Afghan children at risk after closure of family reunion scheme

UK government closed family reunion scheme for Afghans when it evacuated its embassy in Kabul

The UK government is being urged to provide a new online application scheme for Afghans hoping to join their loved ones in Britain after the process ground to a halt with the evacuation of its embassy in Kabul.

To submit an application for family reunion, Afghans must present themselves at a visa application centre (VAC) to have biometrics taken, show their passport or identity document, and receive the final outcome.

But without an embassy in Afghanistan, the UK is no longer able to offer such a service and the VACs closest to Kabul are now hundreds of kilometres away in other countries.

London-based charity Safe Passage said more than 250 Afghans have contacted it for help in recent weeks, more than half of whom are concerned about the welfare of relatives in their homeland.

The charity told The National it wants the government to allow Afghans to submit their applications online and receive approval before having to travel to a neighbouring country to provide biometrics.

In its Afghanistan resettlement and immigration policy statement released on Monday, the government confirmed that the application system had been closed.

The document said any family members of Afghans in Britain “will be expected to meet the eligibility requirements of their chosen route, which includes paying relevant fees and charges, and providing biometrics”, and that “there is currently no option to give biometrics in Afghanistan".

“The British Embassy in Kabul has suspended in-country operations and all UK diplomatic and consular staff have been temporarily withdrawn.”

The government said they were working with other countries to help people out of the country but said “we recommend people in Afghanistan do not make applications and pay application fees at this time as they will not be considered until biometrics are provided”.

Safe Passage said the current policy may force minors into making unsafe journeys to reach their relatives in Britain.

Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive of Safe Passage International, told The National: “For all those with loved ones trapped in Afghanistan, it’s devastating that the UK government has closed family reunion – one of the only safe routes to the UK for Afghans fleeing the Taliban.

“Every day families are getting in touch with us desperate to know how they can help their loved ones join them safely in the UK.

“We urge the government to re-think this decision and support families to reunite by providing the flexibility in the application process needed to allow families safe passage.

“Unless the government reopens family reunion, we could see many more children forced to risk dangerous journeys to reach safety and family in the UK in the coming months.”

The charity said hindering families from reuniting "is a betrayal of them in their time of need".

The call comes after the UN’s refugee chief in London said the introduction of the new nationality and borders bill risks criminalising Afghans who manage to escape the clutches of the Taliban.

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UNHCR’S representative in the UK, told MPs on Tuesday that the government could end up imprisoning Afghans seeking refuge in Britain if they have used illegal travel routes.

Appearing before the home affairs select committee, Ms Pagliuchi-Lor said: “I find it ironic, to be honest, that the very same people we felt so affected by when we saw them hanging from planes in Kabul, or those we are now discussing how they should be extracted … if they extracted themselves and made it here, they would, if that bill were law, be liable to potentially four years in jail and then subject to some attempts to return them to some other countries.

“There is something ironic in the way we are so concerned about them while they are there, but we are ready not to consider them when they come to the UK.”

The government said the bill, which is at the committee stage, is designed to make the country’s asylum system fairer, deter people from using illegal routes of entry and deport those who have no right to be in the UK.

After the Taliban rolled into Kabul on August 15 the UK scrambled troops to evacuate Afghans fleeing the insurgents.

The UK removed more than 15,000 people after August 13, of whom more than 8,000 are claimants under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy scheme.

On Monday a government minister said people considered most at risk under Taliban rule will be able to resettle permanently in the UK in the future.

Home Office minister Victoria Atkins, who is co-ordinating Operation Warm Welcome, reiterated indefinite leave to remain will be granted to those Afghans who worked with the British government and military.

Ms Atkins said up to 20,000 refugees expected to arrive in the UK under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme will have the same “certainty of status”.

Members of both groups will have the option to apply for British citizenship after five years.

Updated: September 18th 2021, 7:15 AM