Today
Sun 5 December 2021

The delays to launching the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme risks more families making dangerous journeys to the UK – or falling victim to Taliban threats

At least 27 people are known to have died crossing the Channel yesterday (24 November), including a child. The boat, which capsized, was carrying people eager to start a new life in the UK. 

As the tragedy unfolded, 600 more people arrived in the UK from France, including – according to reports in The Times – a former Afghan soldier who gave his name as Khan, fleeing the Taliban. His family had decided to risk their lives to make the journey after they “waited so long for help” from Britain.

The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme is still not open to people seeking asylum in the UK – more than three months after the fall of Kabul in August. 

The scheme was launched to great fanfare during the chaos of the Taliban takeover of the country, with the Government promising to provide asylum to 5,000 vulnerable people in the first year, “and up to 20,000 in the coming years”. People classified as vulnerable include women and religious minorities, but it is also expected to include politicians, judges, prison guards, rights activists and others in danger of being targeted by the Taliban. 

“Some of the people we are in contact with share written death threats they have received from the Taliban,” Marina Brilman, International Human Rights Adviser at the Law Society England and Wales, told Byline Times. Brilman leads the Society’s Lawyers at Risk programme, which is supporting judges, prosecutors and other people employed in the old legal system in Afghanistan. “They say we know what you have been working on, we are coming to kill you. People are also physically assaulted on the streets or family members are being threatened.”

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times that “we continue to work at pace to open the scheme amid a complex and changing picture, working across Government and with partners such as UNHCR to design the scheme.”

But speaking to the Home Afffairs Select Committee in October, Home Secretary Priti Patel said  “we have a scheme, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which is one of the most ambitious in the world. We are not able to operationalise that scheme. We simply do not have the infrastructure or the accommodation.”

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Delays and Channel Crossings

The deaths in the Channel have put the Government’s New Plan for Immigration back in the spotlight. Ministers took to the airwaves following the tragedy to decry people smugglers who arranged the crossings as “evil” and said the only way to save lives was to make the Channel crossing “unviable.”

However, as reported in Byline Times, the Home Office’s own equality impact assessment on the policy found that the plans could encourage riskier means of crossing into the UK, and that there is “limited evidence” its proposal will work to deter dangerous journeys. 

The plan places an emphasis on providing asylum for those who come to the UK via “legal” routes, including resettlement schemes. It wants a tiered asylum system that will penalise and even criminalise those who arrive via so-called “irregular routes” – such as in lorries or on small boats. 

There is concern that the failure to open the resettlement scheme gives people in urgent need of asylum – such as the Afghan soldier and his family – fewer options. This could lead to more people taking risky journeys or attempting to come to the UK on irregular routes. 

Currently, the soldier and his family will be able to apply for asylum even though they arrived via an irregular route. Should the Bill pass, however, “it will become a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK illegally without permission to be here.”

The Home Office fact sheet on the ACRS adds that “our position is still that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach and not risk their lives making dangerous crossings across the Channel.” Internationally, there is no legal obligation on people to claim asylum in the first safe country. 


Vicious Circles

Even when the scheme eventually opens, lawyers and campaigners have raised concerns about how people eligible to come to the UK will prove their asylum status. All individuals coming through the scheme will need to be security screened, including by capturing biometrics. 

The UK has strict requirements for applicants to submit biometric data through British visa centres. Not a single one remains open in Afghanistan, although people can submit the data in neighbouring countries. 

The Home Office told Byline Times that it is important to confirm the identity of everyone coming to the UK for national security reasons. Therefore “we are working with the authorities in countries neighbouring Afghanistan and international partners to ensure biometric enrolment can be carried out in as rapid and efficient manner as possible. Biometrics must be provided before entry clearance is granted.”

“If people arrive on the ACRS they will be given indefinite leave to remain,” Brilman explained to Byline Times. “And that’s great. But the problem is that people are facing a vicious circle. People are being told that if they don’t have their immigration status to not ​​approach the British Embassy, and that they first have to find their own way out of the country. But if you don’t have status, it is much more difficult to get out of the country – it is much more difficult if you can’t show you already have a visa or that you have already been accepted.”

The Home Office is working with international partners such as the UNHCR to identify people eligible for resettlement. However, there are also concerns that should people need to be referred by the UNHCR to access the ACRS, rather than apply direct for themselves, they may struggle to get the support they need. As reported in Byline Times this week, a teenage girl desperate to reach the UK and be reunited with her sister, having fled a forced marriage with a much older man, must travel 1,200 kilometres to Pakistan in order to make herself known to the UNHCR and the be referred to the ACRS when it finally opens. 

The scheme not yet being open means there is confusion as to who will be eligible to come to the UK. A U-turn following the launch of the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) is causing nervousness that some vulnerable people will find themselves not eligible. Initially, ARAP was open to female judges, however they were subsequently removed from the group. 

“Women judges just started to apply to ARAP,” Brilman explained to Byline Times. “And then they were being rejected. It’s crushing when people’s expectations are raised and then they hear that it can’t happen.”

The Labour MP Nadia Whittome told Byline Times how she is “extremely concerned for the safety of people in Afghanistan who are waiting for the scheme to open, particularly those most vulnerable to persecution by the Taliban, such as LGBTQ+ people, high-profile women, or those who have held political or judicial positions. The Government must as an urgent priority create a working resettlement scheme, prioritising those who are most vulnerable rather than most convenient. Until then, the Government’s promises on Afghanistan appear to be just empty rhetoric.”

A Home Office spokesperson wrote in a statement: “We undertook the UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping over 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan who we are continuing to support. The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) is one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history and will give up to 20,000 further people at risk a new life in the UK.”

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