The UK evacuation effort from Afghanistan had to focus on people already at Kabul airport meaning many cases raised by MPs and others may not have been looked at, a Foreign Office minister has said.
James Cleverly did not deny that a large numbers of emails about Afghans potentially eligible to leave the UK might still be unopened in official inboxes, as revealed by the Observer. There had been “a flood of requests” for help, Cleverly said.
“We focused on the people who were at the airport, were being processed, and who we felt we could get out through whilst we still had security of Kabul airport,” he told the BBC, though many people have told of failed attempts to be allowed into the airport despite having their UK passport and evacuation authorisation documents.
“We will of course continue to work through applications from people who have contacted us, who are still try to get out of Afghanistan,” Cleverly said.
He said it was “impossible number to put a figure on” the number of people stuck in Afghanistan who would be eligible for UK help, though Whitehall sources have suggested this number was about 9,000.
While the “vast, vast bulk” of British nationals had left Afghanistan, Cleverly added, the figures were less clear both for people who could qualify under Arap, the formal scheme for Afghan nationals who assisted UK forces, or for others potentially targeted by the Taliban.
He said: “We are going to continue working to get people out who fall into those groups – predominantly now, of course, it will be in that third group – people at risk of reprisals, whether they be high-profile individuals … religious minorities or others who may be under severe risk of reprisals from the Taliban.”
Up to 5,000 emails to the Foreign Office detailing urgent cases of Afghans seeking to escape Kabul remained unread, including those sent by MPs and charities, the Observer reported on Sunday.
It followed complaints from MPs that they and constituents who alerted officials to people inside Afghanistan needing UK assistance had received no response.
Cleverly said the UK had faced “a window of opportunity that was closing to us while we held Kabul airport” and thus needed to focus on people whose cases were already being processed.
“We had to make sure that those people who were in Kabul airport were able to get on the aircraft that were at Kabul airport. That had to be the priority,” he said. “We will continue to work through the applications for evacuation and repatriation, because that operation has not concluded.”
The UK and other nations have been given assurances from the Taliban that foreign nationals and those with authorisation to exit Afghanistan will be free to leave.
Cleverly said ministers were “sceptical about those commitments but we will continue working with them to an extent, based on their conduct, to try to facilitate that further evacuation and repatriation effort”.
He added: “What we are not going to do is just assume good faith in every respect – we are going to judge them on their actions, we are going to hold them to account if they fall short of their promises and commitments.”