The UK is scrambling to bring thousands of Afghans granted sanctuary in Britain but trapped in Pakistan to safety on chartered planes after Islamabad warned all those without visas would face arrest within days.
Thousands of Afghans – promised refuge in Britain after serving alongside coalition forces in Kabul – have been stranded in Islamabad for months awaiting relocation.
This was further delayed in November when Rishi Sunak stopped government flights and decided no Afghans should arrive here without sorting their own accommodation first.
However, The Independent revealed last week that the government was forced to reverse that decision after a legal challenge from two Afghans stuck in Pakistan following fears for their safety amid a crackdown on those whose visas have expired.
Pakistan on Thursday gave a final warning to all immigrants in the country illegally, including hundreds of thousands of Afghans, to leave before 1 November. Those who fail to leave will be sent to a detention centre before being deported.
Pakistan said it took the decision after Afghan nationals were found to be involved in crimes, smuggling and attacks against the government and the army, including 14 out of 24 suicide bombings this year.
“All the illegal immigrants have been identified. The state has a complete data,” interim interior minister Sarfraz Bugti told a news conference.
The UK government has however received assurances from the Pakistan government that any Afghans eligible for UK relocation will be protected.
This was given on the basis that UK politicians relocate them quickly out of Pakistan. Diplomats have now agreed that chartered flights out of Islamabad will continue until December, local media reported.
UK chartered flights to transfer the 3,000 or so refugees to Britain have now been agreed with the Pakistan government and ministers have said all Afghans eligible for the UK’s resettlement schemes will be housed in hotels if needed.
The Independent understands that the first flight will take some 200 Afghans from the capital to the UK on Thursday morning, with 12 chartered flights in total. Ministers have also committed to relocating hundreds of Afghans, eligible for UK resettlement, who are stuck in Iran.
Those arriving on Thursday will be housed in spare armed forces service homes.
Senior Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, former chairman of the defence select committee, told The Independent: “I hope the immediate operation can be expedited to bring those Afghans out of Pakistan.”
Mr Ellwood added: “There are a wider, awkward questions for us on what we do longer-term with Afghanistan, because the refugee situation is only going to get worse as the country economy collapses and there is a humanitarian catastrophe.”
The Independent previously revealed that police had raided one of the UK-funded hotels in Islamabad last month and arrested a number of Afghans whose visas had run out. They were only released after an intervention by the British High Commission (BHC).
A government spokesperson said: “The UK has made an ambitious and generous commitment to help at-risk people in Afghanistan and, so far, we have brought around 24,600 people to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan schemes.
“We continue to honour our commitments to bring eligible Afghans to the UK, with new arrivals going directly into settled accommodation where possible.”