Half a million refugees could flee Afghanistan by the end of this year, the United Nations has said, as the UK drew its civilian evacuation to a close.
The warning was issued by the organisation on Friday ahead of the final withdrawal of US troops by August 31, after which the country is expected to descend into further violence and instability.
While the humanitarian emergency is currently contained within Afghanistan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told reporters it was preparing for a worst-case scenario of “around 500,000 new refugees in the region”.
It came as Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, announced on Friday morning that UK evacuation had entered its final stages and admitted that approximately 1,000 Afghans eligible to come to Britain may not “make it” in time.
Confirming that processing facilities at the Baron Hotel, outside the capital’s airport, had been closed, he added that he felt “deep regret” that not everyone eligible had been evacuated.
While almost 14,000 people have been evacuated through Operation Pitting, the number remaining in Afghanistan is thought to include between 800 and 1,100 Afghans, as well as 100 to 150 Britons.
Prime Minister describes situation as ‘extremely horrible’
Speaking afterwards, Boris Johnson described the situation as “extremely horrible” but insisted that the Government would “shift heaven and earth” to help Afghans still in the country after the withdrawal.
However, when asked whether the withdrawal was a national humiliation, he appeared to point the finger at Joe Biden, the American President, adding: “The timing of this is certainly not the one that this country would have chosen, and I think that everybody understands that.”
Among the Afghans left behind are believed to be a number of interpreters who assisted British forces during the conflict, including one who worked with Tom Tugendhat MP, the chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, who served in Afghanistan.
Warning that closing the processing centre meant “many will not get out”, Mr Tugendhat said he was desperately calling foreign envoys and contacts to try and help friends reach neighbouring countries.
He added that there was now “a possibility we may find ourselves with the biggest hostage crisis the UK has ever seen”.
Lord Hammond, the former chancellor and foreign secretary, said on Friday the UK had “failed” in its mission to keep Afghan staff safe by not completing the evacuations.
Sensitive material destroyed
Meanwhile, senior Tory MPs demanded an urgent investigation into reports that British embassy staff had failed to destroy documents identifying several Afghans who had worked or applied for jobs as interpreters.
The papers were discovered by a Times reporter while being escorted around the now-vacated embassy building by a Taliban patrol. They included names, phone numbers and addresses.
While the majority of the Afghans involved have been evacuated, the issue will now be scrutinised as part of a Parliamentary inquiry, with Mr Wallace stating on Friday that the Prime Minister “will obviously look for the details of what happened”.
“Clearly, it’s not good enough,” he told Times Radio.
On Friday night a Foreign Office spokesman said: “We have worked tirelessly to secure the safety of those who worked for us including getting three families to safety.
“During the drawdown of our embassy, every effort was made to destroy sensitive material.”
In Washington, Mr Biden was also facing a backlash amid reports that US officials had given a list of names of US citizens, green card holders and Afghan allies to the Taliban.
While the White House claimed it had shared information in “limited cases” to ensure evacuees were granted passage through Taliban checkpoints, a US defence source told Politico: “Basically, they just put all those Afghans on a kill list.”
Iran and Pakistan require financial support
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Kelly Clements, the deputy high commissioner of the UNHCR, said that while people were not currently flooding across Afghanistan’s borders, this could soon change following the final withdrawal of Western troops.
She added that there was now a need to boost support for neighbouring countries, which are already hosting more than 2.2 million Afghan refugees, with the United Nations appealing for $300 million to fund its humanitarian response.
“We are appealing to all countries neighbouring Afghanistan to keep their borders open so that those seeking safety can find safety,” Clements said.
In particular, Iran and Pakistan, who together host 90 per cent of the Afghan refugees in the region, “will need a lot of support”, she said.
However, while the UK is now urging Afghans seeking to escape the Taliban to head to land borders, the dangers involved were made clear on Friday when regional media reported that Pakistani border forces had opened fire on a group seeking to cross into the country.
At least three Afghans are said to have been killed in the incident, which reportedly occurred at the Torkham border crossing that links the north-western Pakistani region of Khyber with Nangarhar in Afghanistan.
Living in fear
Speaking to The Telegraph on Friday night, a senior officer in the Afghan National Police (ANP), who cannot be named due to fears for his safety, also warned that many Afghans would not seek to cross through Pakistan due to the risk.
“There are Taliban,” he continued, “and other countries also have very extremist groups. On the Pakistan border, six Afghans have been shot and killed [on Friday]. Going to Pakistan is not very safe for me.”
The officer, who is in his mid-30s and currently hiding with his family in Kabul, said he and his team of Afghan police had “closely assisted” in the evacuation of British embassy staff and diplomats to Kabul airport two days before the city fell to the Taliban.
However, he and his men have now been forced into hiding, a decision he said he had taken after extremists, freed by the insurgents from prison, began “threatening me and my family”.
He said he had emailed the British embassy “just after Kabul collapsed” but so far he has failed to “receive any response”.
“My team who worked here to secure the embassies has prevented many attacks on them,” he continued. “The Taliban won’t forget this and they are taking revenge. They have already started checking houses for ANP forces.”
Asked whether he feared being harmed or killed if captured, he replied: “This can 100 per cent happen.”