Thousands of Afghan asylum seekers who have already reached the UK are stuck in a “nightmarish limbo” amid mounting calls to give them the right to stay in Britain permanently.
The Home Office has refused to say if it has halted the processing of more than 3,000 live asylum applications from Afghans in the UK, despite deleting all key guidance documents that are used to decide them a week ago.
The government said the documents were “no longer relevant to the current situation”, after the Taliban seized power following a rapid advance, but has not yet published replacements.
Labour accused the government of endangering lives with its “chaotic handling” of Britain’s withdrawal from the country and subsequent Taliban takeover.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said: “As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates even further, the Home Office needs to – urgently – publish clear new guidance for people who have arrived in Britain and are currently in the asylum process.
“The Conservatives’ chaotic handling of the exit from Afghanistan has put lives in danger and their resettlement scheme does not meet the scale of the challenge.”
The Independent has backed calls for ministers to be more ambitious in its plan to resettle Afghans. Our Refugees Welcome campaign is calling for the government to offer sanctuary to as many people as possible.
The government has “paused” deportations of failed asylum seekers to Kabul but made no further commitment, despite championing a new resettlement scheme that aims to bring 5,000 Afghans to the UK over the coming year.
Ministers are still pushing to criminalise migrants who cross the English Channel, although Home Office figures show Afghans make up the fourth-largest group of asylum seekers arriving by boat.
Several MPs have joined calls by humanitarian groups for an amnesty for those who are already in the UK.
In a parliamentary debate on the Taliban takeover, Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper urged the government to “recognise the position of those who are currently here, whose applications for asylum may have been turned down before circumstances escalated”.
Home Office statistics show 2,881 Afghan asylum seekers are awaiting an initial decision on their claim and a further 236 cases are under review. The vast majority have been waiting for more than six months.
Tim Naor Hilton, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “As this government loudly proclaims its generosity to those fleeing Afghanistan with its limited Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, thousands of Afghans are stuck in the UK’s damaging and dehumanising asylum system right now.
“In stark contrast to the warm words on refugee protection we’ve heard from the home secretary this week, Afghans in the asylum system are stuck in a nightmarish limbo.”
Jamie Bell, a solicitor who specialises in Afghan asylum cases, said he was notified of an Afghan refugee awaiting removal from the UK as recently as last month, although he was later freed.
Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action, said she knew of at least one Afghan man who was still being held in immigration detention despite the government’s pause on deportations.
“It’s obviously incredibly traumatising for Afghan people in the UK trying to learn what’s happening and what’s going to happen to their loved ones,” she told The Independent.
“The fact that even now the Home Office is not conceding that they need to grant them asylum shows how deeply dysfunctional and problematic that department is. It’s not a reasonable and rational response to what’s happening.”
Ms Sankey said the government has been taking a “harsh and unreasonable approach” to Afghan asylum seekers for years, as it has insisted that Kabul was safe for many despite refugees’ own accounts showing the deteriorating security situation.
“So often children come whose parents were killed by the Taliban,” she added. “When they turned 18 the Home Office would start removal proceedings; some of them became suicidal and started self-harming.”
Until it was deleted on Monday, official security guidance used by officials said there was no general “risk of harm” in Afghanistan and the “proportion of the population affected by indiscriminate violence is small”.
It meant that asylum seekers had to prove that they were personally at risk through their “individual circumstances” because the general security situation was not considered dangerous enough to grant them protection in Britain.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigration said there was now “no excuse for delay”.
Policy and advocacy manager Zoe Gardner added: “Given the current situation in Afghanistan, it is out of the question that any asylum seeker could be safely returned there for the foreseeable future.
“The government must therefore act immediately to grant all Afghans in the asylum system protection. Any Afghan currently held in detention must similarly be released immediately and provisions must be made to facilitate the swift recognition of any Afghans making new or bringing fresh asylum claims.”
The government has announced a new scheme to resettle 20,000 Afghans in the UK over a five-year period, but there are questions about how refugees will be able to access it or get out of the Taliban-controlled country.
Announcing the plans, Priti Patel said the government would “do everything possible to provide support to the most vulnerable fleeing Afghanistan so they can start a new life in safety in the UK”.
But charities accused the home secretary of hypocrisy as the government backs a controversial bill that would criminalise all asylum seekers crossing the English Channel or otherwise arriving in Britain without official permission.
Refugee Action and other advocacy groups have called for ministers to scrap the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would also make it easier to jail migrants for steering boats.
Ms Sankey accused the home secretary of pushing a “false and disingenuous narrative” that only refugees who arrive via formal routes deserve protection.
“What she needs to do to is throw out that bill and accept that some people in the world are in such terrible circumstances they will travel to safety irregularly,” she added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Due to the ongoing situation in Afghanistan we have temporarily suspended our guidance on in-country asylum claims and are working at pace to update it.
“Our immediate priority is to evacuate those in danger in Afghanistan, and in the last week alone we have relocated hundreds of vulnerable individuals in addition to the thousands of people eligible under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy.
“In addition, all enforced returns to Afghanistan have stopped.”