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media captionChaotic scenes at Kabul airport as people try desperately to flee

There have been chaotic scenes at Kabul airport, as desperate people try to flee Afghanistan. The UK government has announced a scheme to resettle people from the country – but how have these schemes worked in the past?

Resettlement schemes

The government says the Afghan Citizens' Resettlement Scheme will aim to allow 5,000 Afghans to settle in the UK, with the long-term goal a total of 20,000.

It will focus on women and children as well as religious and other minorities in greater danger from the Taliban.

It is modelled on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, which aimed to take in "those in the greatest need, including people requiring urgent medical treatment, survivors of violence and torture, and women and children".

They were identified by the UN and then vetted by the Home Office before being granted the right to settle in the UK.

The government met its target of bringing over 20,000 people – half of whom were children – over five years between 2015 and 2020, and the Home Office said it was the "largest resettlement scheme in Europe".

A further 6,000 Syrians were granted asylum in the UK outside the scheme during the same period.

Immigration lawyer Sarah Pinder noted that larger numbers were granted asylum in some other European countries.

Afghan workers and interpreters

The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme, launched on 1 April, was designed to resettle interpreters and other people who worked for the UK in Afghanistan.

And the Home Office says it has resettled 2,000 former Afghan staff and their families in the UK, since 22 June. The target is 5,000 by the end of this year just under this scheme.

Just over 1,000 people have also been resettled in the UK since 2013 under a previous scheme called the Ex-Gratia Policy.

But not all who have applied to the scheme have been accepted, according to the Sulha Alliance, which campaigns for the rights of Afghan interpreters.

A 2018 Defence Committee report found: "British forces were supported by some 7,000 Afghans, known as locally employed (or engaged) civilians (LECs)."

But Ms Pinder said resettlement schemes were often too slow for crises such as the one unfolding in Afghanistan.

"The idea that people can queue up to make an application by staying put… in reality, it's difficult to put into practice," she said.

And their criteria were often narrow, leaving people "stuck in a loop" between different schemes.

One of Ms Pinder's clients, an Afghan interpreter, had his application refused under an earlier iteration of the schemes because he had already left Afghanistan – but he had fled the country only because working for the UK had left him in danger.

Zoe Gardner, policy lead at charity the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said resettlement schemes could be "life-changing" but must "only be a part of the system".

"When people are fleeing persecution, it just happens in a messy way," she said. "People will be coming off their own steam. They won't be waiting in a non-existent queue."

Seeking asylum

Outside a small number of official resettlement schemes, which generally have narrow criteria for eligibility, the main way to settle in the UK is to seek asylum once within the country's borders.

In 2020, 1,336 people from Afghanistan applied for asylum, out of 29,456 total applications from around the world, and 580 were granted it – roughly 45%, although not all of those granted asylum had applied in the same year.

As of 31 March 2021, there were 3,117 people from Afghanistan with an asylum application pending an initial decision and 70% of them (2,220) had been waiting for more than six months.

The government is yet to announce a policy for what should happen to these cases.

But Ms Pinder said they – and anyone from Afghanistan recently refused asylum – should now have their cases urgently reviewed, and that there should be a pause on any removals of people in the UK back to Afghanistan.

Under international law, there is nothing to say people must seek asylum in the first safe country or arrive through official channels.

But the Nationality and Borders Bill currently before parliament would make knowingly arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence.

A Home Office official said: "The numbers we resettle will be kept under review, particularly as we recover from Covid… focusing on those in need and will be guided by the capacity of local authorities, central government and community sponsor groups to provide places and support refugees to integrate into their communities and thrive."

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