Nearly 100 British Council contractors forced to live in hiding since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan have been given the green light to come to the UK.
After 18 months of moving between safe houses while they were “hunted” by soldiers of the new regime, about half the contractors who worked for the council had their final security checks signed off.
They and their families have been told by the Foreign Office to “head for the border” and are expected to travel predominantly to Pakistan, then make arrangements to fly to the UK.
While the partial breakthrough was welcomed, a senior Conservative MP who has led the campaign to support the contractors criticised ministers for their “lack of urgency” and warned that the workers still in Afghanistan remained at risk.
A charity also warned that there were “many more” Afghans who had fled the country but needed sanctuary in the UK, in return for work over many years promoting British values and interests.
Ministers set up a scheme to help British Council contractors to be relocated from Afghanistan to the UK, which was launched on 6 January 2022. However, not a single former contractor was given the all-clear when the one-year anniversary loomed.
About half are believed to have been contacted last autumn and told that their applications had been accepted, but a lengthy wait for security checks – believed to have been led by the Home Office – resulted in to further delays.
Of the roughly 180 contractors, it is estimated that 85 were classified as being at “very high risk”, while a further 90 or so were deemed to be at “high risk”.
The Foreign Office confirmed this week that about half the contractors had been cleared and given permission to come to Britain under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS).
In addition, 300 of their family members have been granted clearance to come to the UK and 47 other former British Council contractors have recently been contacted to start the process, according to the Europe minister, Leo Docherty, who was speaking at a Westminster Hall debate on Wednesday night.
He said: “We are making progress. We are trying – in terms of communication and administrative support – to ensure that they can start that journey of resettlement.”
Docherty praised British Council contractors for their work teaching English and offering education opportunities to Afghans, saying the UK government understood the “need to nourish those who helped us in our hour of need”.
Although there are only 1,500 initial places on the ACRS reserved for British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors who provided protection at the British embassy in Kabul and alumni of the Chevening scholarship, Docherty said the figure was a “measuring tool”, not an “upper limit”, as more places would become available later in the year.
To assuage concerns that some contractors would struggle to come to the UK due to a lack of access to documents such as passports, Docherty said travel difficulties would most likely be due to the “crippling and pernicious constraints” imposed by the Taliban, instead of any “procedural or bureaucratic” ones insisted upon by the UK government.
John Baron, a Tory MP who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on the British Council, welcomed the “good news”.
However, he urged ministers to ensure no quotas were imposed on the number of contractors and their family members who could come to the UK.
“If 200 people and their families helped us – and it’s the same with GardaWorld and Chevening – then we need to reach out and help those 200. The time to put this right is now,” he said.
Baron called for “greater urgency” from ministers and voiced concerns that a wait for more spaces on the ACRS would leave those still in Afghanistan in danger. He previously spoke in parliament about those left behind living “in constant fear for their lives, moving from safe house to safe house as they are hunted by the Taliban”.
Neil Jameson, the director of the UK Welcomes Refugees charity, welcomed the development but pointed to “13 months of inaction”.
He said: “There are many more Afghans who have fled Afghanistan since the Taliban arrived who also need rescue and sanctuary in the UK, in return for the loyalty, support and protection for UK interests in Afghanistan that they gave for many years.”
Jameson said there were 9,000 Afghan refugees, similar to those who might be helped by the ACRS, who have been stuck in hotels across the UK for more than 13 months.