Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of quietly slashing the number of Afghan refugees to be admitted to the UK by 10 per cent under a scheme set up to protect those fleeing the country following the pullout of international troops last month.
The Liberal Democrats said that the “already derisory” offer to take in 5,000 people this year under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS) had been reduced to 4,500 by the inclusion of 500 “special cases” who had already been evacuated prior to the UK withdrawal.
A Home Office policy statement on Monday confirmed that “some” of the evacuees already airlifted to safety would be included in the ACRS, but it was only in response to a parliamentary question from Lib Dem spokesperson Layla Moran that a Foreign Office minister said that these would total 500 people – or 10 per cent of the first-year intake total.
The “special cases” included individuals who were considered to be at particular risk from the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan – including women’s rights activists, prosecutors, journalists and students due to come to the UK with Chevening scholarships – but who did not qualify under the Afghan relocation and assistance policy (Arap) for locally employed UK government and military staff.
The RAF evacuated around 9,000 Afghans from Kabul airport in the dramatic airlift ahead of the 31 August deadline for withdrawal of international troops, and there was no cap on the numbers eligible for help.
But the ACRS is limited to 20,000 Afghan citizens over five years and is intended to provide a prioritised route to safety for those who have stood up for democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law during the 20 years of democratic rule, as well as women, girls and members of ethnic minority and religious groups and the LGBT+ community.
“The government’s commitments on Afghan refugees seem to get lower and lower by the day,” said Ms Moran.
“The original dismal target of 5,000 this year has now effectively been cut by 10 per cent. It is absolutely staggering.
“Yet again, when Britain needs to step up and play its part to help the millions of vulnerable Afghans, Boris Johnson shirks his responsibilities and shuts our country’s doors.”
She added that while students with upcoming places to study in the UK under the Chevening scholarship programme had been helped, others who previously took part in the scheme remained in Afghanistan.
“Those Chevening scholars still in Afghanistan have been betrayed,” said Ms Moran. “They are at risk because of their connection to us – now they are uncertain as to whether they will even be able to enter the UK if they get out of the country.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has a proud history of providing protection to those who need it and through the new ACRS, thousands of people most in need will be welcomed to the UK.
“As set out in our policy statement, some of those who arrived in the UK under the evacuation programme, which included individuals who were considered to be at particular risk – including women’s rights activists, prosecutors and journalists – will be resettled under the ACRS.”
In an emergency debate at their virtual annual conference on Monday, Liberal Democrats are expected to back proposals to ensure local councils get enough funding to resettle refugees and expand the Armed Forces Covenant to include Afghan soldiers and interpreters who have worked with British forces in Afghanistan.