On 2 December 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate:

Lord Roberts of Llandudno (Liberal Democrat) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) poverty, and (2) hunger in Afghanistan; and what progress they have made with the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.

Hunger and poverty in Afghanistan

Following the Taliban’s resumption of control of Afghanistan in mid-2021, the future for many of the Afghan people looks bleak.

The combined shocks of drought, conflict, the coronavirus pandemic, and an economic crisis in the country have left more than half the population facing a record level of acute hunger, according to an assessment from United Nations agencies published in October 2021.

That Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report, from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP), revealed that the lives, livelihoods, and access to food for 22.8 million people will be severely impacted, particularly as the country enters the winter months. The report found that 3.2 million children under five could suffer from acute malnutrition.

Speaking to the report, the World Food Programme’s executive director David Beasley said the country was on a “countdown to catastrophe”:

Afghanistan is now among the world’s worst humanitarian crises—if not the worst— and food security has all but collapsed. This winter, millions of Afghans will be forced to choose between migration and starvation.

The economic situation in the country is similarly dire. A report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) from September 2021 found that as much as 97% of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line unless a response to the country’s political and economic crises can be found.

The report, which examined several different scenarios, reported a “catastrophic deterioration” of the economy which was already heavily dependent on foreign aid. In the words of Kanni Wignaraja, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, there was a significant risk of systemic collapse:

We are facing a full-on development collapse on top of humanitarian and economic crises […] Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. This analysis suggests that we are on course for rapid, catastrophic deterioration in the lives of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable people.

Subsequently, in October 2021 the UNDP launched a flash appeal for $667 million in funding to provide for a ‘people’s economy fund’ to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and economic collapse. Speaking at the launch of the funding call, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said:

If we do not act and help Afghans weather this storm, and do it soon, not only they but all the world will pay a heavy price […] Without food, without jobs, without their rights protected, we will see more and more Afghans fleeing their homes in search of a better life. The flow of illicit drugs, criminal and terrorist networks will also likely increase. This will not only badly affect Afghanistan itself, but also the region and the rest of the world.

A press release accompanying the launch noted that Germany has reportedly already pledged $58 million of the funds required over the next 12 months. The United States has also reportedly pledged $1.1 billion, though it is unclear how much of this represents a new funding commitment.

What UK aid is being provided to Afghanistan?

It remains unclear how aid might be delivered to Afghanistan while the country remains under Taliban control. The UK has joined others such as the US and the EU in announcing new or amended aid pledges for Afghanistan. The UK has pledged £286 million for 2021, £30 million of which will be for Afghanistan’s neighbours to support regional stability and refugees. It is the Government’s intention that UK aid will be delivered through international organisations, such as the United Nations, rather than directly to Taliban authorities.

The UK has also joined calls from the EU and others that the delivery of aid should be, in part, dependant on the actions of the Taliban. This includes protection for women and girls in the country.

On 31 October 2021, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced that £50 million of the £286 million committed to Afghanistan will be spent to address humanitarian needs such as providing food and shelter, and protecting women and girls from gender-based violence. Mr Johnson said this would ensure that help was provided to some of the most vulnerable in the country:

We now have a responsibility to protect the people of Afghanistan most at risk under the Taliban regime, particularly women and girls.

Today’s funding will provide urgent protection for the most vulnerable people. But preventing a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan and preserving the gains of the last 20 years will require a truly global effort.

Resettlement schemes for those seeking to leave Afghanistan

Out of a total population of 30–40 million people, 2.9 million in Afghanistan were already categorised as Internally Displaced People in 2020. By October 2021, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that a further 677,000 people had left their homes as a result of the fighting in the country. Among high levels of civilian casualties, particularly at the height of the Taliban’s efforts to regain control, and now the growing humanitarian and economic crises, many Afghans are now seeking to leave the country.

Some Afghans have already come to the UK or been told that they are eligible to come to the UK under bespoke arrangements for people affected by the situation in Afghanistan, as outlined in brief below. The Government has said that it will grant this group of people indefinite leave to remain in an appropriate immigration category as part of these schemes.

Operation Pitting

Thousands of Afghan nationals came to the UK as part of the August 2021 military evacuation, known as ‘Operation Pitting’. These were principally family members of British or Afghan nationals living in the UK, people eligible under the relocation schemes for UK Government employees, and other cases classed as particularly vulnerable. The Government estimates that 15,000 people were evacuated as part of the operation.

Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS)

On 18 August 2021, the Home Office announced further details of the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). It is the Government’s intention that up to 5,000 people will be resettled in the first year of the scheme’s operation, but ministers have not yet announced when it will begin.

Ex gratia and ARAP schemes for former employees

Some Afghan civilians (and their family members) previously employed by the British Government who fear reprisals from the Taliban are eligible for relocation in the UK. There are two schemes currently in use for these people:

  • The ex gratia redundancy and resettlement scheme, which will run until November 2022. It caters for people who worked directly for the UK Government in certain time periods and who had served for more than 12 months.
  • The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) is open to any current or former staff employed by HMG in Afghanistan since 2001, who are assessed to be at serious risk of threat to life. Eligibility is regardless of employment status, rank or role, or length of time served. The scheme is open-ended and there is no limit or quota on the number of people eligible.

Recent changes to the schemes include broadening ARAP eligibility rules to include Afghans dismissed from service for minor administrative offences; ensuring that interpreters who supported the UK military as contractors will be eligible for relocation under ARAP; and allowing people to apply for relocation from outside Afghanistan. The Government estimates that 375 individuals have been relocated to the UK under the ARAP scheme since the conclusion of Operation Pitting.

Other immigration routes may also be open to those seeking to leave Afghanistan. However, the UK Government is currently advising people in Afghanistan against applying for a visa to come to the UK, because it will not process applications whilst there is no way to submit supporting biometric information. Similarly, Afghans who have already left Afghanistan and can access a visa application centre in another country can make an application. Yet the UK Government has been reluctant to tell people who feel at risk in Afghanistan to attempt to leave the country.

Speaking to the progress made to resettle Afghans in the UK through the existing schemes on 22 November 2021, the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, Victoria Atkins, said the UK continued to work urgently to relocate those eligible:

Through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, the UK will relocate up to 20,000 at-risk people in the coming years. We are working urgently across government and with partners such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to design the scheme. We continue to support the thousands of people successfully evacuated from Afghanistan under Operation Pitting, and we will continue to support those who come under the scheme when it opens.

Commenting specifically on progress to establish the ACRS scheme and the routes currently available to leave, the minister said:

Not only do we have the ACRS in the process of being built, but we are meeting our commitment to those who have worked with the UK Government and the UK Army under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, so work is ongoing to protect people […] However, we are very much in the hands of our international partners when it comes to opening up safe and legal routes through Afghanistan to us.

Resettlement from Afghanistan was also recently discussed in the House of Lords in the context of those seeking to make the perilous crossing to the UK in small boats. Several members such as Lord Kerr of Kinlochard and the Lord Bishop of Coventry raised the fact that the ACRS scheme had yet to open in the context of this problem. However, the minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford reiterated that the development of the scheme was ongoing, and that the Government remained committed to providing safe routes of passage for those eligible to come to the UK.

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Cover image by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash.