The UK government has narrowed the only safe route currently available for vulnerable Afghans to enter the country in a move that critics say goes against the prime minister’s promise to give a “warm welcome” to those who had worked with British forces in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, the Home Office published a “statement of changes” to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap), the arrangement offering relocation to locally employed staff of the British government or army who were deemed to be at “serious risk".
The new criteria requires that former local employees must have a “high and imminent risk” of threat to life, whereas the previous rules required only imminent risk. Those employed in an exposed role by the UK government must also show that their safety is at risk as a result of their work, further narrowing the rules for eligibility.
The Home Office wrote that the update is meant to “clarify” the criteria and “remove the uncertainty” during and after Operation Pitting, the evacuation effort which saw thousands of people flown out of Afghanistan earlier this year.
However, the move has been met with dismay by campaigners who have urged greater support for Afghans left behind in the Taliban-run country and criticised the UK government’s delay in opening up other avenues for relocation.
Minnie Rahman, the interim chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the change was another example of how the government had “slammed the door” on Afghan people.
"Their narrowing of the ARAP scheme and their shameful failure to open the Afghan resettlement programme mean that Afghans with links to the UK are now stuck between a frying pan and a fire," she said.
The legal director of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association tweeted that it was “shocking” the changes to ARAP had been done before the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme had been opened.
“Whilst clarification of the criteria in the Arap rules is welcome, it is unclear why the rules for entry clearance for Afghans who helped the UK are being narrowed at this time. This further closes legal routes to the UK,” wrote Zoe Bantleman.
Even though the changes took effect from 4pm on Tuesday, the Home Office proposes to apply them to all applications decided after the update, regardless of when they were submitted.
“Such a retroactive effect cannot be correct,” Ms Bantleman wrote.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel said in August that the government would offer a pathway for up to 20,000 Afghans to move to safety in the UK. However, the scheme has not yet opened and last month Minister of Afghan Resettlement Victoria Atkins said it was still in the design stage.
Campaigners fear the government has lost the will to fulfil its promise amid an increasingly anti-migrant political environment. The controversial Nationality and Borders Bill currently being proposed in parliament seeks to criminalise all asylum seekers arriving in Britain on small boats or by other irregular routes.
"People will face the impossible choice of staying in Afghanistan and risking death, or making their own treacherous journeys here and facing prison, detention or removal under this government's new Borders Bill," said Ms Rahman.
A government representative said the UK implemented the biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping more than 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan who it is continuing to support.
“The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will soon open and is one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history. It will give up to 20,000 people at risk a new life in the UK. We will honour commitments made to individuals and groups,” the government representative said.