The ACRS scheme will target people who are particularly at risk under Taliban rule, including women and girls, LGBTQ+ people, ethnic and religious minorities. Women’s rights activists, academics and journalists known for backing democracy and freedom of speech will also be given a route to safety through the scheme.
It is separate from the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, which has resulted in the rescue of at least 7,000 people who previously worked with the UK government in Afghanistan. Around 1,000 are thought to have been left behind.
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Some people from the vulnerable groups were lifted out of Afghanistan during the UK’s evacuation from Kabul in August, but those left behind still have no legal way to seek safety in Britain until the scheme opens.
A Home Office spokesperson told The Big Issue: “The UK has a proud history of providing protection to those who need it and through the new Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme up to 20,000 people most in need will be welcomed to the UK.
“It will prioritise those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech, rule of law as well as vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk and members of minority groups.”
With the Taliban in power, LGBTQ+ people are at risk of execution. Many reportedly went into hiding or assumed new identities as soon as the insurgents captured Kabul.
Last month MPs hit out at the government’s lack of support for LGBTQ+ people facing violence in Afghanistan as “nowhere near good enough”.
Until the Home Office opens the resettlement scheme for vulnerable people and minorities, people will face “the impossible choice of staying in Afghanistan – risking terror and persecution – or making their own perilous journeys here and facing criminalisation, encampment or removal under this government’s new Borders Bill,” Gardner said.
Under Patel’s upcoming Nationality and Borders Bill, anyone arriving in the UK without having already obtained a visa could be handed a four-year prison sentence.
This means minority groups in Afghanistan – who could be eligible for safe passage to the UK if the ACRS was open, and who could legally make their way to family already in the UK if the family reunion route was open – could be forced to make the dangerous dinghy trip across the Channel, only to be criminalised once on land.
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“It’s time the government honoured its promises to the Afghan people, and immediately scrapped its cruel Borders Bill plans,” Gardner added. “Instead it should be offering Afghans safe, regulated ways to travel to the UK – now – and support and protection to those who arrive, however they’ve had to flee.”
Around 15,000 people were evacuated from Kabul to the UK over a two-week period in August. Many would be eligible for resettlement under the scheme for at-risk groups, but are likely still housed in hotels while the scheme stays shut.
Even when the ACRS opens, there will be no application process. Instead, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will help identify those most at risk in Afghanistan and refer them to the Home Office for resettlement.
This means “even people within eligibility criteria may have little if any idea if they will ever be considered” for the scheme, said Steve Valdez-Symonds – migrant rights programme director for Amnesty UK – in a tweet.
The UK government will work with third countries and NGOs to ensure a “fair referral” process for people inside Afghanistan and who have recently fled to neighbouring countries, according to official guidance.