Government closes family reunification scheme for Afghan people in ‘devastating’ move

Government closes family reunification scheme for Afghan people in ‘devastating’ move
Applications are almost impossible to make as British embassy in Kabul is shut

The government has advised people against making family reunion applications for their loved ones in Afghanistan to join them in the UK.

The move has been described as “devastating” by charity Safe Passage, which campaigns for safe routes to the UK for refugees.

The charity has said that is has received more than 200 enquiries from people in Afghanistan or their families, and that more than half the enquiries are specifically about for family reunion.

The scheme, which has been closed for the time being, is one of the few safe routes available to people fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power last month after 20 years.

Furthermore, making applications has been made almost impossible by the closure of the British embassy in Kabul and diplomatic staff having been evacuated after the Taliban’s takeover.

To complete an application for family reunion, family members must attend a Visa Application Centre (VAC) to have biometrics taken, submit a passport or identity document, and collect the decision.

With the embassy in Kabul closed, the closest VACs are hundreds of miles away in other countries.

Safe Passage is urging the government to “keep this vital safe route open, and support families to reunite.”

It advises the government to do this by accepting applications, and being flexible in when and how biometric data is received.

The charity suggests that the government makes decisions on any applications first and, if an application is provisionally approved, then requiring biometric data to be sent via mobile biometric units or through a third country.

Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of Safe Passage International, said: “Stopping family reunion now is a betrayal of Afghan refugees in their time of need.

“Every day, we’re hearing from families in Britain desperate to help their loved ones trapped in Afghanistan.

“Without family reunion, we will see many more children forced to risk their lives attempting dangerous journeys to reach safety and family in the UK in the coming months.

“The government must urgently re-think this position and provide the flexibility in the application process needed to allow families safe passage to reunite with their relatives here.”

Currently, the government is asking Afghan people to not make applications or pay application fees, because it says they “will not be considered until biometrics are provided” – according to a Home Office policy statement published on Monday.

However, it acknowledges the difficulty of making applications by saying that “there is currently no option to give biometrics in Afghanistan.”

In the House of Commons on Monday, Labour MP Diane Abbott pressed Victoria Atkins on the issue, saying that many British passport holders would be “very shocked” to learn that the government cannot offer them help for their “relatives trapped in Afghanistan”.

Ms Abbott said: “Perhaps she should write to us and say she has no information. At least that would help shed some light for constituents.”

Ms Atkins, minister for Afghan resettlement, said: “For those people in Afghanistan at the moment, it is a very fast-moving situation.

“At this point in time, I am not able to signpost constituents and parliamentarians in the way that I would normally be able to do, and that is one of the tough messages I have had to deliver today from the Dispatch Box.

“That does not mean that that will remain the case forever, and that is why the work of the FCDO, the Ministry of Defence and others in trying to secure safe passage out of Afghanistan is so critical.”

It comes after Ms Atkins told MPs to stop asking for help on behalf of people stranded in Afghanistan as the government will not be able to respond to their requests.

In a letter to MPs, seen by The Independent, the Home Office minister told her parliamentary colleagues to tell people to instead visit the government website.

The move was described as “utterly disgraceful” by the Liberal Democrats, who warned that Afghans trapped in their homes in fear of the Taliban had “lost one of their last lifelines”.

But Ms Atkins said that Britain’s lack of troops or an embassy in Afghanistan represent a “new reality”, and that the government “cannot provide to MPs assessments or updates on those individuals who remain in Afghanistan and whose cases they have raised”.

Just a fortnight ago, Ms Atkins had urged Afghan people to come to the UK via “legal” routes if they want to access support in Britain.

“Our message has been, please, please do not travel here illegally,” she said as she set out the resettlement plans – named Operation Warm Welcome by the Home Office.