Afghans promised safe haven in Britain but trapped in Pakistan have been arrested by police amid fears refugees could be returned to the Taliban,The Independent can reveal.
Hundreds of Afghan families, many of whom worked for the British army, have been stranded in Islamabad for months after the UK stopped chartering flights last year and demanded refugees find their own housing in Britain before travelling. The families were invited to come to Islamabad and were put up in UK government-paid hotels after they were found eligible for Britain’s resettlement schemes.
Stuck in limbo with expired visas, the Pakistani police targeted these groups this week, arresting several. The Afghans were only saved when the British High Commission (BHC) on the ground intervened. Those still trying to get to the UK say they are terrified the same thing will happen again and that they will be deported back to Taliban-run Afghanistan.
Military chiefs, MPs and charities hit out at the news, accusing the UK of ignoring those who helped us in our fight against the Taliban.
General Sir John McColl, the army’s former deputy supreme Nato commander for Europe who served in Afghanistan, told The Independent the “deaf government” wanted to ignore the issue, adding the Afghan allies were “out of sight and out of mind”. Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey said it was “unacceptable” that these Afghans had been waiting so long they now risked arrest by the Pakistan authorities.
Pakistani authorities have already deported thousands of Afghans from their country, including Afghans eligible for resettlement in the US based on their work with the American government.
Early on Tuesday morning, at around 6am, one of the hotels housing UK-eligible Afghans was stormed by Pakistan police who interrogated the families and demanded to see their documentation, The Independent can reveal.
Police arrested seven Afghans who did not have in-date visas, rebuffing protests that they were under the protection of the UK government, Afghans staying in the BHC hotels told The Independent.
The Afghans were freed on Tuesday afternoon and returned to the hotel after BHC officials lobbied for their release. The Foreign Office is working to resolve issues around expired visas and undocumented eligible Afghans with the Pakistani government.
All the Afghan families have been given permission to come to the UK under the Ministry of Defence’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy Scheme (Arap) or the Home Office’s ACRS programme. The Afghans are under the care of the BHC and are having their accommodation paid for by the UK government – to the sum of over £17m.
As of July, there were over 1,300 Afghans living in these hotels but these figures have likely risen since then. The MoD has refused to give updated figures to The Independent.
One former interpreter, who was embedded with British troops in Helmand province and who has been given eligibility under Arap, told The Independent the arrests had made everyone terrified.
“We are like prisoners. The situation is not good and we don’t know what we have to do or what will be our future,” he said.
Describing the arrests, he said: “Police came to some hotels in the early morning when families and babies were sleeping. They checked their passports and they saw that the visas had expired.
The Afghans told the police: “We are under the accommodation of the BHC.” But the police said “this is not the UK government, this is the Islamabad government” and then they arrested seven people.
“They arrested them from one hotel and they took a list of the Afghan families in another hotel.”
General McColl, the former prime minister’s special envoy to Afghanistan, has been putting pressure on the government to help the thousands of Afghan allies stuck in Pakistan. He said: “They are still asking those in Pakistan to source their own accommodation in the UK and the effect of that is to ensure that they stay in Pakistan. They are out of sight and out of mind.
“There has been no significant movement by the government. Nor is there any intention to do anything about it. We’ve got a deaf government which wants to ignore the issue”.
Referring to the number of Afghans who have places on UK resettlement schemes and are waiting for relocation to Britain, General McColl, said: “We think that must be approaching about 3,000 now in Pakistan, some of whom will have been there for 18 months.
“Many in Pakistan were tacitly or overtly in support of the Taliban, and police have been aggressively seeking those whose visas have expired,” he added.
Labour’s Mr Healey added: “Ministers are continuing to fail Afghans who risked their lives supporting our Armed Forces Personnel. It is unacceptable that Arap-eligible Afghans have been left in Pakistan for so long that they now risk arrest due to their visas running out.”
Sarah Fenby-Dixon, Afghan consultant for the Refugee Aid Network, who is supporting a number of Afghans in the hotels, said: “The UK government’s treatment of eligible Arap families has been nothing short of incompetent and negligent. The families had already been waiting months or years to be transferred to Pakistan and now they again face another agonisingly long wait for relocation to the UK.
“Families of up to seven people are living in one room, unable to go out and children are missing month after month of school.
“After the arrests of Arap applicants by Pakistani police earlier this week, people are terrified that they will be arrested and deported back to Afghanistan.”
A government spokesperson said: “The UK has made an ambitious and generous commitment to help at-risk people in Afghanistan and, so far, we have brought around 24,600 people to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan resettlement schemes.
“We continue to honour our commitments to bring eligible Afghans to the UK, and we are issuing new visas to people in Afghanistan and other countries for resettlement here.”