Plans to rapidly relocate hundreds more Afghans who worked for the British military and UK government, mostly as interpreters, have been announced.
Including family members, more than 3,000 Afghans are expected to be allowed to settle in the UK, joining 1,300 who have already done so.
The decision comes amid fears for their safety as international troops prepare to leave the country.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said it was “only right” to accelerate plans.
He added that those being relocated were those that might otherwise “be at risk of reprisals” from the Taliban.
The issue has been a concern since British forces ended combat operations in Helmand in 2014 – with troops who served there being among the most vocal in their support for measures to protect those who assisted them during their deployment.
Earlier schemes applied strict criteria on who could apply for a new life in the UK and considered the Afghans’ length of service and precise roles – for example favouring interpreters who worked with British troops on the frontline in Helmand for more than a year.
But under new government policy, any current or former locally employed staff who are assessed to be under serious threat to life will be offered priority relocation to the UK – regardless of their employment status, rank or role or length of time served.
The government said this was done to reflect the fact that the security situation in Afghanistan has changed and acknowledges the potential risk to local staff who have worked for the UK government and military over the past 20 years. The scheme, the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy, was set up on 1 April.
Home Secretary, Priti Patel described the move as “a moral obligation”.
In a statement, the government said: “Following the decision to begin the withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan, the prime minister has agreed with the Ministry of Defence, Home Office and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to rapidly accelerate applications through the policy.”
It is not yet clear precisely how many Afghans will be relocated to the UK, but the government says it is expecting more than 3,000 to be resettled/
Although it will cast a wider net than previous schemes did, not everyone who worked for the British will be eligible to apply. For example, some locally hired Afghans were sacked while working for the British for serious misconduct.
‘Sacrificed a lot’
Mr Wallace told the BBC that “with Western powers leaving, the threat is increasing, including targeted attacks by the Taliban”.
He said those who worked for the British had “sacrificed a lot to look after us and now is the time to do the same”.
Ms Patel said: “It’s our moral obligation to recognise the risks they faced in the fight against terrorism and reward their efforts.
“I’m pleased that we are meeting this fully, by providing them and their families the opportunity to build a new life in this country.”
At the start of this year there were still 750 British troops in Afghanistan – mostly providing security in the capital Kabul.
Their withdrawal is already under way following US President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out US troops from the country. Nato forces have agreed to do the same, though senior British Defence officials have expressed their “disappointment” at the decision.
The US, who employed many more local Afghans, is reported to be working on a similar scheme.
The relocation of hundreds of Afghans to the UK will provide a major logistical challenge as British forces leave the country for good. The government will have to work out ways to fly them out safely along with the remaining British troops. The government will also have to liaise with local authorities as to where the Afghan families will be located and housed back in the UK.
While ministers say they are accelerating the pace of relocations in parallel with the military withdrawal, the new scheme is not time-limited and will remain open after British troops have left Afghanistan.