Dominic Raab under fire in BBC clash over Afghan pilot threatened with deportation
Justice secretary Dominic Raab struggled to offer answers today when he was repeatedly challenged by the BBC on the controversy over Afghan military veteran threatened with deportation to Rwanda.
The Independent revealed this week that the Afghan pilot was forced to flee the Taliban and travel to the UK on a small boat because he could find no safe and legal route out of the country.
In tense exchanges with the BBC’s Justin Webb on the Radio 4 Today programme, the deputy prime minister was told the pilot was “desperate”.
When Mr Raab claimed there were “safe and legal” ways for Afghans to claim asylum in the UK – Webb hit back saying the pilot would have been “killed” by Taliban if he had asked their permission to leave.
After being pressed four times whether the pilot would be “chucked out”, Mr Raab said the government was determined to crackdown on “criminal gangs who feed the illegal asylum trade”.
The exchanges started when Webb asked Mr Raab: “I want to put to you the case of an Afghan pilot who is in this country who has spoken a lot to The Independent and who came here illegally across the Channel. What should happen to him?”
The deputy PM said: “I don’t want to comment on individual cases…”, before the BBC host insisted: “He’d be happy for you to comment because he is desperate.”
Mr Raab said: “The rules for asylum applicants include vulnerable people from Afghanistan, we want to make sure there are safe and trusted routes.”
But Webb said: “Sorry to interrupt. This guy didn’t follow those rules – he said they were impossible because he would have to get the permission of the government to leave Afghanistan and he couldn’t make himself public because he’d be killed by them.
“If someone has been a pilot in the Afghan airforce and worked alongside us and has come here illegally, does he STILL have to follow those rules – and be potentially chucked out?”
Mr Raab said: “That is why we created a safe and legal routes…”, before the Today presenter pressed him again: “But if hasn’t followed it, he has to be chucked out?”
Mr Raab: “That’s not quite right. Of course getting out of Afghanistan is difficult, but there is a safe a legal route. We set up flights before the evacuation of Kabul, others can do it via neighbouring countries. But what is also clear is that we cannot keep going on creating perverse incentives to come here in the most dangerous conditions which have lined the pockets of criminal gangs who feed this trade.”
Despite Mr Raab’s claims, senior Tory Tobias Ellwood has told The Independent there is “no functioning process” that allows Afghans to apply for asylum in the UK from abroad – calling it a “gaping hole” in our asylum system.
The chair of the defence select committee called for Britain to fulfil its “duty” to Afghans who served alongside coalition forces. “This is clearly not who we are as a nation,” Mr Ellwood added.
Admiral Lord West, former head of the Royal Navy, added to the criticism, saying the government has a “duty” to look after those who fought alongside Britain.
Mr Raab was foreign secretary at the time of the Taliban takeover in August 2021. A committee of MPs said the UK evacuation mission in Kabul was a “disaster” which could have been avoided if Mr Raab had shown an interest.
The then-foreign secretary had been on holiday at the start of the crisis, and later tried to shift the blame, the foreign affairs committee concluded in a damning report.
Afghans now account for the largest number of small boat migrants, with more than 9,000 having made the Channel crossing in 2022.
The Afghan relocations and assistance policy (ARAP) scheme, designed to bring those who helped British forces, brought more than 11,000 people to safety in the aftermath of the fall of Kabul.
But another 4,300 eligible people, including family members, are still waiting to be relocated. And the general scheme for at-risk Afghans, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), has only brought 22 people to the UK since the evacuation.
The Afghan pilot – who flew dozens of combat missions against the Taliban and was praised by his coalition forces supervisor as a “patriot to his nation” – claims he has been “forgotten” by US and British forces.
In an email to the pilot, a Home Office said evidence that he had been in Italy, Switzerland and France before reaching the UK could have “consequences for whether your claim is admitted to the UK asylum system”, adding: “[The pilot] may also be removable to Rwanda.”
The veteran said that it had been “impossible” to make his way to Britain via a safe route, adding: “What safe and legal way was there after the fall of Afghanistan?”
Rishi Sunak was grilled about the pilot’s case when he appeared at the liaison committee on Tuesday afternoon, saying veterans who helped UK forces “are exactly the sort of people we want to help”.
The PM told senior Tory MP Caroline Nokes he could not comment on individual cases but if the details were sent to him: “I’ll happily make sure the Home Office have a look”.
Commenting on the case, Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, told The Independent: “The UK government made a solemn promise to the Afghans who helped our armed forces that it would help them and give them sanctuary from the Taliban.
Ms Cooper added: “The failures of this Conservative government to help those that helped us is a source of national shame.”
It comes as it emerged that migrants arriving via small boats could be housed in ferries and barges as well as disused military bases under government plans to reduce the spending on hotels.
The Home Office is said to be looking at housing asylum seekers on giant barges used for offshore construction projects. Mr Raab described barges as “one possible option” – telling Sky News that the use of hotels was acting as a “perverse incentive” to encourage crossings.