Priti Patel is facing growing criticism from Tory MPs over the Home Office’s failure to open a programme to allow Afghans to resettle in Britain, three months after it was announced – as the crisis over the deaths of 27 people in the Channel escalates.
Some Conservative MPs are understood to have confronted the home secretary directly over the delay in launching the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which was announced with great fanfare in August as the Taliban seized control in Kabul.
MPs say the Home Office’s failure to follow up its promise with action is pushing refugees to take deadly risks and leaving vulnerable people who have remained in Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban. Several senior Conservatives said Britain had a “moral obligation” to Afghans who had worked with the west.
Several MPs blamed Home Office officials for “dragging their feet” over opening the scheme, due to concerns over where refugees should be processed and the resources needed to house them once in the UK.
Afghans are among those on the French coast attempting to make the perilous crossing to the UK. Critics of Patel’s and the Home Office’s inaction say having a legal route in place would have helped avoid tragedies such as that in which 27 people died last week when attempting to cross the Channel from France.
Caroline Nokes, the former Tory immigration minister, said: “This needs to be up and running. Afghans here with family still in Afghanistan were given hope when the scheme was announced but are desperately worried that time is running out to get their family members to safety.”
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said: “We’re all supportive of stopping illegal immigration, but these other routes are the key to getting things properly done. This needs to be open and resolved, particularly because of Afghanistan and obligations to the people there. This week illustrates that.”
Former immigration minister Damian Green, the MP for Ashford in Kent who heads the 100-strong One Nation group of Tory MPs, is calling for a new approach from government which is both “realistic and compassionate”. He suggests looking at adapting a scheme used to allow Syrian refugees to come to Britain legally, implemented when David Cameron was prime minister. Green, writing in theObserver, says the blame game between the UK and France over deaths in the Channel has been a “diplomatic disaster” and calls on Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron to work together.
“Now is the not the time for displays of wounded amour propre in either language. Careless talk costs lives,” Green writes.
An Opinium poll for the Observer finds that only 18% of voters believe Patel has handled the Channel crisis well while 62% think she has handled it badly or very badly. Among Tory voters, 39% think she has handled it very well or fairly well while 45% say she has responded very badly or fairly badly.
Ministers have said that the Afghan resettlement scheme is complex and that the Home Office is working “at pace” to open it as soon as possible.
However, there is also said to be a Whitehall battle going on over where the processing and checks of refugees can take place. Processing within Afghanistan has been deemed too difficult. Processing outside the country, however, would cause complications if people were found to be ineligible for the scheme.
Rory Stewart, the former international development secretary, said the problems were surmountable, but the opportunity for helping vulnerable people was slipping away.
“We have a narrow window to get people out,” he said. “At the moment, very strangely, the Taliban is prepared to permit people out. That won’t be true for ever. It’s very likely at some point they’ll start taking more drastic measures. We have a deep moral obligation. These people, who are profoundly vulnerable – the British government said that they were going to help. It’s just astonishing that they haven’t done so. This sort of programme, actually, is the kind of thing that is the good alternative to these dangerous, unplanned routes. It moves people safely, but it’s also the way of ensuring that the most vulnerable are prioritised.”
Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, said the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan was collapsing and few details were known about the UK scheme, adding: “Even now, the government can’t even tell us who is actually responsible for the scheme. In August, the prime minister said he would move heaven and earth to bring people to safety. Since then it appears he hasn’t lifted a finger to help. This is forcing desperate people into the hands of people smugglers with no regard for human life, using increasingly dangerous routes to reach our shores.”
The Law Society has warned that solicitors, prosecutors and judges who acted against the Taliban are all targets while still in Afghanistan.
Marina Brilman, its international human rights adviser, said she feared the UK’s scheme would not even be up and running by the end of the year. “Most judges, prosecutors and lawyers who helped to consolidate the rule of law in Afghanistan are Afghan nationals,” she said. “They never made it on to the UK government’s evacuation list. When the last UK flight left Kabul airport, they were left stranded. Especially women.
“They send us desperate pleas for help and pass on handwritten death threats saying they and their families will be killed. They constantly move house, and even provinces, to escape the violence.
“Door-to-door house searches by the Taliban continue, as do extrajudicial killings and public beatings. Of course, establishing this scheme is a huge undertaking. But it should not have to take three and a half months to even open it for applications. It raises the question how much of a priority this is for the UK government.”
A government spokesperson said: “We undertook the UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping more than 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan, who we are continuing to support. The ACRS is one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history and will give up to 20,000 further people at risk a new life in the UK. We continue to work at pace to open the scheme amid a complex and changing picture, working across government and with partners such as UNHCR to design the scheme.”