“(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations setting out the terms of a resettlement scheme for Afghan citizens known as the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (‘ACRS’).
(2) The ACRS will not place any limit on the number of Afghan citizens who may be resettled in the first year of operation of the ACRS.
(3) Regulations under this section must be made and the ACRS must come into force within 30 days from the date of Royal Assent to this Act.”—
This new clause will place the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme on a statutory footing and lift the 5,000 limit on the scheme.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
New clause 1 would lift the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme’s limit of 5,000 people per year. The Labour party wants to see the removal of the 5,000 person limit and the opening of safe routes for refugees fleeing the Taliban. In the summer, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan captured the world’s attention, as images of thousands of Afghans, desperate but also determined to escape the Taliban’s grip on the country, dominated the media. As the UK has been one of the countries most directly involved in Afghanistan for the last two decades, the British public’s reaction to the refugees’ plight was one of compassion and benevolence. Hundreds offered hospitality, and many more donated support to arriving newcomers.
The Government reacted instantly to the public’s demand for welcome and refuge by announcing the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, offering refuge in the UK to 5,000 Afghans, up to a total of 20,000 in the long term. The Prime Minister also promised to house a town’s worth of refugees, while the Home Secretary rushed to Heathrow airport—along with news camera crews—to receive some of those airlifted out of Kabul, as the Government launched Operation Warm Welcome.
The Government believe that Britain’s bespoke scheme for Afghan refugees is one of the most generous in the country’s history, and the Home Secretary has argued that it is not possible to take in any more refugees. In truth, the Government’s response to the Afghan catastrophe is hardly generous. The idea of a fixed quota for refugees in such emergencies is meaningless. The figure of 5,000 meets the Government’s political needs rather than the needs of those on the ground in Afghanistan. I note that in the new plan for immigration, the Government seem very happy to welcome up to 5 million Hongkongers via the British national overseas scheme, which I will address later.
Although we welcome the commitment to provide 5,000 places to Afghan refugees through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, the scheme appears to be a carbon copy of the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. The difference is that while the Syrian scheme placed people who were already in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan—a position of relative safety that made it easier to process and admit them—in this case, many have fled Afghanistan to neighbouring countries in fear for their lives, or are in hiding in Afghanistan, where they live in fear.
Just yesterday, a constituent of mine, whose sister had run a school teaching girls and had campaigned for free elections and women’s rights in Afghanistan, told me that her sister’s friend had been found and murdered, and that her sister was in hiding with her husband, petrified about what could happen to her. Despite being told by the Foreign Office to go to Kabul airport, some Chevening scholars and people who had helped the British military were prevented from getting on any flights out of the country. The problem is that some of those people who are trapped in Afghanistan are at high risk and may not survive until the end of the year, let alone the four years the scheme is meant to run. The scheme is not even open yet; two months down the line from the fiasco of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are no closer to finding out any details of the scheme.
From what I understand, the Government control who does and does not have access to the scheme, so they will choose who makes it on to the scheme. They also control the numbers, but an arbitrary annual cap of 5,000 people is meaningless and could cost lives if stuck to rigidly. In the Government’s response to the new plan for immigration consultation, the section entitled, “Protecting those fleeing persecution, oppression, and tyranny”, states:
“The Government will pilot an Emergency Resettlement Mechanism, starting in the autumn, to enable refugees in urgent need to be resettled more quickly so that life-saving protection is provided in weeks rather than months. Beyond this, the Government will provide more flexibility to help people in truly exceptional and compelling circumstances by using the Home Secretary’s discretion to provide rapid assistance.”
The Government have failed to live up to those words because life-saving protection was not provided in weeks, but months, and there is no sign of rapid assistance.
If the arbitrary annual limit of 5,000 people is reached, Afghans who helped the UK military and who have been able to escape Afghanistan could arrive seeking protection in the UK only to be treated like criminals for how they have arrived. It is worth noting that the Government’s advice to Afghans was to leave Afghanistan when they ran out of time for flights to the UK in August. Under the Bill, they would be penalised if they came to the UK via irregular routes. That would plainly be wrong and inhumane, and the Government could avoid that by having no cap on the resettlement scheme.
There used to be a time when the Government used the phrase “whatever it takes” about other crises. It would certainly be apt to apply it here. Clearly, it does not apply in the case of Afghans who have clear links to the UK but who are trapped and in fear of their lives, because the Government have been clueless about getting them out. I urge the Minister to agree to the new clause and lift the arbitrary 5,000 person cap on the number of Afghan refugees we can help this year—they have already been badly let down by the Government—because doing so will save lives.
I thank the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate and for Halifax for tabling new clause 1 and providing the Committee with this opportunity to consider placing the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme on a statutory footing and lifting the 5,000 person limit for the first year.
The UK has a proud history of supporting those in need of protection, and I understand the concerns that Members of the House have about the plight of people from Afghanistan. During Operation Pitting, the Government and military worked around the clock to airlift about 15,000 people out of Afghanistan—the biggest airlift from a single country for a generation. The Government have relocated thousands of people who loyally served our military in Afghanistan, and we continue to help more.
In addition, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is one of the most ambitious resettlement schemes in our country’s history. It will give up to 20,000 people at risk a new life in the UK. Our current schemes are non-legislative, operating outside the immigration rules and on a discretionary basis. Operating in this way has seen us resettle over 25,000 vulnerable people since 2015. Placing the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme on a statutory footing would make it less flexible and less able to respond to changing circumstances internationally.
A huge programme of work, called Operation Warm Welcome, is under way across the whole of Government to ensure that Afghans evacuated to the UK receive the vital support they need. This work, overseen by the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, spans different Government Departments, charities, non-governmental organisations, local authorities and communities. The aim is to ensure that Afghans can be properly supported as they rebuild their lives in the UK, while also ensuring that local services are not put under undue strain. The support being provided is similar to that of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme in response to the conflict in Syria, to ensure that people get the vital healthcare, education, support into employment and accommodation they need to fully integrate into society.
There are many who need our protection, and the UK plays a leading role as one of the world’s largest refugee resettlement states. However, regrettably the UK is not able to provide protection to everyone, and it is essential that any decisions regarding the number of people we resettle take into consideration our capacity to support people to rebuild their lives in the UK. We are clear that the number of people we can resettle depends on a variety of factors, including local authorities’ capacity.
I just want to pick up on the Minister’ point, which he has made time and again, about the UK leading on resettlement. Does he accept the figures that show that since the start of 2020, the UK has resettled 1,991 refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees? That is less than France, less than half the number for Germany, and about a quarter of the number for Sweden. In what way is that a leading role?
I think it is fair to say that this country historically has had a leading role in resettling refugees, and the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have debated this many times during the course of this Committee’s proceedings, and I have referred to the figure of 25,000 people on several occasions. I am confident that that proud tradition will continue. I am not privy to the figures that he has just cited, but I make the point that we have also been in a pandemic, which clearly has had knock-on effects across life and society in our country and in the international environment.
It sounded as though the hon. Member for Sheffield Central was asking for unfettered, uncontrolled, open-border access to this country. We have already had 20,000 illegal economic migrants crossing the English channel. I was down in Dover yesterday with Baroness Hoey, the former Labour Member of Parliament, and saw with utter shock the situation regarding the illegal attempts at crossing. Does the Minister agree that the hon. Gentleman’s words show that the Labour party is out of touch with what people want?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and no doubt we will have a conversation about his visit to Dover.
As I mentioned in my speech, the Government chose who came into the UK through the voluntary resettlement scheme and they will do so under this scheme as well. Remarks about giving unfettered or unlimited access to everyone are therefore ludicrous, because the Government will be in control of who can enter the UK from Afghanistan through this scheme. To make such aspersions is clearly wrong and misleading.
The shadow Minister interrupted me while I was responding to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, and, of course, I was happy to take his intervention. The scheme we intend to bring forward is structured and it should not be seen in isolation in relation to Afghanistan. It is important to consider it in the context of the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, which has been invaluable and plays an important role in our efforts to provide sanctuary to those fleeing Afghanistan. That is very important to consider.
To continue with my point about the participation of civil society in community sponsorship, we have been working around the clock to stand up support with local authorities and to secure accommodation for the scheme. There is a huge effort under way to get families who have already been evacuated to the UK into permanent homes so that they can resettle and rebuild their lives. Clearly, we do not want families to remain in bridging accommodation for long periods, so it is sensible to have a limit on the number of places we offer on the scheme.
The new clause seeks to bring the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme into force within 30 days from the date of Royal Assent. We are working at pace to open the scheme, and the new clause would likely result in significant delays in resettling individuals under the scheme.
During the passage of the Bill, we have had many debates relating to Afghanistan. I said previously that I would ensure that the Minister for Afghan Resettlement was made aware of the Committee’s comments, and I will endeavour to do that again. It is important that all views are heard as we work at pace to shape this scheme and to make sure that we get it right, so that we are able to provide sanctuary to those to whom Members across the Committee and across the House want to provide it.
Previous schemes have not been delivered through legislation. I would argue that it is best to be responsive and flexible, and that not putting the scheme on a statutory basis has that effect. The shadow Minister used the word “rigid”. I would argue that not going down the statutory route ensures we can be flexible as to the evolving situation, and provide proper care and support to people who come here.
We want coming to the UK to be a positive and life-changing experience, and we want to provide sanctuary and care for those individuals. I am confident that that is precisely what we will do in delivering this scheme and that our country will be able to be incredibly proud of it. We owe it to those individuals to provide them with sanctuary, and that is precisely what we will do. With that, I ask the hon. Members to withdraw the new clause.
I am not convinced by the Minister’s arguments, which clearly amount to a new cap on immigration. I will repeat the number for the benefit of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North: there are 5 million people potentially eligible to come to the country via the British national overseas visa scheme; we are just asking that more than 5,000 people are able to come from Afghanistan. If that limit is rigidly applied, people’s lives could be in danger.