Tens of thousands of Afghans are still waiting to hear if they will be relocated to the UK, 17 months after the Taliban took power.
New figures from the Ministry of Defense (MOD) show that 71,149 applications under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) are still pending.
The program was developed for Afghan nationals who worked for or with the UK government in the country.
The recent spate of retaliatory attacks in Afghanistan has left many in continued fear for their lives.
Charities are warning that people who have helped deliver UK-funded schemes are falling through cracks in government resettlement schemes. They say the Afghans are also in danger, waiting months for a decision on the ARAP requests.
In response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, the Ministry of Defense revealed that in November its staff only reviewed applications submitted in January 2022, meaning applicants were at least eight months late.
Further FOI data shows that more than 127,000 applications for the program have been received as of April 2021. An estimated 71,149 applications are still pending, but the Ministry of Defense said the vast majority are considered ineligible or duplicates.
Charity workers and former civil servants warn that eligibility criteria are too restrictive and could leave British aid workers in Afghanistan stranded.
As of December 21, 2022, approximately 10,900 applicants, not counting their family members, were ineligible for ARAP and 2,780 were confirmed eligible.
Around 4,300 additional people (prime applicants and their family members) are believed to be eligible for refuge in the UK under the scheme. The Ministry of Defense said more than 12,000 people had been brought to the UK under ARAP.
A MoD spokesman said: “Our priority, as agreed by ministers, is not simply to process a large number of applications, but to find and relocate those Afghans who meet the ARAP criteria through direct service in the British Armed Forces.
“There are less than 1,000 interpreters and other staff who have not yet been allocated a place in the program. Our priority is to find them and bring them and their families back to the UK.”
One of those affected by the delays is a former DfID (Department for International Development) employee in Kabul. Fatima*, who currently resides in Dubai, applied for ARAP relocation in June 2021, but her application was rejected as the Ministry of Defense mistakenly believed she was a contractor and therefore did not qualify.
After further delays, she was told in February 2022 that her application had been approved. However, her ARAP visa has now been put on hold while the British Embassy awaits approval from the Home Office.
Another person, who is awaiting a response to the ARAP request, was informed by the MoD that he would have to go to the Taliban Foreign Ministry to validate the children’s birth and marriage certificates.
Zehrah Hassan, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) charity, denounced the backlog, saying “ARAP’s shameful figures show our government has slammed the door on vulnerable Afghans.”
“People who have already risked their lives – working as interpreters, teachers and humanitarian workers – will now face an impossible choice: risk persecution in Afghanistan or make their own perilous journey here and face criminalization,” she added.
Mark Davies, Head of Campaign at the Refugee Council, said: “It is unacceptable that so many Afghans are stuck behind ARAP applications, making them desperately dangerous in Afghanistan.”
Conservative MP John Baron is calling on the government to ensure the safety of former British Council staff and their families in Afghanistan, UK.
He said Independent that the ARAP backlog is being replicated in a separate, broader track, the Afghan Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which was set up for those who defended UK values including democracy, women’s rights and freedom of expression.
Some British Council staff were admitted under ARAP, but teachers who were recruited by the British Council were told they were not eligible, despite being at equal risk of bullying. Instead, they were told to apply for ACRS.
Joe Seaton, former deputy director of the British Council in Afghanistan, said there was “no consistency or explanation” for teachers rejected by the ARAP system.
He said: “All teachers are still amazed that British Council managers and office staff have been given ARAP approval (along with a small minority of teachers) while the vast majority of teachers have been denied ARAP.
“All teachers met the original ARAP criteria when the program first launched, but almost all were rejected.”
He called on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to investigate why “so many eligible and at-risk Afghans have been excluded” from the ARAP criteria.
Problems also plague the alternative ACRS scheme, z Independent it was revealed in December that so far only four people have been resettled in the UK on the second ACRS track.
Referring to the delays in ARAP, Mr Baron said: “There is a parallel backlog in ACRS. The good news is that in the last few weeks, 47 [British Council contractors] eventually they were told they could cross the border and make their way to a relatively safe third country, pending onward travel to the UK.
“The bad news is that around 45 people are still waiting for this message and around 100 more have not received any communication from the government since they filled out initial applications to the ACRS last summer.
“We will continue to campaign to remove the bureaucratic roadblocks that delay the processing of contractors’ applications and prevent them from arriving safely.”
Defense Minister James Heappey told Parliament that as of November 2022, there are 327 ARAP prime applicants with a confirmed eligibility for relocation to the UK still in Afghanistan.
*Fatima’s name has been changed