More than 8,000 Afghans who worked with the British government and military will be able to stay in the UK permanently, the Home Office has announced.
Interpreters, security support staff and others included in the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which prioritises those facing a serious threat to life in Afghanistan, will be given “indefinite leave to remain”.
Those who have already been relocated in the UK with temporary residency can now upgrade their immigration status for free, allowing them access to permanent jobs with unrestricted rights to work.
The change is a major improvement in the rights of Afghans affected, who under previous plans would have been granted only five years’ temporary residency.
The Home Office move is part of a new policy dubbed Operation Warm Welcome, with £12m allocated to help with school support, £5m for housing help and £3m for access to the NHS and GPs.
There will also be an online “portal” so offers of support from the public and employers, such as jobs, accommodation and donations of clothing and toys, can be registered.
Under immigration plans announced in July, any foreign national coming to the UK through “resettlement” routes were already entitled to indefinite leave to remain.
But home secretary Priti Patel has now decided that this will apply explicitly to Afghans who worked closely with the British military and UK government in Afghanistan, and risked their lives in doing so.
The UK has evacuated more than 15,000 people since August 13, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, of whom more than 8,000 are ARAP claimants.
However, as the military scrambled to hit Joe Biden’s August 31 deadline, Boris Johnson has come under strong criticism for leaving behind both British nationals and Afghans who helped the UK.
More than 100 councils have come forward to help families find homes, with more than 2,000 places already confirmed, the Home Office said.
The communities secretary Robert Jenrick is expected to meet with council leaders across the country in the coming days.
All arrivals are being offered the coronavirus vaccine. So far more than 700 arrivals have left quarantine and received their first dose of the jab.
Other support includes funding for up to 300 undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships for Afghans at UK universities. All adults will also be able to access English language courses free of charge.
Liaison officers will help families get in touch with councils and other services they may need, as well as help them find accommodation and get a National Insurance number.
Boris Johnson said: “We owe an immense debt to those who worked with the Armed Forces in Afghanistan and I am determined that we give them and their families the support they need to rebuild their lives here in the UK.
“I know this will be an incredibly daunting time, but I hope they will take heart from the wave of support and generosity already expressed by the British public.”
Victoria Atkins, who has been appointed Afghan Resettlement minister, said: “The stability of indefinite leave, the security of access to healthcare and the opportunity of education are the foundation upon which those resettled to the UK can build.”
The government is still developing the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, to take in up to 20,000 refugees who were forced to flee their home or face threats of persecution from the Taliban.
As many as 5,000 could arrive in the first year and will also be offered permanent residency.
Some £200 million has been committed to the scheme so far.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “We owe an obligation to people who served alongside us in Afghanistan, so ensuring they are granted leave to remain is the very least they deserve.
“Despite the heroics of our troops and civil servants at the frontline, the catastrophic failure of planning by Conservative ministers has left thousands of people abandoned in Afghanistan.
“They must now - urgently - come forward with details of a plan to help them escape and set out details of how the Afghanistan refugee resettlement programme will work.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.