Nearly 3,000 Afghans in Pakistan will be brought to the UK by the end of the year for resettlement under the Afghan relocation and assistance policy (Arap), a minister has said.
Pakistan has announced a crackdown on migrants thought to be in the country illegally, which could affect an estimated 1.7 million Afghans, and said it would begin deportations on November 1.
Cabinet Office minister Johnny Mercer told the Commons he has received “verbal assurances” from Pakistani authorities that those eligible to come to the UK will not be deported to Afghanistan, and he is working to ensure “that line is held”.
He said the Government is accelerating the process of bringing those eligible to the UK and appeared to suggest that while he is aiming to avoid the use of hotels, they may be used “in extremis”.
Speaking during an urgent question on the evacuation of Afghans from Pakistan, Mr Mercer said: “Previously the policy was that only those who had secured accommodation in the United Kingdom would travel to the United Kingdom. We are changing that policy as a result of changing conditions on the ground.
“The Ministry of Defence has worked hard to stand up over a total of 700 service family accommodation for mixed purposes or transitory and settled accommodation.”
He added: “Our new plans will see approximately 2,800 Arap-entitled personnel moved from Pakistan to the United Kingdom by the end of December 2023.
“Entitled personnel may move straight into settled accommodation of the Ministry of Defence.
“Where SFA (service family accommodation) is unavailable, families will also move into transitional accommodation as the first step. Where SFA is not suited to the needs of Arap personnel, alternative accommodation will be procured.”
Mr Mercer said it was right that the first cohort of Afghans brought to the UK during Op Pitting were housed in hotels, but added: “Since then, it has become clear that hotel accommodation is entirely unsuitable for long periods of time for these families, and therefore they were held in Pakistan, rightly so.
“The situation has now changed in Pakistan and we are now going to accelerate that process again and get them into SFA accommodation in the UK so that we’re seeing through our duties.
“I don’t want to see anybody detained or deported from Afghanistan who’s entitled to be in the United Kingdom and I’m going to work to achieve that outcome.”
Mr Mercer was responding to an urgent question from SNP home affairs spokeswoman Alison Thewliss, who said she had heard from constituents in a state of “extreme panic” over the last few weeks amid fears their relatives could be deported to Afghanistan.
Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said: “The government of Pakistan has strong-armed our weak Prime Minister into delivering something that it was our duty as a country to deliver in the first place.
“A truly shameful and humiliating state of affairs.”
Labour former cabinet minister Sir Ben Bradshaw asked if Mr Mercer had received assurances from the Pakistani authorities “that they won’t target those Afghans who are eligible to come here”.
Mr Mercer said: “I can confirm that I have received verbal assurances from the Pakistani authorities that those individuals are not going to be deported.
“I have to work night and day to make sure that line is held, and I’ve made it clear to this House and to the country that we don’t want to see any one of those deported.”
He added: “I don’t want to see that line crossed, and if it is then I will return to the House and make a statement on it.”
Asked minutes before if in discussions with Pakistan he and others had sought assurances that people who have got live applications to come to the UK will not be deported back to Afghanistan, Mr Mercer said: “That is the entire strategic objective that we are trying to achieve.
“It’s to make sure that those who are entitled to be in the UK… are not deported back into Afghanistan.
“We are working night and day to get those assurances. And I am determined that we will and that we will look after them properly.”
Asked how the plans will fit with the Home Office policy of not using hotels, Mr Mercer said: “That policy remains, but in extremis clearly that will not be a barrier to people coming to the UK where they are at risk of deportation, right. So we are going to keep these people safe.
“We are as we speak working up our policy as to how we are going to ensure that we integrate this cohort much like we did with the summer, and those discussions around different departments are ongoing and when we have that policy agreed I will come to the House.”