A Home Office minister has been unable to confirm whether a scheme to resettle Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban will open before the spring.
Victoria Atkins could not give details on the start of the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), but said teams across the Government are working “at pace”.
The minister for Afghan resettlement was warned that a lack of safe legal routes into the UK could lead to more desperate families being exploited as they attempt to reach safety.
Plans for the ACRS were announced in August shortly after Taliban forces took control of the country’s capital Kabul.
Under the ACRS, the Government said it would work with the UN’s refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to identify those most at risk and help resettle refugees who have fled Afghanistan “based on their protection and humanitarian need”.
The Government confirmed it would take up to 20,000 refugees, with as many as 5,000 in the first year, with hundreds of councils pledging to support families.
Charities have called on the Government to provide urgent clarification on when the scheme will commence.
Ms Atkins told the Home Affairs Committee there are geopolitical issues and “very real practical difficulties” with how people can move in and out of Afghanistan, describing the situation on the ground as “pretty complex” and fast-moving.
Asked if the scheme may not be running by this time next year, Ms Atkins said: “Well, that is certainly not my intention, certainly not. We want to want this scheme to be up and running… we’ve got to do it in a safe way.”
She said she would not be drawn on whether it would start before Christmas, or before March.
In response, committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper said: “We would have considerable concern that the lack of safe, legal routes is not only meaning that there are people who are in Afghanistan at the moment whose lives are at risk, but also that more people will end up in the arms of criminal gangs and people smugglers, who will be exploiting their desperation, as a result.
“So at least being able to set out some timetable for people might hopefully prevent more of those dangerous journeys taking place.”
The ACRS is separate to the existing Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap), which offers priority relocation to the UK for current or former locally employed staff who have been assessed to be under serious threat to life.
Under the evacuation effort known as Operation Pitting, 15,000 people were put on flights to the UK, Ms Atkins confirmed, although some have not stayed, and the Government is endeavouring to fly out people in third countries where checks have been conducted.
Around 12,000 Afghan refugees have been placed in temporary “bridging” accommodation in the UK, half of whom are children, MPs were told.
More than 300 councils have offered properties, and around 4,000 refugees have either moved into settled housing, are awaiting a move-in date or are in the process of being matched to a property.
The majority of children are in school or have school places confirmed, she added.
She said: “Nobody wants a single Afghan child, or indeed adult, to stay in hotel accommodation any longer than is necessary.
“They are only in bridging accommodation because we do not have the sorts of large houses available standing empty, ready for them to move into.”
The committee also heard that there are 170 applications from Afghan nationals in Afghanistan hoping to be reunited with family in the UK which are awaiting decision.
Of these, 137 were lodged after the evacuation.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, called the time it is taking for the resettlement scheme to start an “appallingly slow and bitterly disappointing response”.
He added: “The UK’s failure to properly assist Afghans is all the more depressing at a time when the Home Office is trying to push through its draconian Nationality and Borders Bill to punish and exclude people whose only options for fleeing persecution are unsafe journeys organised by dangerous people smugglers.”