Afghan Refugees: Deportation from Pakistan

– in the House of Commons at 1:50 pm on 17 April 2024.

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Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 1:50, 17 April 2024

(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office if he will make a statement on the deportation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The United Kingdom has a long-standing and close relationship with Pakistan. We engage regularly with the Government of Pakistan to advance key priorities and interests, including those relating to human rights and adherence to international law. We are closely monitoring Pakistan’s policy on the deportation of Afghanistan’s citizens, and we are working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration to ensure that Pakistan adheres to its human rights obligations with respect to those affected.

We understand that the recently elected Government of Pakistan intend to resume their programme of deportations from mid-April following a winter pause, although that has not yet been formally announced. While we respect Pakistan’s sovereign right to control its borders, the UK, alongside the international and donor community, is urging Pakistan to do so in accordance with its international obligations.

The UK has committed £18.5 million to the International Organisation for Migration in Afghanistan to support vulnerable undocumented returnees from Pakistan and Iran. As part of that work we have been engaging closely with the Government of Pakistan on these measures, and they have assured us of their support in relation to preventing the deportation of Afghans eligible for resettlement in the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy or the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. Since the formation of the new Pakistani Cabinet, the Foreign Secretary and the British high commissioner have received assurances from Foreign Minister Dar, during discussions on 25 and 28 March respectively, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will support our relocations work.

We continue to work closely with UNHCR and the IOM to ensure that all Afghans who have been found to be eligible for resettlement in the UK under the ARAP or the ACRS—including eligible family members—have been provided with the necessary documentation to verify that, and to prevent their deportation.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Saying that Afghanistan is not a safe place is something of an understatement. Nearly 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 in Afghanistan 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 unsafe for the Afghans who worked alongside western forces and diplomatic efforts—for civil society advocates, for women who formerly held high-profile political or legal roles, for members of the LGBTQ community, and for the many others who were forced to flee when the Taliban took control. Many of those who fled to Pakistan are desperately awaiting resettlement to safe countries, including the UK. Yesterday, reports suggested that Pakistan had embarked on the deportation of Afghans back to Afghanistan, and resettlement, the hope of safety and of being reunited with families, is now at risk of being completely lost. For some of those waiting to come here the routes are open, but the process is achingly slow. Many await family reunion, which it was promised would start this spring, while others believe that they will be eligible to apply to come to safety in the UK under ACRS route 3 pathway 2, as yet unopened nearly three years after the fall of Kabul. I urge the Minister’s Home Office colleagues to act in this regard.

Pakistan’s decision to deport the migrants whom they deem to be illegal is deeply worrying. During the first round of deportations in October last year—which was the subject of an urgent question from Alison Thewliss—there were news reports of Afghans eligible for resettlement here being arrested during immigration enforcement. There is every reason to believe that that will happen again, and, indeed, this round puts even more people at risk. Afghans in Pakistan are meant to hold a Pakistan-issued Afghan citizen card, but there are reports of long delays in the processing of applications leaving people undocumented through no fault of their own. More worryingly, it has been reported that the latest round of deportations will even include those carrying cards. Effectively, that puts every Afghan in Pakistan at risk, regardless of their reasons for being there.

The UK has a responsibility here, not just to those Afghans whom we promised safety but in relation to the region as a whole. We can all understand the desire to flee from persecution, but we also understand the difficulties of support systems in Pakistan in responding when those who are fleeing reach their borders. If we want to show that the UK is a global power and a global force for good, we must act. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that all individuals eligible for resettlement or reunification in the UK are able to register themselves as being legally in Pakistan, what steps is it taking to prevent the deportation of Afghans in Pakistan if they are likely to be eligible to settle in the UK, what steps is it taking with our foreign allies to encourage Pakistan to halt these repatriations, and what steps can the UK take to help Pakistan support the refugee population? People are being sent back to Afghanistan now, with all the dangers that that entails. We must act.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

It is good to have the opportunity to discuss this issue, and the hon. Lady has raised important questions, but I can repeat the assurances that we have now received from the newly elected Pakistani Government, who have themselves repeated the assurances that we received from the previous Government that all Afghans who are eligible for our various UK schemes will be exempt from deportation. There have been two instances of temporary detentions when the British high commission has intervened, and that has gone well. Since November, all Afghans eligible for resettlement in the UK have been provided with identification in the form of a letter from the British high commission, and that is being considered acceptable by the Government of Pakistan. None of those people have been detained or deported as a result of the letter, which constitutes our assurance, through the high commission, that we are committed to ensuring that those Afghans who are eligible to come to the UK are under our umbrella of protection.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells

Gosh, Madam Deputy Speaker! It is five years since my last question, and it is the first time that I have ever been called first.

It seems curious that we are dealing with a question about the sovereign decision of another Government. While Wendy Chamberlain wants to challenge Ministers on our representations to that Government, I thought it important to reflect that throughout my time “owning” the ARAP scheme in the Ministry of Defence, the Pakistani Government were extraordinarily supportive of everything we asked of them. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to our high commissioner and her brilliant team at post in Islamabad, but also in making clear our continued gratitude to the Government of Pakistan for the incredible flexibility that they show in facilitating both ARAP and the ACRS?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

It is a pleasure to be able to discuss this issue in a new way with my right hon. Friend. We have been working closely on these issues within Government, and his commitment to ensuring that those eligible for these schemes have been able to come to the UK has been, without exception, incredible. Let me just add that since October last year we have been able to complete 24 chartered flights, and have relocated more than 5,500 individuals under the ongoing ARAP scheme.[Official Report, 29 April 2024; Vol. 749, c. 2WC.] (Correction) I certainly pay tribute to the incredible, tireless efforts of our British high commissioner, Jane Marriott, and her wonderful team in Islamabad, who continue to work day in, day out with the Government of Pakistan, their officials and their military, and help us to ensure that we can bring those Afghans safely to the UK in due course.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I congratulate Wendy Chamberlain on presenting the urgent question, and on her work across the House in relation to, in particular, the women who are suffering in these circumstances.

Although Afghanistan no longer occupies the headlines, all of us—on both sides of the House—know that the situation in the country is stark. Women are living under a gender apartheid, and the men and women who fought bravely for a better Afghanistan alongside British armed services are often targeted and killed by the Taliban, as has been confirmed by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Labour has always been clear that we owe many Afghans a debt of gratitude for supporting British aims in Afghanistan. The Minister mentioned the figure of 5,500, but how many people does she estimate now require protection so that they are not repatriated back across the border?

Will the Minister also answer three other brief questions for the information of the House? First, could she detail the discussions she has had with the Pakistani Government to halt or at least limit the returns to Afghanistan? Secondly, what steps is she taking to belatedly bring to safety at-risk Afghans, particularly former members of the Afghan security force, especially now that certain members are no longer in the Government and may not be there to make the case for these vulnerable individuals? Thirdly, what steps are being taken to commit to a strategy across the board to support women and girls in Afghanistan, to give them hope that they have not been forgotten, and to recognise the important work done in these Houses of Parliament by Baroness Kennedy and others on gender apartheid?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As the hon. Lady highlights, my right hon. Friend James Heappey has been a stalwart in making sure that those who are eligible for ARAP, and indeed the wider cohort in the ACRS, have been moving forward. We have an agreement, and the new Government of Pakistan are supporting it. Where we indicate from the high commission that people are eligible for the schemes, the Pakistani Government are comfortable with our bringing them across. As I say, the number since October illustrates the continuing repatriation of these people to the UK. There are daily discussions between the high commission and various parts of the Government of Pakistan, as required to ensure we make progress on all those issues, and we continue to bring people across.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells has been an absolute champion of making sure that those who are eligible go through the system. I can reassure her that my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison, who has now taken over that brief in the Ministry of Defence, will continue to ensure that as the programme rolls out, it goes at pace. I can also give the reassurance expected by those who are in Pakistan and looking to come to the UK for safety.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

My right hon. Friend knows there are people who, in the process of making their way to Pakistan from Afghanistan, became undocumented but who are none the less entitled to resettlement here, either because they helped us and our military or because of their work in the legal system. Does she agree that it is important for the Pakistani Government to continue to show enough flexibility so that when people show that they are entitled to come here and that becomes documented, they are protected during the process?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right about the importance of making sure that all those who are eligible, have applied and are being or have been processed through the scheme, and who may still be in Pakistan and have not yet made it here to the UK, have support from the team at the high commission and have letters of support, so that the Government of Pakistan know that they are within our ARAP-eligible umbrella. That will continue to be the case until such time as we have been able to bring them all to the UK.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

It is only right and proper that Wendy Chamberlain has brought forward this urgent question today, so congratulations to them.

I note that my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry, who chairs the Joint Committee on Human Rights, is in her place. Her Committee’s report highlights that the Prime Minister of Pakistan has referenced the Rwanda scheme as their justification for deporting Afghans back into the hands of the Taliban. Does the Minister agree that the Afghan men and women who fought with British forces and were not brought out to safety through Operation Pitting, yet who managed to flee the Taliban and use small boats to cross the channel and get to the UK, should not be sent to Rwanda? Or is the message from the present British Government to our allies, “We’ll use you, but we’ll drop you when we’ve had our way with you”?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

We have discussed the question of Rwanda a lot in recent weeks. We consider Rwanda to be a safe country, as does the international community. I do not think it is comparable to Afghanistan, but we are continuing to ensure that all those who worked alongside British forces, have applied and are eligible for ARAP, and those who are not in the military space but who have applied and are eligible for the ACRS, are able to have protection through the letter from the high commission in Pakistan, while we look to bring them to the UK in due course. That will continue to be the case until the programme is completed.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

Of the estimated 1.7 million refugees on the border, many will be Christians or members of other minority religious sects. What safeguards are the UK Government putting in place, and what conversations are they having with the Pakistan Government, to make sure that those Christians are not returned to Afghanistan, where they will be persecuted, and that that faith can shine through?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I said in my statement earlier, we will always continue to remind the new Government of Pakistan, as we did the previous one, of their international obligations around some of these incredibly difficult issues. We have a very good relationship with the Government of Pakistan, so that is a conversation that we continue to have daily.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Labour, Bradford West

I am a really proud foster parent to an Afghan refugee—actually, I am now a grandmother—so I am grateful for the urgent question. I am really concerned about those who have been forcibly taken out of Pakistan, and particularly about the reports on those who were actually born in Pakistan. It smacks of a sick joke that, on one hand, we are talking about bringing Afghan refugees here, but on the other hand, tonight the Government will vote down the noble Lord Browne’s amendment to prevent Afghans who supported us and our British armed forces from being packed off to Rwanda. My question is really simple: how can we show a moral stance on the issue today, when the Government will be voting down the amendment on Afghans who are at risk?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

It is lovely to hear of that personal commitment to a refugee from the hon. Member’s family. Such stories are so important, and it is lovely to hear them brought here and championed, because that shows that the commitment is about much more than just words. I congratulate her on becoming a granny, as it were. It is a lovely story to share.

Importantly, the hon. Lady raises the question of those who worked and served alongside our armed forces or in other areas. The two incredibly generous schemes—ARAP and the ACRS—are there precisely to provide the opportunity for those who wish to apply, and who are eligible, to come and have safe harbour in the UK. The schemes, particularly ARAP, will continue for as long as needed, and we encourage those who have not applied—though the numbers suggest that very large numbers have already applied—to do so. As I say, they are long-standing and very generous schemes, which will continue. Week in, week out, we are able to bring the incredibly brave people who served and supported our armed forces to the UK.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East

My Afghan diaspora in Bolton takes this matter very seriously under the leadership of Dr Aziz, who I should also note is opening a new medical centre next week in Bolton. What discussions have the Government had with the Pakistani high commissioner to the UK to make sure that those who are eligible will not be adversely affected by the 15 April deadline to deport Afghans from the country, which the Pakistani Government are now working to?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and it is good to hear that a new medical centre is opening, which I am sure will provide important services for the whole community. As I say, our conversations with the British high commissioner in Islamabad, senior officials here and the Pakistani high commissioner based in London continue day in, day out. We have a very close relationship. Our commitment to provide letters of support for those who are in Pakistan and waiting to come to the UK because they have been found to be eligible for one of the two schemes is respected by the new Government of Pakistan, as it was by the previous one.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee)

As my hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes has already mentioned, in our report on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights warned that other nations might be influenced by the way in which the United Kingdom treats its international law obligations. That was earlier this year, and we noted at that stage that the Prime Minister of Pakistan had already referred to the UK Government’s Rwanda policy in defence of his decision to deport Afghan refugees. I suggest to the Minister that this is quite a serious matter. Does she appreciate that while Pakistan’s policy might not be identical to the British Government’s Rwanda policy, the fact that the British Government have been prepared to set to one side their international treaty obligations in respect of refugees and asylum seekers acts as an encouragement to other countries that wish to do the same?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I would not compare Rwanda, which we consider to be a safe country for those who are ineligible for asylum here, to Afghanistan. Importantly, those Afghan refugees who are eligible to come here under one of our two incredibly broad and generous schemes have that layer of protection until such time as they get here, through the high commission and the relationship that we have with the Government of Pakistan, who are very clear that they would not look to deport any of those Afghan refugees who are eligible to come to the UK.

Photo of Gary Sambrook Gary Sambrook Conservative, Birmingham, Northfield

Can my right hon. Friend the Minister explain the assessment that has been made of the adequacy of the humanitarian assistance available to those at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. In terms of the UK’s commitment, we continue to be one of the largest donors to Afghanistan in a number of humanitarian areas, with £130 million in aid last year. While not wishing to speak out of turn—the Development Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, is not here; he has been in Paris working on an Ethiopian package—we hope to be able to invest something nearer £150 million in the coming financial year in support of those humanitarian challenges for Afghanistan.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

It is possible—indeed, likely—that some of the Afghans in Pakistan are those whose ARAP applications are currently being reassessed by the Ministry of Defence. The outgoing Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, from whom we heard just a moment ago, updated the House on this just recently, and I am due a response to a written question on the progress on this from the Ministry of Defence today. It is good to see the Minister for Defence People and Families, Dr Murrison, sat with the Minister but, given the urgency of this matter, can I ask the right hon. Lady to give an assurance that her Department is working very closely with his Department to ensure that the applications of any potential ARAP-entitled people in Pakistan are being reassessed as quickly as possible?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I am comfortable in committing to him that he will receive the reply he hopes to have by the close of play. He is absolutely right to say that the FCDO and the MOD are working hand in glove. The teams are incredibly well joined up, and I want to give them a gentle shout-out because they worked tirelessly to make sure that everyone’s application is properly scrutinised. As I say, these schemes are very generous and we will continue to run them until such time as we are able to bring all of those eligible back to the UK for safety.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is absolutely ludicrous that, three years after the fall of Afghanistan, we are still talking about people that the UK Government have left behind. It is absolutely appalling and incompetent that those who supported the UK missions in Afghanistan have been so woefully neglected. Can the Minister tell me exactly how many people are waiting for the UK Government to get their act together and process their ACRS and ARAP applications?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As I say, these are broad and generous schemes and I can update the House on them today. The figures I have in front of me show that since October last year we have been able to complete 24 charter flights and relocate over 5,500 individuals. We will continue to work on that with our high commissioner and her team in Islamabad and the teams here, and through the Ministry of Defence and the teams in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. We have an incredible team of officials working together to make sure that we bring all those who are eligible back to the UK.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

While I acknowledge the role that Pakistan has played in hosting Afghans after Operation Pitting, we need to recognise that many of the people being returned from Pakistan will be at significant risk. On top of that, many Afghans were incorrectly advised about which scheme to apply for and, as a consequence, may not even be in the process, so in addition to those who have started the process, there will be another cohort who have not started it because of the poor advice that they were given. Given that the ACRS is not even open—there is no phase 4 open at this moment—what numbers of people are expected? I have a constituent for whom this is really important. Can the Minister tell us the number of people she is expecting who are not in the process and who need to be accommodated?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As I say, the ARAP programme is very generous, and it remains open—

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

On the ACRS, obviously the first part has been running, and we will continue to run these schemes as we need to. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is welcome to write to me if she has a specific constituent connection that she wishes to raise, and I will be happy to look at that, but the schemes continue to work, and our teams are working day in, day out, to make sure that those who are eligible are able to get to the UK.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I have already raised the issue of the special forces and those who might now be stuck in Pakistan, but there is also the matter of those working in local government who may have been magistrates and others. Afghan family members in my constituency suggest that the way that this has been handled could cause long-term reputational damage to the UK. What is the Minister’s assessment?

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that the review of further potential eligible applicants is ongoing by the Ministry of Defence, and as decisions on eligibility are made, they will of course have the support of those who are already in the scheme and eligible to come to the UK. I am very proud of this broad and generous scheme, and I have no doubt that it will continue to run for some time while we bring many of these refugees to the UK.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister, as always, for her responses. What steps will the Government take, not only to provide safe passage and routes for Afghans and allies to reach the UK, but to provide them with safe legal status? I give the example of the case of one of my constituents, who served in Afghanistan in the Army. Alongside him served an Afghani. That Afghani had to leave Afghanistan with his family and flee to Pakistan. I met him in Pakistan almost three years ago. The point I want to make is that if we can get that gentleman and his family—his wife and four children—to the Strangford constituency, we will get him a job and house, and we will make sure that his children are educated. He needs a visa to ensure that he gets here, and if the Minister can process his application correctly, the good people of Strangford will do the rest.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I have absolute confidence that the communities of Strangford will wrap their arms around those refugees who come to the UK, and if there is a particular issue, the hon. Gentleman is very welcome to write to me. The British high commission in Islamabad is working constantly with those there who are eligible to do that paperwork. Their number is quite extensive; there are a lot of them. If there is a particular case that he would like to raise with me, I would be happy to discuss it.