Chevening scholars from Afghanistan are receiving threatening messages from the Taliban about what they intend to do to harm their relatives back in their place of birth, according to their local MP, Caroline Lucas.
Nine of the 35 scholars evacuated from Afghanistan are due to study at the University of Sussex in Brighton, but five of those have not been allowed to bring their families to safety with them. Foreign Office rules only allowed “immediate family” such as spouses or dependent children under 18 on to the emergency evacuation flights.
Lucas, the MP for Brighton Pavilion, said their families had elderly dependent parents or dependent siblings still in Afghanistan, but in all cases the five scholars were the primary breadwinners for the households.
She said the five were “absolutely desperate about their families’ safety with their anguish heightened by the knowledge that their families are at risk precisely because of their decision to take up their Chevening placements – placements which mark them out as ‘collaborators’ with the UK”. Their names are being withheld for security purposes.
She said the fathers of two of them were murdered by the Taliban two years ago, but they are now receiving WhatsApp messages from the Taliban threatening the lives of the rest of their families.
Lucas said she had sought to raise the issue with the Foreign Office, Home Office and Chevening Secretariat but had been met with “a deafening silence”.
Lucas claimed the plight of the scholars came as the government failed to offer any clear assurance to those still trying to leave the country on how they will be helped. The government has said it will take 5,000 refugees in the first year and up to 20,000 over as long as five years, but the scheme has still not opened.
Lucas said on the basis of the number of cases of British nationals from Afghanistan in her constituency seeking help, the 20,000 scheme would be massively oversubscribed.
She said parliament had gone into recess due to the party conference season but only the bare bones of the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme announced on 20 August were in existence.
In a letter to the prime minister she complained the government was telling MPs that individuals needed to wait for the scheme to open, with no indication of when that will be and apparently no idea how many of the 5,000 places for the first year are already committed.
Lucas said: “My estimate based on my caseload is that there could be more than 33,000 family members alone that meet the scheme’s criteria, let alone those in the specified at-risk groups, so even 20,000 places over five years falls shamefully short.
“The government does not appear to know how many of the 5,000 places on the scheme will need to be allocated in the first instance to eligible Afghans already in the UK, such as 500 who were evacuated on Operation Pitting flights but did not qualify for Arap [the Afghan relocations and assistance policy], or to those that have crossed the border and are in refugee camps.”
She added: “The government is also directing people towards a visa process that, by its own admission, is impossible to fulfil and, when it does get up and running, will incur all the usual charges and minimum income criteria.”
Part of the criteria for securing a visa is providing biometrics, something that is not available in Afghanistan. She said at minimum visa waiver requirements are needed for the immediate family members of British nationals still stuck in Afghanistan.
Overall, she writes: “The government’s response to arguably one of the most significant humanitarian crises of recent history has so far been obfuscation, back-peddling, chaos and an apparent failure to grasp the scale or severity of the problem.”
The Home Office has admitted: “There will be many more people seeking to come to the UK under the scheme than there are places.” It was therefore taking considered approach, working with international partners and non-governmental organisations to identify those most eligible. Anyone accepted for the scheme will be granted indefinite leave to remain, the right to work and access to benefits if necessary.
Those that were part of the initial emergency evacuation are also being given exceptional leave to remain and freed of the need to pay visa fees.
One of the difficulties is that different government departments are responsible for different aspects of the scheme.