Afghan resettlement minister Victoria Atkins said refugees would have to come via “legal” routes pre-agreed with officials if they want to access support in Britain.
“Our message has been, please, please do not travel here illegally,” Ms Atkins said as she set out resettlement plans – dubbed Operation Warm Welcome by the government.
At least 8,000 Afghan staff and family members evacuated under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme will be given indefinite leave to remain in the UK, the Home Office has confirmed.
But Ms Atkins said the government had not decided whether the 5,000 Afghans who will be helped to come to the UK under the separate resettlement scheme over the next year will get indefinite leave to remain. “These decisions will be made in due course,” she told Sky News.
Thousands of Afghans with ties to the UK mission in Afghanistan reportedly remain trapped in the country, having been unable to get on evacuation flights before the final withdrawal of western troops from the country.
But the Home Office minister insisted that desperate Afghans who flee to neighbouring countries and later attempt to come to the UK via the Channel would be subject to the government’s “crackdown” on small boat crossings.
Ms Atkins told BBC Breakfast: “This is the great challenge we are facing in other parts of our immigration system – trying to stop these gangs exploiting people, vulnerable people, by bringing them over in small boats over the Channel.”
She added: “Our message has been, please, please do not travel here illegally. The quid pro quo is that we will offer safe and legal routes. And that’s precisely what we are doing with the Afghan resettlement scheme. We’ve got to do this in an orderly and legal way.”
Defence secretary Ben Wallace last night told MPs about the ongoing effort to assist up to 300 Afghan staff, and around 700 of their dependents, who missed out on evacuation before the final Western troops left Kabul airport.
Speaking privately by conference call to MPs, Mr Wallace said Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials have been instructed to use phone calls and electronic messages to get into one-to-one contact with as many of the Afghans as possible.
It comes as No 10 confirmed that Boris Johnson’s representative for Afghan transition was in Doha to meet with Taliban representatives to discuss the fate of British nationals and Afghan staff left behind.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said she and fellow Labour MPs were “fielding thousands of cases” of Afghans with ties to Britain who remain trapped in Afghanistan. “We’ve got high profile public figures, particularly women, moving from safe house to safe house being hunted by the Taliban,” she said.
Ms Atkins suggested talks in Doha would be aimed at helping them find safe routes out of the country. “There have been leaks from the defence secretary – I think he’s called it Dunkirk by WhatsApp. We’re trying to reach people as best we can.”
She said discussions about particular routes out would remain private. “Explaining evacuation routes on national television is probably not a great idea. It’s a volatile situation and fast moving,” she told the BBC.
Meanwhile, the Home Office’s plan to resettle Afghan refugees has come under fire from local councils who say they have been left “scrambling” to meet the needs of new arrivals due to a “lack of clarity” from the government.
“At least one-third of councils have given firm offers [of accommodation], and we are in conversations with many more,” said Ms Atkins.
The minister added: “We would like to permanent accommodation, but we have to be realistic that the scale of the task is such that we simply don’t have permanent housing available to people.”
A letter from Labour ministers to home secretary Priti Patel, seen by The Independent, has also warned that the government must “step up and play its role in providing national coordination, leadership and support” to local authorities.
Conservative leader of Stoke on Trent city council questioned why more local authorities are not helping with Afghan evacuees. Abi Brown told Radio 4’s Today programme: “How could you not watch those scenes on the television over the last few weeks and put [themselves] forward over this?”
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