Afghans at risk of deportation to be under UK’s ‘umbrella of protection’

Afghans who worked with British security forces will be under the UK’s “umbrella of protection” from deportation in Pakistan, a Foreign Office minister has said.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan told MPs that a letter from the British High Commission in the region would protect vulnerable individuals from being deported.

Her assurances came as Liberal Democrat MP Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) asked an urgent question in the Commons on the deportation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

A crackdown on illegal migration in Pakistan has mostly affected Afghans because they are the majority of foreigners living in the country, although the government says it is targeting everyone who is in the country illegally.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, Pakistan is host to 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees, thousands of whom have crossed the border from Afghanistan since the Taliban took power in 2021.

Taliban Resurgence in Afghanistan
People protesting in Parliament Square in London on the anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan (Yui Mok/PA)

Ms Chamberlain said it was “an understatement” to say that Afghanistan is not safe for Afghans who worked with UK security forces.

She said: “Saying that Afghanistan is not a safe place is something of an understatement.

“Almost two-thirds of the Afghan population were in need of humanitarian aid by the end of last year and in the words of the United Nations High Commissioner, ‘human rights are in a state of collapse’.

“The restriction on women and girls amounts to nothing less than a gender apartheid.

“Afghanistan is not a safe place for anyone, but it is particularly not safe for the Afghans who worked along with western forces and diplomatic efforts.”

She added: “Many of those who fled to Pakistan are desperately awaiting resettlement to safe countries, including the UK, and yesterday reports suggest that Pakistan has started that deportation of Afghans back to Afghanistan – a resettlement that will put safety and being reunited with families now at risk of being completely lost.”

Ms Trevelyan said: “I can repeat the assurances that we have now had from this newly elected Pakistani government, they have repeated assurances that we had from the previous government that all Afghans who are eligible for our UK resettlement schemes – various – will be exempt from deportation.

“We have had two instances of temporary detentions where the British High Commission has intervened to secure those and that has gone well, and since November all those Afghans eligible for resettlement in the UK are provided with identification, a letter by the British High Commission, and that is being considered acceptable by the Government of Pakistan.

“None of those have been detained or deported as a result of that letter, which is that commitment from us, though the High Commission, to assure them that those eligible Afghans to come to the UK are under our umbrella of protection.”

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Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan gave assurances in the Commons (Dan Kitwood/PA)

Shadow Foreign Office minister Catherine West said Afghans who supported British aims in the region were owed a “debt of gratitude”.

She said: “Despite Afghanistan no longer occupying the headlines the situation for the country is stark and that we know across the House.

“Women in particular living under a gender apartheid and the men and women who fought bravely for a better Afghanistan alongside British armed services, often targeted and killed by the Taliban.”

Ms West also asked the minister if changes to personnel in the Ministry of Defence after the resignation of James Heappey would impact Afghans seeking protection in the UK.

Ms Trevelyan said: “I can reassure her that (Leo Docherty) who has now taken over that brief in the Ministry of Defence will, I know, continue to ensure that as the programme rolls out it goes at the pace and indeed the assurance that those who are in Pakistan looking to come to the UK for safety are expecting.”

Earlier in the session the former defence minister Mr Heappey said: “I thought it important to reflect that throughout my time over the Arap scheme at the MOD (Ministry of Defence) the Pakistani Government was extraordinarily supportive of everything we asked.”

Labour MP Naz Shah said it was a “sick joke” that ministers would vote down plans to prevent Afghan refugees being deported to Rwanda as MPs aired concerns about Pakistan’s plans.

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Bradford West MP Naz Shah in the Commons (PA)

The Bradford West MP said: “It does smack to me of a bit of a sick joke, if you like, if that on one hand we are talking about bringing Afghan refugees here, but on the other hand, tonight this Government will be voting down the noble Lords amendment for Afghans who actually supported us, our British armed forces, that could be packed off to Rwanda.

“My question is really simple. How do we show a moral stance on the issue today when the Government will be voting down that amendment for Afghans who are at risk?”

Ms Trevelyan said: “I think really importantly, and she raises the question of those who worked and serviced alongside our armed forces or in other areas, those two schemes, incredibly generous schemes, Arap and ACRS are there precisely to be able to provide the opportunity to those who wish to apply, who are eligible to come, and have safe harbour in the UK.”