban have more and more facilities to track us,” he said.

Ahmad said three people he knew personally, who had also been accepted for relocation to the UK under the scheme, were recently assassinated because the process had “dragged on for so long”.

“I feel like we’ve been forgotten. I know the UK is paying most attention to the Ukraine war, but it must please keep its promises to us. We protected and supported you; it is your turn to help us,” he added.

An MoD source said the processing of ARAP cases was an “absolute shambles” and that a “complete lack of communications” from the government to applicants was leaving Afghans “worried and afraid for their futures”.

“The government communications [situation] it’s terrible. Afghans who are in vulnerable situations – some of them high risk – will send details and paperwork, and they don’t even get a holding email. It’s just stony silence. Army colleagues are appalled by the whole thing,” they said.

The source said that some cases were being considered far more quickly than others, describing an “almost completely arbitrary” process and a “total lack of transparency”.

“When you’re dealing with people’s lives, this is not how it should be. These are often life and death situations, but the political will is not there,” they added.

Resources have also been diverted from a program that allows families to reunite with refugees already in the UK. A Home Office letter, seen by The Independentthat was sent to lawyers helping an Afghan family through that scheme admitted there had been delays because the department had needed to “refocus resources away from business-as-usual activity”.

Irish MEP Clare Daly, who recently spoke out in the European parliament about the situation for people stuck in Afghanistan, said: “The crass abandonment of those who worked with western forces in Afghanistan is utterly reprehensible.

“As Europe looks on in horror at the war in Ukraine, and correctly extends a hand of friendship and solidarity, the contrast with Afghanistan could not be sharper.”

A Home Office spokesperson said support for Afghans under the ARAP scheme “continued”, including the processing of cases.

An MoD Spokesperson said no one responsible for processing ARAP applications in the MoD had been moved due to the war in Ukraine and that they were “determined to continue with this work”.

*Name changed to protect identity

The Independent has backed calls for ministers to be more ambitious in its plan to resettle Afghans. Our Refugees Welcome campaign is calling for the government to offer sanctuary to as many people as possible.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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