UK + 1 more

Refugee sector voices grave concerns over Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS)

As the UK co-hosts the UN Pledging Summit on Afghanistan, the Refugee Council and British Red Cross have led a joint letter to the Home Secretary co-signed by a number of other organisations working with and alongside evacuated Afghans in the UK. The charities highlight their grave concerns over the lack of safe and legal routes available for vulnerable people still in Afghanistan to reach the UK.

Rt Hon Priti Patel MP

Secretary of State

Home Office

2 Marsham Street

London

SW1P 4DF

Dear Secretary of State

Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS)

Many of our organisations work with and alongside evacuated Afghans in the UK, we are writing to you to outline our grave concern over the lack of safe and legal routes available for vulnerable people still in Afghanistan to reach the UK.

Ahead of the UK co-hosting the upcoming United Nations virtual summit on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, we hope the contents of this letter are useful to the government, both in terms of setting out our immediate concerns and in identifying practical solutions.

We very much welcomed the significant efforts taken by the UK Government to respond to the crisis in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of military support by western allies to the Government of Afghanistan, and the subsequent seizure of power by the Taliban. Operation Pitting saw the UK undertake the largest evacuation in living memory, and we commend the government in successfully bringing over 15,000 people to safety in the UK at such short notice.

On 18 August 2021, we welcomed the announcement[1] by the Prime Minister of the new Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which aims to resettle up to 20,000 of the most vulnerable people at risk, with around 5,000 arrivals expected in the first year. The announcement was seen by many as a vital new safe and legal route, alongside the existing ARAP and UK Resettlement Scheme.

We particularly welcomed the government's intention to focus the ACRS on those people who remain in Afghanistan or the region, primarily Afghan nationals although nationals of other countries, for example in mixed nationality families, will also be eligible. Spouses, partners and dependent children under the age of 18 of eligible individuals will be eligible for the scheme. Other family members may be resettled in exceptional circumstances.

Many of our organisations have been involved in delivering practical and emotional support to people evacuated to the UK, many of whom are suffering from trauma and high levels of anxiety about family and friends left behind in Afghanistan. Many of these people are anxious to hear further details of when the scheme would open, how it would operate and whether friends and family would be eligible to come to the UK under the ACRS.

In January 2022 the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, Victoria Atkins, announced [2]the official opening of the scheme, with the first people being granted leave to remain under ACRS. As part of this announcement the Minister said: "The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme provides a safe, legal and secure way for the most vulnerable and at-risk people from Afghanistan to come to the United Kingdom and rebuild their lives, as part of the New Plan for Immigration."

However, as part of the same announcement in January 2022 the government stated that the third pathway (that which enables people to be relocated to the UK directly from Afghanistan) would be restricted in the first year to '*individuals who supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan, including those British Council and GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni who are most at risk'. *Furthermore, the announcement did not go as far as confirming a start date for the third pathway, and a start date has yet to be confirmed.

We are gravely concerned that as it currently stands, the ACRS offers little or no capacity for those most at risk in Afghanistan to come to the UK in a safe and secure manner.

The failure to open up this vital pathway to a wider cohort of people leaves thousands of vulnerable Afghans with the invidious choice of remaining in Afghanistan at risk of persecution from the Taliban, fleeing into a neighbouring country such as Pakistan in the hope of being able to access the UNHCR referral pathway, or embarking on even more dangerous journeys further afield, including to Europe and the UK in order to seek protection.

Paragraph 27 of the ACRS policy statement [3]states that:

'the government will work with international partners and NGOs in the region to implement a referral process for those inside Afghanistan, (where safe passage can be arranged,) and for those who have recently fled to countries in the region. This element will seek to ensure we provide protection for members of Afghan civil society who supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan. This category may include human and women's rights activists, prosecutors and others at risk. We will need some time to work through the details of this process, which depends on the situation in Afghanistan.'

We remain deeply concerned that no such referral process is yet in place for people inside Afghanistan and it is not clear what plans the government has to establish such a process, given the restrictions in place in year one of the third pathway.

Secondly, in addition to our concerns over the capacity of the third pathway, we are also concerned that pathway 2 (the UNHCR referral pathway) is not scheduled to open until spring this year, leaving many thousands of people already displaced in the region living precariously in countries that are already hosting disproportionate numbers of refugees.

Thirdly, we know from the people we have been supporting that many families have become separated as a result of the crisis. One of the most immediate and pressing concerns for Afghans who arrived in the UK as a result of the evacuation is how they will be able to bring their family members to the UK. Our understanding is that only the immediate family members of people arriving under pathway 2 (the UNHCR pathway) will have rights to apply to come to the UK under the existing family reunion rules. The family members of people who arrive under pathway 1 and 3 have no such rights, and it is unclear as to whether they will be able to access ACRS for the purposes of family reunification. It is vital that the government urgently address the lack of family reunification rights for people arriving under pathways 1 and 3.

Finally, we are concerned that the target of supporting up to 20,000 people through this scheme will include Afghans who already arrived in the UK, meaning that not all of these places will be 'new' places, but will instead be allocated to Afghans who arrived in the UK as part of the evacuation process.

It is absolutely vital that the government use the forthcoming United Nations summit to address these issues by committing to the following:

  1. Pathway 3 of ACRS should not be restricted in year one. The government must commit to a date to open this pathway as a matter of urgency, with referrals front loaded as much as possible to ensure the majority of people can be relocated to the UK in years 1 and 2 of the scheme.
  2. Pathway 2 of ACRS must be opened as soon as practically possible.
  3. Ensure that the 20,000 target excludes people who arrived as part of the evacuation in the summer of 2021.
  4. Ensuring the immediate family members of people arriving under pathways 1 and 3 are able to access a family reunion route for the purposes of reuniting with family members in the UK.
  5. Appealing to all states to put in place resettlement schemes that address the needs of vulnerable Afghans, either through the establishment of new schemes or increasing the resources and capacity of existing schemes.
  6. Appealing to all states to ensure Afghans relocated or resettled have access to an effective family reunification process.

Yours sincerely,

Enver Solomon, CEO, Refugee Council

Mike Adamson, Chief Executive, British Red Cross

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Chief Executive, Oxfam GB

Tim Naor Hilton, CEO, Refugee Action

Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO, Safe Passage

Zoe Bantleman, Legal Director, Immigration Law Practitioners' Association (ILPA)

Dr Edie Friedman, Executive Director, the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE)

Clare Moseley, CEO Care4Calais

Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Praxis

Jenni Regan, CEO, IMIX

Susannah Baker, The Pickwell Foundation

Sarah Teather, Director of JRS UK

Christopher Desira, Seraphus

Mel Steel, Director, Voices in Exile

Traci Kirkland, Head of Govan Community Project

Amber Bauer, CEO, forRefugees

Denise McDowell, Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU)

Nick Harborne, CEO. Reading Refugee Support Group, Reading City Of Sanctuary

Efi Stathopoulou, Programmes Manager at Refugee Legal Support

Neil Jameson CBE, Director of UKWR

Naomi Webb, Executive Director, Good Chance

Eleanor Brown, Managing Director, CARAS

Tom Martin, Director, City of Sanctuary Sheffield

[1] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/afghan-citizens-resettlement-scheme

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/first-family-resettled-under-afghan-citizens-resettlement-scheme

[3] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1017133/210912_Afghan_policy_statement_.pdf