The new year is a good time to reflect, take stock of what’s gone before and resolve to act in the year ahead. As Rishi Sunak promised in a speech he made earlier this week: “I will deliver what I promise.”
Fortunately, we have a test case for Sunak’s claim of “delivery”. It’s 12 months since the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) was set up, to help vulnerable Afghans resettle in the UK after the horrific Taliban takeover earlier in 2021.
And horrors they most certainly were. It’s hard to forget the scenes as Kabul fell – hundreds were killed in attacks and protests, millions were forced to flee the capital, and now women and girls have faced draconian restrictions akin to a “gender apartheid”.
With so many displaced, the ACRS scheme pledged to resettle up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghans in the coming years, and 5,000 in the first year, using three distinct pathways: Pathway 1 for those who have effectively already been settled in the UK; Pathway 2 for those who have been referred by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR); Pathway 3 for those who worked for, or were affiliated with, the British government – including embassy staff and British Council teachers.
One year on, and this is a promise not just broken, but shattered into a thousand fragments. While Afghans are being tortured, kidnapped and killed, our government’s egregious failures to make any progress at all are putting yet more lives at risk.
Under pathway 2, a total of four individuals have so far been resettled in the UK up to the end of September, according to the most up-to-date Home Office figures. And under Pathway 3, not a single person has been accepted and evacuated from Afghanistan. Foreign secretary James Cleverly patronisingly told me in the Commons in December that 6,300 people have been granted indefinite leave to remain – though those are of course under Pathway 1, in other words, those who had already been settled in the UK anyway.
My Brighton Pavilion constituency is home to two universities, so I am in contact with several of the Chevening alumni who studied in the city and have connections here. They remain in hiding with their young families – and yet there is still no clarity on when they will be able to access support to leave Afghanistan and reach safety in the UK. These individuals received assurances from their British Embassy colleagues in Kabul before the Taliban took control that they would be evacuated and would not be forgotten. Yet they have been left behind, and the silence from the UK authorities since is deafening.
What do I tell those Chevening alumni, who have had countless promises, positive signals, expressions of concern, apologies for delay from people across the UK government – and yet still no action? Or my British national constituent whose Afghan wife and teenage daughters have been stranded in Turkey, without any support from our government for more than a year?
Part of this complete failure to deliver is down to incompetent Tory leadership. Let’s not forget, former foreign secretary Dominic Raab was on holiday when Kabul fell, and hardly acted as though there was a crisis unfolding in front of our eyes. And ministers have stonewalled my questions, callously replying to my Written Question that “the capacity of the UK to resettle people is not unlimited”. There is simply no interest in addressing this.
It’s also partly a result of the utterly inadequate number of staff working on the scheme. Between five and eight members of staff working on the scheme in the Foreign Office, responsible for processing the 11,400 expressions of interest submitted. Yet remarkably, Rishi Sunak can find 400 new processing staff for his scheme to vilify Albanians.
And this epitomises the government’s entire approach on this issue – exemplified by Suella Braverman’s shambolic performance in a select committee meeting just a couple of months ago, as she failed to explain how an African teen could reach the UK to seek asylum legally, as is their right.
Sunak speaks about stopping small boats and removing those who enter the UK “illegally” swiftly. Yet with no properly functioning ACRS scheme, there currently is no credible legal route for Afghan nationals who are at risk to resettle here in the UK. Until this happens, we may see further Afghan nationals lose their lives in the Channel, as we tragically saw in December.
Put simply, this government will bend over backwards to block routes into this country, and criminalise those desperate enough to try and make the crossing – but will put in no meaningful effort into opening up functioning and fit-for-purpose safe ones.
When it comes to helping Afghans, this government’s record is promises broken, nothing delivered. It’s a new year – and it’s time for that to change.