Afghan Refugees - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords am 4:15 pm ar 17 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 4:15, 17 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, the United Kingdom has long-standing and close relations with Pakistan. We engage regularly with the Government of Pakistan to advance key priorities and interests, including on human rights and adherence to international law. We are closely monitoring Pakistan’s policy on the deportation of Afghans from Pakistan, and we are working with the UNHCR and the IOM to ensure Pakistan adheres to its international human rights obligations with respect to those affected.

We understand that the recently elected Government of Pakistan intend to resume their programme of deportations from mid-April following a winter pause, although this has not been announced formally. While we respect Pakistan’s sovereign right to control its borders, the United Kingdom, alongside international and donor community and other partners, is urging Pakistan to do so in accordance with its international obligations.

The UK has committed £18.5 million to the International Organization for Migration in Afghanistan to support vulnerable undocumented returnees from Pakistan and Iran. As part of this work, we have been engaging closely with the Government of Pakistan on these measures and they have assured us of their support in relation to preventing the deportation of Afghans eligible for resettlement in the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy—ARAP—or the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, ACRS. Since the formation of the new Pakistani cabinet, the Foreign Secretary and the British High Commissioner have received assurances from Foreign Minister Dar, during discussions on 25 and 28 March respectively, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue to support our relocations work.

We continue to work closely with the UNHCR and the IOM to ensure that all Afghans who have been found eligible, including eligible family members, for resettlement in the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy or the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme have been provided with the necessary documentation to verify this and to prevent their deportation.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that answer. Of course, we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Afghans who fought with the United Kingdom, and it is a disgrace that those who fought with us are not afforded the support they should expect and deserve.

Oliver Heald, a Conservative MP, raised a question in the other place about individuals who, in travelling to Pakistan, became undocumented or were unable to maintain those papers. The Minister in the other place responded, talking about commitments relating to the High Commission, but did not explicitly address the need for that documentation and how they can then fit in to the schemes or apply under them.

Finally, why did the Government last night oppose my noble friend Lord Browne’s amendment, which would offer the sort of guarantees that these people so rightly deserve? I hope the Minister can answer that question.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, first, on supporting those who supported the British effort, the noble Lord will know that we have prioritised those in Chevening—the British Council—as well as GardaWorld, and we have made good progress. Since October 2023, the UK has completed a series of about 24 charter flights and relocated over 5,500 individuals from Pakistan under the UK’s ongoing Afghan relocation programme.

I have taken up the issue of undocumented individuals directly with the previous administration. I met with Foreign Minister Dar, and yesterday I had a call with the new Law and Human Rights Minister of Pakistan, during which these issues were discussed. There has been no formal announcement by the Government of Pakistan. I would also add that a sizeable number of those who returned to Afghanistan more recently did so voluntarily, but some people have been forced to return. On those who have qualified to come to the United Kingdom, we are working directly with the Government of Pakistan through our High Commission and ensuring through direct engagement that their position can be normalised.

I know that noble Lords have been very much seized of the issue of those who served. The noble Lord talked about the vote last night, and I am sure we will be discussing that later this afternoon. Through the ARAP scheme, we continue to support many of the people who supported our military work, and we continue to work with our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to make sure that passports and documents can be issued as soon as possible for those who are eligible to come to the UK, and that they can be facilitated to do so.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the Minister knows that I respect him greatly, but he must understand that it is completely jarring to say that we are working with the UNHCR and the IOM to ensure that Pakistan adheres to its international obligations on migration, especially since those organisations themselves have singled out the United Kingdom as being in breach of those very commitments. Indeed, the Pakistan interim Prime Minister, writing in the Telegraph on 8 December last year, cited the Rwanda Bill as support for what they are doing. Can the Minister be clear and precise: what are the concerns about potential breaches of the commitments under international obligations for Pakistan that the Government consider are at risk, and how many individuals who could be eligible for support in the UK are currently in limbo and are potentially going to be repatriated to Afghanistan?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we have made sizeable progress with those people who are eligible, and we have had changes in Pakistan. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we have worked across the different Governments to ensure that those who have a legitimate claim to travel to the United Kingdom and seek protection here are facilitated. On the ACRS scheme, which the noble Lord and others were seized with, we are seeing some really good progress. I get weekly updates on the progress made under those schemes, and we work very closely with the UNHCR and the IOM. As far as the United Kingdom’s standing in world goes in support of these international agencies, we remain a very strong supporter and indeed funder of the vital work they do.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench

My Lords, I wonder if the noble Lord has any further information from the IOM or other sources about the refugees who are being deported by the Pakistan authorities? Are they, for instance, predominantly Shia? Are those who are being deported being sent back to their home ethnic areas? Are there any unaccompanied children among them that the Government know of?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we have certainly made the case to Pakistan consistently about the importance of ensuring that those who are most vulnerable are protected. I know that in the region of 130,000 children have been returned. I do not have the breakdown, but I can see what information we have and share it with the noble Baroness.

Photo of Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I declare my interest having served in Afghanistan as a soldier. I have many friends who are eligible under the ARAP scheme. I simply underline the concerns of others regarding the challenges associated with documentation, much of which has been lost. I also commend the Government for their efforts in recent months, but I ask the Minister to maintain an open mind as to the length of time this scheme remains open for reasons of lost documentation.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I was there in 2021, working through the night on a lot of the Afghans who arrived here in the initial batch of over 21,000, so I can give my noble friend that assurance. We need to ensure that those who are entitled to come to the United Kingdom do so, through the processes we have in place, including normalisation of their documentation. We want to have a very open and constructive relationship with the Government of Pakistan, in particular, to enable this to happen.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Llafur

As the Minister has said, among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan are a significant number of former Afghan Special Forces, known as the Triples, many of whom are there only because they were wrongly judged to be ineligible for resettlement here under the ARAP scheme. They face certain death if they are forcibly removed to Afghanistan, as do their families. Am I to infer from the Minister’s earlier references to the review, which was set up to look at their cases again, that some of these people are being allowed visas to come to this country? I am not aware of that.

Nor do I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, with whom I have been persistently debating the issue of the review. In the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill debate yesterday, he said the following regarding the much smaller number of people here in the United Kingdom who I am trying to get this Bill amended to cover:

“I reassure Parliament that, once the UKSF ARAP review has concluded and went on to say what the Government would do. If these people in Pakistan have to wait for that, there is no hope for them. Time is of the essence. This review needs to be completed as quickly as possible. If it is being incrementally concluded for individuals, perhaps the Minister could tell the House.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I am focused on that, and I know that the Ministry of Defence are leading on it. As to these cases, we are not waiting for the end of the review to process those who are eligible for that scheme. As they become eligible, they will be processed appropriately.

Photo of Lord Jackson of Peterborough Lord Jackson of Peterborough Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, notwithstanding the question from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, we should not give the Pakistani Government a free pass. The third goal of the UK- Pakistan development partnership is support for a more open society, including the rights of minorities. My noble friend will know, of course, that Pakistan is the number one recipient of foreign direct investment from the UK. Nevertheless, Christian persecution continues, and persecution among Muslims for apostasy is also a major problem in Pakistan. When are we going to make tangible progress on leveraging our soft power to address these very important civil rights and human rights issues?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that this is a personal priority. The issue of freedom of religion or belief around the world is something I have been focused on. I was instrumental in setting up the envoy’s role; indeed, I served as the first envoy as well. With reference to Pakistan specifically, the issue of Christian persecution is not just regularly raised but followed up in practical terms. I pay tribute to a number of noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is not in his place, but he has been very much focused on that. We engage directly with the All-Party Group on Pakistan Minorities on specific cases. Being from a Muslim minority myself—I am an Ahmadi Muslim— I am all too aware of the challenges that minority communities face in Pakistan. We need to be robust in challenging those to ensure that, irrespective of faith or religion, everyone in Pakistan is treated equally as a citizen of the country.