Delays by Home Office risk return of vulnerable Afghan families to Taliban

<span>Many families were separated when evacuating Kabul, as some people not able to board a flight fled to Pakistan. </span><span>Photograph: Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/AP</span>
Many families were separated when evacuating Kabul, as some people not able to board a flight fled to Pakistan. Photograph: Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/AP

Afghan families who helped UK forces and then fled to neighbouring Pakistan are in danger of being deported back to the Taliban due to Home Office delays in bringing them to the UK.

In the chaotic evacuation period in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August 2021 some family members eligible for resettlement in the UK became separated from the rest of their families. Some boarded flights while others were unable to due to crushes at the airport and instead fled over the border to Pakistan.

Since then, many separated families have only been able to exchange calls and messages with each other across continents, with no sign of the UK government announcing a promised family reunion scheme.

The Foreign Office has advised against all travel to Pakistan in a recently updated warning saying that no travel to the country can be “guaranteed safe”.

On 11 February immigration minister Tom Pursglove stated in a letter that the Home Office was committed to establishing a route for eligible separated Afghan families.

“We expect to receive referrals in the first half of 2024,” he said in response to a letter to the MP David Johnston, who was intervening on behalf of his constituent Muhammad Khan, 30, an Afghan national who assisted British personnel in Afghanistan and boarded an evacuation flight.

However, nothing has yet been announced and the situation has become urgent. Deportations of Afghans who fled to Pakistan are due to restart on Monday. A previous wave of these deportations resulted in about 400,000 Afghans in Pakistan being returned, either forcibly or voluntarily, to Afghanistan.

Khan and his 26-year-old wife, who is living in rented accommodation in Peshawar with the couple’s young children – a daughter of three and a son of four – are terrified about what may happen next week.

When the evacuation from Kabul started, the couple’s daughter was just a few months old and their son was aged 18 months, so they decided the risk at the airport was too great. Khan’s wife and children fled over the border to Pakistan and hoped for a speedy family reunion in the UK. Almost three years later they are still waiting.

Khan and his family are eligible for resettlement in the UK under the government’s ACRS Pathway 1 scheme, which is for vulnerable people and those who assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan before the Taliban took control in August 2021. It is not known how many separated families are in the same desperate situation, but Khan says he knows of others.

“Sometimes I feel that, rather than saving lives, the Home Office wants to split up families and put them in danger,” he said.

His wife added: “I’m asking the Home Office to take me out of this situation but they haven’t done anything. I’m feeling really hopeless.”

Dr Hari Reed, from the charity Asylum Welcome, said: “It is extremely concerning that the situation for these families, many of whom have fled to Pakistan, is becoming increasingly dangerous. The Afghans we work with feel helpless and let down by the government.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government continues to work with partners in the region to evacuate eligible people and are committed to bringing more Afghans to the UK in the long term. We are committed to establishing a route to allow eligible individuals to refer one spouse or partner and dependent children to join them in the UK. We anticipate to see the first referrals in the first half of 2024.”