UK resettlement scheme could give up to 20,000 Afghans refugee status

17 August 2021, 22:31 | Updated: 18 August 2021, 12:06

Thousands of Afghan women, children and others most in need will be welcomed to the UK
Thousands of Afghan women, children and others most in need will be welcomed to the UK. Picture: Alamy

By Elizabeth Haigh

A new resettlement scheme will welcome up to 5,000 Afghan refugees in its first year and up to 20,000 in the long-term, the government has pledged.

Following the announcement of the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme on August 16, the government has now revealed it could allow some 20,000 Afghans to travel to the UK as refugees.

The scheme is intended to help those most at risk following the takeover of the Taliban. The government has announced that women, children and religious and other minorities will be prioritised and offered a route out of the country. 

Other at-risk groups include journalists and those that have assisted western efforts against the Taliban in the past. Although there are around 900 British troops currently in Kabul to help evacuate these former Afghan staff and their families, many have been forced to go into hiding and have not made it to Kabul.

Since August 14, the UK has evacuated 520 British nationals and former Afghan staff.

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Boris Johnson has now promised that up to 5,000 Afghans can find refuge in the UK this year, and that the scheme will be kept under review with the option to accept up to 20,000 in the longer term.

This comes amidst other western countries also offering to take in refugees. Canada has pledged to accept 20,000, and Germany 10,000.

The Prime Minister, who will address MPs on Wednesday on the crisis in Afghanistan, said: "We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have worked with us to make Afghanistan a better place over the last 20 years.

"Many of them, particularly women, are now in urgent need of our help. I am proud that the UK has been able to put in place this route to help them and their families live safely in the UK."

However, opposition parties have said the plans do not go far enough and are too vague to make a difference.

Earlier today, the Taliban gave its first press conference since seizing power. The group said it would guarantee safety for those who had previously opposed the group, and uphold women's rights within the constraints of Sharia law. They did not give any further details on what rights it sees as being enshrined within this law.

The new Afghan Citizens' Resettlement Scheme is modelled on a similar scheme created to aid those affected by the civil war in Syria.

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On Tuesday evening, Home Secretary Priti Patel chaired a meeting of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance to discuss safe and legal routes out of Afghanistan for those who need to leave. Representatives from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States all attended.

Ms Patel said: "The UK Government will always stand by those in the world in their hour of need when fleeing persecution or oppression.

"I want to ensure that as a nation we do everything possible to provide support to the most vulnerable fleeing Afghanistan so they can start a new life in safety in the UK, away from the tyranny and oppression they now face."

Local politicians and leaders have come out in support of the programme, pledging to help with the effort of housing the refugees.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour's shadow home secretary, welcomed that a scheme was in place but said there needed to be a "more urgent plan of action".

He said: "This proposal does not meet the scale of the challenge. Not only does that risk leaving people in Afghanistan in deadly danger, it will also undermine the leadership role Britain must play in persuading international partners to live up to their responsibilities."

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for foreign affairs, said: "We need these vulnerable people out of the country as soon as possible, instead of the Government's vague promise of the 'long-term'. The Government have kicked this into the long grass when Afghans need help now, today. 20,000 should be the starting point of this scheme, not the target."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told LBC that the government's resettlement scheme "falls well short of the responsibility the UK has to help".

She said the Scottish Government "stands ready" to play its full part.

Ian Blackford, the SNP's leader in Westminster, said the target should be to welcome at least 35,000 to 40,000 Afghan refugees.

He said: "The UK Government's proposed scheme doesn't go anywhere near far or fast enough to protect vulnerable Afghan refugees - including women and children, and all those who are seeing their human rights and lives at threat under the Taliban regime."

Steve Rotheram, metro mayor for the Liverpool City Region said: "Our city region has long been a sanctuary for people escaping war, famine and persecution and we will do all we can to assist refugees from this terrible conflict."

Leader of Wirral Council Jan Williamson said: "The people of Wirral, as well as those across the UK, will welcome those who need our assistance."

Mr Johnson will address Parliament on the UK's work on the crisis in Afghanistan so far when Parliament is recalled on Wednesday.