Politics

Afghans face 'lottery' for UK resettlement - with no dates set for further evacuations

Those stuck in Afghanistan face "unthinkable" choices as they wait to see whether "they'll be picked" for Afghan Resettlement Scheme, charities have warned.

Refugees could face long waits in camps in the "hope" of being picked for resettlement, charities say. Image: malachybrowne/Flickr

Vulnerable people trapped in Afghanistan face a “lottery” for resettlement through the Afghan Resettlement Scheme, refugee charities warned this week.

Charities including the British Red Cross have accused the government of “fudging the numbers” over how many of the 20,000 places offered through the scheme will be awarded to refugees already in the UK.

They also questioned why the scheme will not be taking applications, and instead relying on a referrals process.

Louise Calvey, head of services and safeguarding at Refugee Action said new details published on the scheme suggest “that this much-vaunted resettlement scheme will actually offer no route to safety for people still stuck in and around Afghanistan”. 

The Afghan Resettlement Scheme has previously been criticised by charities, MPs and NGOs for its slow pace, with almost six months passing between the fall of Kabul and the programme formally opening on January 6.

Fresh details published by the government last week reveal that the scheme will not be taking applications for resettlement, and will instead rely on referrals or contact initiated by UK authorities.

The government says referral will happen via three pathways, with Afghans already in the UK resettled first. Otherwise, refugees must be referred by the UN from “spring 2022”, or wait for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to contact them “if eligible”. 

Charities said it is unclear when those outside the UK will be settled, or how many of the resettlement places offered will be filled by Afghans already in the UK.

It’s feared the lack of clarity around resettlement will leave those trapped in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries unsure when, or if, they’ll be offered sanctuary.

Jon Featonby, refugee and asylum policy manager at British Red Cross said the scheme offered “welcome commitments to helping those who have been brought to the UK to build their lives here”.

He added, however, that it’s currently unclear “how many of the 20,000 resettlement places will be filled by people who have already come to the UK, and how many more people the UK government plans to provide a safe route to”. 

Zoe Gardner of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said the lack of detail in the scheme is “astonishing”, with those stuck in Afghanistan “essentially being told to wait for months, sometimes years just to see if they’re one of the lucky ones who gets picked”. 

Though the government website suggests the UN will begin referring refugees from “spring 2022”, a briefing document published by parliament last week states “it remains unclear when resettlements from Afghanistan/neighbouring countries will begin”.

Gardner said it is “unthinkable” to make those currently in danger wait indefinitely for a referral which may never even materialise.

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“Every additional day is another day when people despair of the hope that they’re going to be rescued,” she said. 

The situation could force some to seek safety via routes like channel crossings, said Gardner, running the risk of them being criminalised when they arrive in the UK. 

“The logic goes that people should just wait on the off-chance of being one of the lucky ones we pick to give a new life – anybody else who tries to escape is a criminal who will be put in jail,” she said. 

New laws proposed as part of the Nationality and Borders Bill will worsen the situation, she added, by “criminalising people for seeking protection in the UK”. 

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We undertook the biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping over 15,000 people at risk to safety in the UK, including thousands of women and girls. We have been clear from the outset that some of these will be resettled under the ACRS, a scheme designed to protect those who are vulnerable and at-risk.

“The UK is taking a leading role in the international response to supporting at-risk Afghan citizens and has made one of the largest commitments to resettlement of any country. In light of the success of our evacuation efforts, we will exceed our initial aim to resettle 5,000 people through ACRS in the first year.” 

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