Dominic Raab to visit Afghanistan’s neighbours amid refugee efforts

MPs criticise foreign secretary for refusing to estimate how many left behind are eligible to come to UK

Dominic Raab is to visit countries neighbouring Afghanistan amid efforts to help those left behind by the airlift from Kabul, after facing criticism from MPs for refusing to estimate how many were eligible to come to the UK.

While Raab declined to tell the foreign affairs committee where he was going, citing security protocols, it is understood the foreign secretary will first go to Doha, the Qatari capital, where the Taliban’s exiled leaders have been based.

“We’re always very careful about signalling travel movements because of the security implications,” he said. “But I can tell you I’m leaving after this committee to go to the region.”

Raab indicated he would also go to Pakistan, telling the committee chair, the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, that it would be his first visit to the country as foreign secretary.

Amid repeated questions from the cross-party committee about those left behind when the final UK troops were flown out last week, Raab confirmed these included some Afghan nationals who had guarded the British embassy in Kabul.

“We wanted to get some of those embassy guards through but the buses arranged to collect them, to take them to the airport, were not given permission to enter,” he said.

The removal of the guards had been delayed because they were initially told they were not eligible for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) aimed at helping those who worked with UK forces or officials, as they were hired through an outsourced contract.

Raab was questioned about three groups of people eligible to come to the UK – British nationals and their dependants; people eligible for the Arap scheme; and those seen as at particular risk under Taliban rule – but gave no specific figures for how many were believed to still be in Afghanistan.

“I can’t give you a definitive answer,” he said. “I’m not confident with precision to be able to give you a set number, but I am confident that the prime minister is right, that we’ve got the overwhelming number out.”

What Raab called “one of the great challenges” in assessing numbers was the situation for families, among them large ones, where some members possessed documentation allowing them into the UK, but others had “a less clear status”.

In terms of UK nationals, or dual UK-Afghan nationals, there were in “the mid-to-low hundreds” left behind, Raab said, refusing repeated attempts by the Labour MP Chris Bryant to be more specific, adding: “In terms of nationals, we got through the overwhelming majority of the nationals where we could verify eligibility.”

Of those still in Afghanistan eligible to come to the UK under Arap, Raab said numbers had been compiled by the Ministry of Defence. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, has said previously that between 800 and 1,100 Arap-eligible people were believed to remain.

Raab gave no estimate for the last group – those seen as being under particular threat thus eligible under asylum rules. Very few details on this scheme have been set out, but the aim was for the UK to take 20,000 people, of whom 5,000 are scheduled to come this year.

While the UK has said it hopes the Taliban could allow some resumption of international flights, the advice so far to those left behind has been to try to reach a neighbouring country, where a series of “processing hubs” were planned.

Following repeated complaints from MPs and relatives that emails to the Foreign Office, Home Office and Ministry of Defence about people stuck in Afghanistan while the airlift was still taking place were not answered – and a report that one such inbox contained 5,000 unread emails – Raab promised action.

All emails sent by MPs to his department up to 30 August would be replied to by 6 September, Raab said, adding that the delay was caused by a “conscious decision” to focus efforts on removing those already known about before UK forces left.

But Raab rejected allegations that it had been impossible for MPs to reach a dedicated Foreign Office phone line, with Bryant saying: “Every MP I know has had the same experience of not being able to get through.”

Between 16 and 26 August, Raab said, the average time to answer a call on this line was less than a minute.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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