Afghans are now the largest nationality of small boat migrants, official figures show, as just 22 people were resettled through an official UK scheme.
Numbers have overtaken Albanians in recent months, and the government says it will send Afghans to Rwanda if it decides that passing through France makes them “inadmissible” for asylum in the UK.
The Home Office claimed there was “no need” for them to use small boats and said refugees should “claim asylum in the first safe country they reach”.
But a charity accused the government of “abandoning Afghans to the terror of the Taliban” and forcing them to make dangerous crossings because of a lack of alternatives.
Ministers have sought to characterise people using dinghies to reach Britain as “illegal migrants” rather than “genuine refugees”, but 98 per cent of Afghan asylum applications were granted in 2022.
The country is among five selected for a new fast-track scheme where refugees can have their claims granted on the basis of questionnaires, although it only applies to people who arrived before July.
Home Office figures published on Thursday showed that more than 9,000 Afghans crossed the Channel in small boats last year, with numbers rocketing in the autumn.
An official report said Afghans “became more prominent from October to December”, adding: “Only 9 per cent of small boat arrivals were Albanian [in that period]. Afghans were the top nationality for small boat arrivals in these three months, making up 33 per cent of arrivals.”
The Home Office said that the number of Afghans crossing the Channel had been increasing since summer 2021 – when the Taliban seized control of the country – with just 494 Afghans having used the route in 2020, 69 in 2019 and just three in 2018.
They are entering a record backlog of claims, with more than 160,000 asylum seekers now awaiting initial decisions on their applications, leaving some in limbo for years.
Nine in 10 small boat migrants claim asylum, but 97 per cent of those who arrived in 2022 are still awaiting a decision because of the backlog and government attempts to declare them “inadmissible” for consideration for passing through France.
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Despite the government’s focus on Channel crossings, which have continued to rise despite a series of attempted deterrents, they accounted for less than half of asylum applications overall in 2022.
Only one general scheme designed for vulnerable Afghans seeking refuge in the UK, the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), is currently open.
The government said it aimed to resettle up to 20,000 people over five years, but the government has been using it to grant thousands of people who were evacuated from Kabul in August 2021 leave to remain in the UK.
Figures released on Thursday showed that only 22 Afghans have been brought to the UK under the ACRS scheme.
Safe Passage International called the figure “shameful” and said men, women and children were being left in “very real danger” under Taliban rule.
Chief executive Beth Gardiner-Smith added: “It’s unforgivable that the government has abandoned Afghans, including very vulnerable women and girls, to the terror of the Taliban.
“Because of this government’s failure, instead of being able to access safe routes, thousands of Afghans have been forced to take dangerous journeys in order to reach the safety of the UK, including 1,700 Afghan children forced to cross the Channel in flimsy boats.”
The lack of safe routes to the UK for Afghans is pushing them to take dangerous journeys across the Channel, the Joint Centre for the Welfare of Immigrants said.
Campaigns manager Mary Atkinson added: “The figures out today show that the numbers of Afghans who have been resettled are still vanishingly small. This government says it is prioritising resettlement, but is failing to actually protect people whose lives are in danger.
“It’s no wonder that Afghans still make up such a large proportion of those forced to risk their lives in the Channel to find safety here.
“The government must stop criminalising people who move, and make sure that people can seek safety here without having to risk their lives.”
Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said that the tiny numbers coming to the UK on ACRS show that the government needs to “expand access to refugee visas”.
He added: “The fact that the number of Afghans coming across the Channel increased five-fold but only 22 arrived on the ACRS scheme shows how the government needs to urgently rethink its approach.”
The Home Office said it was working with the UN Refugee Agency to bring people to safety, but did not rule out sending Afghan asylum seekers who arrive on small boats to Rwanda.
A spokesperson added: “So far, we have brought around 24,500 vulnerable Afghans to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan schemes.
“There is no need for Afghans to risk their lives by taking dangerous and illegal journeys. The unacceptable number of people risking their lives by making these dangerous crossings is placing an unprecedented strain on our asylum system. People should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach – that is the fastest route to safety.”