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Inspection report on Afghan resettlement schemes reveals another secret pause on processing cases

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s report on the Afghan relocation and resettlement schemes reveals yet another undisclosed pause on cases, this one relating to grants of entry clearance for those who met the requirements of the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP).

Between October 2022 and March 2023 the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration conducted an inspection of ARAP and the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). These are two of the “safe and legal routes” that actually exist, within the oft repeated Government rhetoric. 

Background

Operation Pitting was a British military-led evacuation operation in Afghanistan arising due to the Taliban resurgence in 2021. Over a two-week period, Operation Pitting successfully evacuated around 15,000 people, including 3,000 British citizens. However, a critical report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted organisational shortcomings that had resulted in some otherwise eligible individuals being unable to be evacuated.

For this reason, in April 2021 the ARAP scheme was launched. In short order it received over 140,000 applications. On the 6th January 2022, the UK (partially) opened the ACRS, which has slightly wider eligibility criteria.

The role of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration is to monitor and report “on the efficiency and effectiveness of the immigration, asylum, nationality and customs functions carried out by the Home Secretary and by officials and others on their behalf(see s. 48, UK Borders Act 2007). It’s a tough job and this report along with a dozen others was published by the Home Secretary in February 2024, rather reluctantly it would seem, amidst quite a bit of controversy which included the dismissal of the chief inspector, David Neal.  

There’s a lot in the report and maybe even more missing. Missing mostly perhaps both due to the narrow time frame of inspection and because it was conducted in the relatively early stages of the operation of the schemes.

Unannounced pause on entry clearance grants

The report identifies and raises “matters of concern”, focusing on the lack of transparency in decision-making, and particularly regarding the lack of communication during the pause in issuing entry clearance to applicants who apparently met all of the relevant requirements. That pause began in late November 2022 initially due to “understandable” accommodation shortages. But it was then continued following a “political directive” in December 2022 [para 1.13].

As this was not communicated, it in effect therefore amounted to the operation of a secret policy not to relocate qualifying people to the UK unless and until they had secured suitable, non-hotel accommodation here. The inspector notes that this is “not acceptable” and that he wasn’t even informed of this until March 2023 despite the inspection period covering the start of the pause.

It remains unclear how people coming to the UK under ARAP, some of whom fled Afghanistan with only what they could carry, and others who were forced into hiding, were expected to source their own accommodation in the UK. Nor on what lawful basis this could be reasonably required of them.

Data issues

As is now standard in these reports, the worryingly ‘poor’ quality of Home Office data and data collection is also highlighted:

Eighteen months on… the Home Office does not have a single accurate dataset and, on occasions, has resorted to contacting arrivals by phone to establish their immigration status, and inspectors even found that the Home Office granted indefinite permission to stay to British citizens in error. This is not good enough.

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The lack of accurate data is noted to have led to “issues such as the granting of indefinite leave to stay to British citizens”. Echoes of Windrush have been noted.

Biometric enrolment

The report alludes to the considerable difficulties faced by Afghans required to register biometrics given the lack of an application centre in Afghanistan. Noting with concern that there is “no formal biometric process in place for Afghan resettlement schemes”, along with the specific impacts may impact “…cohorts of applicants, such as women and girls, or those in hiding, to access the application process” [para 1.11].

Recommendations

There are nine key, detailed recommendations in the report, emphasising in particular a need for greater transparency, data accuracy/better data collection, and better communication with all stakeholders.

  • Establishing a consistent assurance regime focusing on decision making quality.
  • Improving the accuracy of data and data collection;.
  • Developing strong contingency plans for future crises.
  • Publishing its equality impact assessments and making sure any policy updates are also subject to an assessment.
  • Providing updated guidance to individuals relocated during Operation Pitting to ensure they will not face enforcement action because of a failure to normalise their immigration status.
  • Establishing an Afghan resettlement scheme working group to engage with stakeholders, the voluntary sector, NGO’s and Afghan community groups in order to provide them with updates, seek feedback and continuously improve the caseworking process

These have mostly been accepted by the Home Office, if a little unenthusiastically.

What the report did not cover

There are significant problems with the schemes that were not addressed in the inspection. Many of these are dealt within in detail in the reports on the resettlement schemes, published by the Afghan Pro Bono Initiative and Justice. In our report we highlight the particular challenges caused by substantial delays in processing both urgent and relatively simple applications, as well as the lack of any clear time frames.

We ask that the Home Office take immediate action to simplify procedures in order to minimise delays, reduce extensive backlogs, and uncertainties for eligible at-risk applicants. We have recommended reducing evidence requirements, taking a realistic approach to biometric enrolment and eliminating language barriers in relevant policy and procedure documents.

Beyond these resettlement schemes, the UK’s narrow immigration rules and their onerous requirements particularly affect Afghan family members’ ability to reunite. They fail to take into account the cultural composition of Afghan families as well as the practical circumstances they find themselves in; for example: adopted children are not able to provide the required adoption certificates to meet eligibility requirements.

The imposition of the high evidential threshold of “serious and compelling family or other considerations” in relevant cases, including for children to be able to join non-family members, is not just harsh and unfair but also unrealistic to meet. There appears little acceptance of the obvious difficulties applicants will face, including the frequent lack of proper data/documentation available.

Conclusion

Overall, the inspection highlights the need for significant improvements in governance, decision-making processes, and IT infrastructure within the Home Office to ensure the effective and fair processing of applications to Afghan resettlement schemes.

Although not necessarily the same cohort of people, the reality that the schemes are both narrow and too slow might be best demonstrated by the fact that in each of the five quarters from 1 April 2022 to 30 June 2023, more Afghans reached the UK via dangerous small boat crossings than in reliance on these inaccessible “safe and legal routes”.

They risked their life doing so and it is appalling that many have died as a result. If the goal of having and operating purported “safe and legal routes” is to preserve life and to reduce the need to make perilous journeys to seek protection, then it’s hard to not to see this as an abject failure.

The current Afghanistan relocation schemes need to be brought up to date to meet the needs of applicants. The inspection report suggests improvements can be made by, among other things, ensuring a consistent approach to administration and improving decision making quality and more regular contact with applicants to ensure they are kept up to date on applications as well as keeping Afghan community members engaged.

The inspection report was sent to the Home Office on 9 June 2023. It’s not clear that even the modest recommendations within have yet been implemented. Meanwhile, decision-making remains consistently far too slow and of too poor quality for a scheme predicated on urgency and immediate risks.

This article was co-written by Shamim Sarabi, Community Engagement & Research Lead at Refugee Legal Support. Both Isaac and Shamim are also part of the Afghan Pro Bono Initiative.


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Isaac Shaffer

Isaac Shaffer is the Legal Director at Refugee Legal Support.

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