1,800 UK nationals the ‘focus’ of Afghanistan evacuation effort

Approximately 1,800 UK nationals and more than 2,200 Afghans who helped British forces are the “focus” of the Government’s evacuation efforts from Afghanistan, a minister has said.

The 4,000 people due to be evacuated would join the 6,000 which the Ministry of Defence has confirmed have already been flown out as part of the UK rescue mission in Afghanistan.

On Monday morning, armed forces minister James Heappey said 1,821 people had been evacuated on eight flights in the last 24 hours, and expected nine more UK flights would leave Kabul in the next day.

He added that the numbers of people which the UK wanted to evacuate from “Afghan civil society” had “grown significantly” in recent weeks, in an effort to resettle those who may face recrimination from the Taliban.

Mr Heappey said: “It is certainly the case as the cases have been made for more people from Afghan civil society to be evacuated, those names have been added.

“In reality the focus is on the around 1,800 eligible persons or UK passport holders, British nationals and the remaining people under the Arap (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy) scheme which is about 2,275, but there are thousands more who we would like to get out if there is the time and the capacity.”

But the minister also warned the UK will not be able to evacuate everyone it hopes to.

Mr Heappey said: “The fact is we will get out as many as we possibly can but we have been clear throughout that there is a hard reality that we won’t be able to get out everybody that we want to, and that it is very important that we start to reassure people in Kabul – because I know that people in Afghanistan are acutely aware of what is being said in our media in the UK – that the airlift is not the only route out of Afghanistan, not the only route to the UK.”

He added there is a “second phase” to the resettlement programme planned for when the UK withdraws fully from Kabul.

James Heappey
James Heappey (David Mirzoeff/PA)

Under the second phase, Afghans trying to escape the Taliban will be able to have resettlement claims processed at refugee camps or UK embassies in countries neighbouring Afghanistan in the near future.

Downing Street said it recognises that it will be “extremely challenging” for Afghans not in Kabul to get to the airport to evacuate.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We’re fully conscious of that. This is the first phase of our operation, evacuating largely British nationals and those under the Arap scheme out in the time that we have.

“We will then move to the next phase, whereby we’ll be able to resettle (people) over the coming days, weeks and months, and indeed years, as we did with the Syrian scheme.

“Now I appreciate that does, again … it presents challenges for those wishing to leave Afghanistan who might not be based in Kabul, who might have to get to neighbouring countries, for example.

“We will continue to provide support through the Foreign Office; there’s contacts both for those within Afghanistan and those outside of Afghanistan who want information about family members they may have remaining. So, we will continue to do everything possible.”

Mr Heappey also said the Taliban has been an “effective partner” in marshalling crowds gathering outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport into separate queues for the US and UK evacuation flights.

The minister added: “We are taking nothing for granted and that is why the brigadiers that are forward-commanding the military mission are in this surreal experience of having spent much of their careers thus far fighting the Taliban and now they are having to have daily conversations with them.”

Those repatriated under the rescue operation, called Operation Pitting, include embassy staff, British nationals, those eligible under the Arap programme and a small number of nationals from partner nations.

The evacuation is being supported by 1,000 British troops on the ground – including Paras from 16 Air Assault Brigade – as well as other Whitehall staff.

Brigadier Dan Blanchford, the most senior UK military officer on the ground in Kabul, said British armed forces personnel have “witnessed some harrowing scenes”, with at least seven Afghan civilians confirmed to have died outside the airfield gates in the chaotic crowds.

The UK Government has pledged to accept 20,000 Afghan refugees over the next five years, with 5,000 expected by the end of 2021.

In the Commons last week, Boris Johnson confirmed that the first 5,000 expected this year would be in addition to those leaving Afghanistan under the Arap scheme.