‘An Entirely Hollow Promise’Home Office Narrows Eligibility Criteria for Vulnerable Afghans
An update to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy will make it much harder for Afghans who worked with and for the British to seek protection here, say campaigners
An update to immigration rules has narrowed the eligibility criteria for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) – the resettlement scheme launched earlier this year to provide asylum to those who worked with the British between 2001 and 2021 – as aid agencies report a growing number of Afghans arriving in Calais and Dunkirk hoping to seek asylum in the UK.
The former Afghan Ambassador has criticised the decision to narrow the ARAP criteria, saying it will “cost lives”.
After the Taliban takeover in August this year, 15,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan as part of Operation Pitting, with Afghans who had worked with the UK Government and armed forces offered refuge as part of ARAP.
But, since the UK withdrawal, progress on providing asylum has stalled.
The much-trailed Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) – which promised to provide asylum to 5,000 Afghan people this year and 20,000 in the years to come – has not yet opened. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has told people in Afghanistan not to apply for visas to come to the UK and instead to wait until they are identified as eligible under ARAP and relocated.
As a result, vulnerable people – including those who worked with the British between 2001-21, women’s rights campaigners and LGBTIQ people – have no safe routes to escape Afghanistan and seek asylum in the UK.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that aid workers in Calais and Dunkirk are reporting an increase in the numbers of Afghan people arriving in the makeshift camps known as the ‘jungle’ – despite the dangers of attempting a Channel crossing in winter.
Interim chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Minnie Rahman, told Byline Times: “With the ARAP scheme diminished and the ACRS still not open, almost no vulnerable Afghans will have a safe way of getting to the UK. Instead, people face staying in Afghanistan and risking death, or making perilous journeys here and facing prison, asylum camps or removal under this Government’s new Borders Bill.”
Currently, people can cross the Channel and seek asylum in the UK. However, the new Nationality and Borders Bill – which passed in the House of Commons last week and is currently being debated in the Lords – seeks to criminalise people who come to the UK via so-callled ‘irregular’ or ‘illegal’ routes, including Afghan people. It will also create a tiered asylum system, with people seeking refuge who arrive via small boats or lorries will not receive the same rights as those who come through ‘regular’ routes.
This forthcoming change, combined with the delayed resettlement schemes and the opening of a new migrant processing centre in Kent, could even be creating a sense of urgency for those attempting to reach the UK via the Channel.
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Under ARAP, Afghan staff members directly employed by the UK Government, including the armed forces, who were assessed to be at serious risk of threat to life were eligible to apply for relocation to the UK. In July 2021, the scheme was updated to allow routine relocation for people who had provided linguistic services – i.e. interpreters – to the armed forces.
The Home Office explained that the changes “clarify the eligibility criteria to remove the uncertainty that emerged during and after Operation Pitting (the evacuation of Afghanistan in August 2021) around who would qualify”. It confirmed that the updated policy is “narrower than that applied previously including during Operation Pitting”.
The rules allowed for relocation of those who could demonstrate an “imminent risk” to life. However, now the policy has been updated so that those eligible to come to the UK under ARAP must show “there is a high and imminent risk of a threat to the person’s life” due to their employment by a UK government department.
Interpreters must also now demonstrate that “the nature of the role exposed the person to being publicly recognised as having performed that role”. Crucial is the need to demonstrate that the public nature of the role puts them in danger.
The change requires applicants to show a substantive positive contribution to specific UK military or national security objectives. Alongside this, they need to demonstrate they are or were at an elevated risk of targeted attacks and high risk of death or serious injury, or that they hold sensitive information.
One positive aspect is that the requirement that dependents of someone eligible for ARAP also be an Afghan national has been removed.
The update was published on the Home Office website at 4pm on 14 December. The Home Office has made it clear that the new rules “apply to all applications decided on or after 16:00hrs on 14 December 2021”. This means that, even if an application was submitted under the old rules, it will be decided against the new eligibility criteria.
Fear and Danger
Behind the policy are frightened and threatened families living in hiding in Afghanistan.
Over the past month, Byline Times has interviewed various people fearful for their lives, in hiding both in Kabul and rural areas of Afghanistan. This included the son of a man who worked with the armed forces, who explained his fears that “they will kill us while we wait” for the resettlement scheme to open.
Also hiding in Kabul is the family of a female lawyer who supported victims of underage marriage and who helped to jail men loyal to the Taliban. She told us: “This is not life. We are all depressed. Myself and my daughters are imprisoned at home and cannot go out. We were never in this position before.”
Outside of Kabul, Byline Times reported the story of a teenage girl in hiding having fled an attempt to force her into marriage. Attiye explained: “I’m too scared to breathe. If my brothers find me, they will behead me.”
While the first family is eligible under ARAP, they cannot currently leave Afghanistan. The FCDO has told people not to apply for visas to leave Afghanistan, instead saying those eligible will be identified and supported to resettle.
The rest, and thousands more, are waiting for the ACRS to open. Currently, the Home Office page still advises that “the scheme is not yet open. Please check this page regularly. Further details will be announced in due course.”
“Four months ago this Government pledged Afghans a ‘warm welcome’, but it appears this promise was entirely hollow,” Rahman told Byline Times. Their narrowing of the ARAP scheme is just the latest shameful example of them shutting the door on at-risk Afghans, many of whom risked their lives working alongside us.”
“We shouldn’t allow this Government to get away with its shocking abandonment of the Afghan people,” Rahman added. “The ACRS must be opened now, and people seeking asylum in the UK must have their voices heard, regardless of how they got here.”
A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “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. We are now updating the ARAP Immigration Rules to make clear who is eligible to apply under the scheme, enable more families to remain together, and offer support to those who need it most.
“The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) will soon open and is one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history. It will give up to 20,000 people at risk a new life in the UK. We will honour commitments made to individuals and groups.”