The letter sent by Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, to Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, on 29 August 2021.
Dear Foreign Secretary,
Now that the airbridge has closed and the UK military drawdown is complete I am writing to ask for your support with the safe evacuation of the British nationals and Afghans who have been left behind. It was welcome to hear the Prime Minister commit to move heaven and earth to help those who are currently in hiding or trying to reach the border but I am increasingly concerned that, even now, few practical measures have been put in place to achieve this.
The scale and complexity of the operation
I understand the Government is working on the assumption that there are 800-1,100 people who will need assistance. Based on our caseload, this is likely to be a significant underestimate. My office is currently tracking cases related to 5,000 people from Labour MPs alone, including British nationals, high profile public figures, people with serious disabilities and children separated from their families – which may give a sense of the complexity of evacuation. I was also extremely concerned to read in today’s Observer that many of the emails MPs have sent to the crisis centre in recent weeks haven’t been opened. Could I ask that those are now dealt with urgently in order to get a sense of the scale of this operation? I would strongly suggest that you plan for a significantly larger number than 1,100.
At the height of the evacuation we were told less than a dozen people in the Foreign Office had been tasked with processing the details of those trying to flee. They were so under-resourced and overstretched that by the final days the only realistic route to assist people was by sending WhatsApp messages to the Defence Secretary or the Minister for Afghanistan. The evacuation efforts cannot have been helped by the range of email addresses and phone numbers that were provided by the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Home Office, most of which either did not work or were not answered. Can you work with colleagues in Government to establish one cross-departmental unit with adequate resources to take responsibility for this next phase?
Given the recent remarks by Taliban leaders and the practical barriers to continue to operate an airport, I presume you are planning for the majority of people to attempt to leave via border crossings. I was concerned to hear from Pakistani diplomats on Thursday that no agreement has yet been reached to take in UK nationals or people eligible for evacuation to the UK.
They raised concerns about the ability to provide public health checks, including testing and quarantine procedures, for those arriving over the border in large numbers. Could the UK alongside allies provide practical support to Pakistan and other countries in the region to help with this?
The adoption of e-visa systems for entry to Pakistan – as India has done – could reduce pressure at Embassies and reduce the risks of crushes and stampedes.
I am also acutely aware that there are an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees already in Pakistan and it will be difficult to urge the Pakistani authorities to take responsibility for large numbers of new Afghan refugees without broader support from the international community. The country lost development assistance from the UK earlier this year. Could you now explore expanding development assistance to support the significant number of refugees in Pakistan, in particular through the UN and NGOs helping refugees on the ground directly?
I also understand you hope to extend the UK’s capacity to process people who would be eligible under the ARAP scheme in Pakistan. There could be an obvious benefit to increasing UK diplomatic capacity on the Pakistan side of the border, to help identify and process those in need. Could you provide further details on additional capacity you are considering deploying to the country?
We are in touch with a number of people who are in hiding following threats to themselves or their families. Aid workers on the ground have raised with me the shortage of those spaces given that local families fear reprisals if they provide shelter to those who have assisted the UK. I am told they are keen to expand these facilities but are unable to do so because they are funded by your department via the CSSF, and the funds cannot be used for this purpose. Could you look into this urgently to see if flexibility can be applied? I suggested this in my letter a week ago but I am told there has been no movement on this.
Clearly, many individuals will have no prospect of reaching a border without the permission of the Taliban. If the UK isn’t in direct communication with Taliban leaders, could you prioritise speaking to regional partners to see if a civilian corridor, possibly overseen by a neighbouring country, could be arranged?
Could you pass on my thanks to the FCDO staff and diplomats who have worked tirelessly in recent days to try to evacuate as many people as possible. I am only too aware of the agonising decisions they have had to make about who to prioritise. Now with this new crisis looming, I hope we can work together to ensure they have all the support they need.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Lisa Nandy MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs