Desperate Afghans in hiding from the Taliban have been told they can come to safety in Britain only if their documents are approved by the fundamentalists they are trying to flee.
UK officials have told applicants to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy scheme – for those who helped British forces during the war – that birth and marriage certificates must be provided in English with stamps from the Afghan government departments, run by the Taliban since the militant group swept to power in August 2021.
Charities said Afghans were being put in danger, with one MP saying they were effectively being asked to “sign their own death warrant”. Thousands of Afghans are still waiting to hear if they can relocate to the UK under the scheme.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) initially denied the practice but has now admitted it was wrong and apologised, after an investigation by The Independent.
One MP accused the UK government of having “complete disregard” for the desperate realities Afghans face.
The Independent has seen numerous emails sent to Arap applicants in which MoD caseworkers ask for birth certificates and marriage certificates to be provided in English and bearing stamps from the government.
In one case, an Afghan interpreter was told to have his children’s birth certificates and his marriage certificate validated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA).
He eventually took his marriage certificate to the Taliban’s Ministry of Justice to get it verified. He is currently living in hiding in Afghanistan, cannot work, and is still waiting for help to transfer to a third country and then to the UK.
In an email sent to applicants after The Independent raised the issue, the Arap case team wrote: “We understand that some of you may have received communications from Arap telling you to visit the local authorities or Ministry of Foreign Affairs to obtain new documentation for your relocation to the UK.
“If you received one of these messages, this was incorrect and we apologise for any misunderstanding or distress caused by this message.”
The row erupted just days after Rishi Sunak insisted his government took its obligations under the Arap scheme “extremely seriously”.
He was tackled at Prime Minister’s Questions about the plight of female judges who face “mortal danger” in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over.
In response, Mr Sunak told MPs that the UK takes its “obligations to those who helped and served in Afghanistan extremely seriously, through … the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme”.
According to MoD estimates, there are around 4,600 people eligible for sanctuary in Britain under the Arap scheme, including dependant family members, who have not yet been relocated to the UK.
Officials supporting Afghan applicants said that the MoD’s requests for documents had become more stringent in the past three months.
Those evacuated under Operation Pitting – the UK’s military operation following the Taliban offensive in August 2021 – were told to bring documents “if you have them”, but people trying to leave more recently were told by the MoD that they were a necessity.
Marriage certificates are issued in local languages by the family courts in Kabul. They are then translated and both the original and translated certificates must then go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be attested, according to a source familiar with the process.
Dr Sara de Jong, co-founder of the charity Sulha Alliance and lecturer at the University of York, said UK bureaucrats often failed to understand what documents are available in Afghanistan.
She said Afghan marriage certificates were not readily available in English and the Taliban had “pretty much stopped” issuing children’s passports, leaving eligible Arap applicants stuck in Afghanistan because they don’t have documentation for their children. Others are also struggling to get passports, with fakes reportedly being sold on the black market for $3,000 (£2,460).
In one case the Sulha Alliance recently supported, an applicant was asked to provide an adoption certificate – something not available in Afghan society.
Sarah Fenby, from Global Witness, said: “The fact that Afghan interpreters, who risked their lives for the UK’s mission in Afghanistan, are still left behind, despite gaining eligibility under Arap is shameful. They are hiding, afraid and unable to work to feed their children.
“The fact that they are then being asked, by Arap, to take their documents to Taliban-controlled ministries to have them validated is completely unacceptable”.
Dan Jarvis, a Labour MP and former soldier who served in Afghanistan, said: “Asking our Afghan allies to have their papers approved by the Taliban Ministry of Foreign Affairs is like asking them to sign their own death warrant.
“These requests by the UK government show a complete disregard to the grave realities eligible Afghans face, pushing desperate men into perilous situations.”
Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey MP said ministers “should never have allowed the application process to potentially threaten their safety”, adding: “Britain has a moral duty to assist and protect them. Ministers urgently need to fix the Arap scheme – and speed up applications and relocations.”
Chair of the defence select committee, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, warned extra vigilance was needed from the UK government to ensure those who worked for it or were promoted by it were not put in harm’s way, adding: “We need to ensure our offers of protection are not compromised. We must do the right thing.”
The UK faced accusations its response to the situation in Afghanistan was inadequate within days of the crisis emerging in the summer of 2021.
A damning report released earlier this year found the government had acted neither “swiftly nor with clarity of purpose” in response to the unfolding humanitarian disaster.
Since the fall of Kabul, ministers have also been accused of failing Afghan refugees because of a series of problems with the Arap scheme, including delays.
Arap is for Afghan citizens who worked with the British government and armed forces who can apply for relocation with their families. The Ministry of Defence decides if people are eligible for the scheme, and the Home Office checks if they are “suitable for relocation”, a government website says.
It is separate from the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which claims to prioritise “members of Afghan civil society who supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan, and vulnerable people, including women, girls and members of minority groups at risk”.
Official statistics show that more than 11,200 people have travelled to Britain under Arap, but those numbers dropped sharply following the Taliban’s consolidation of government power and operations in autumn 2021.
More than 6,200 applications were granted between July and September 2021, compared to just 743 in the last quarter of 2022.
Only 22 Afghans have been settled from abroad under the ACRS scheme, which the government used for thousands of people who had already been evacuated to the UK.
An MoD spokesperson said it had “swiftly corrected” the error and it was “urgently reinforcing our internal guidance and processes to ensure this does not happen again”.
They added: “We apologise unreservedly and continue to work tirelessly to move eligible people to safety.”