Defence minister urged to ‘get the facts rights’ on Afghan refugee scheme

A minister has been urged to correct the record on the number of Afghans seeking safety in the UK, after he incorrectly claimed that “hundreds of thousands” of applications had been made.

In the Commons this week, defence minister James Heappey refused to give a lifeline to an Afghan air force veteran who served alongside British forces and is facing deportation to Rwanda after arriving in the UK by small boat. When he was grilled by MPs on the “scandal” raised by The Independent, Mr Heappey said that the “vast majority” of those who had applied to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) scheme would not be eligible because they had not worked in “direct support” of the British military.

“We have had hundreds of thousands of applications, the vast majority of which have come from people who either served in the Afghan national forces – while their effort was heroic, they were never who Arap was aimed at – or never had anything to do with the UK armed forces at all,” the armed forces minister said.

However, rather than “hundreds of thousands” of applications, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) told The Independent that 138,000 applications to the Arap scheme had been received to date – well below the figure stated by the minister.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran MP urged Mr Heappey to correct the record. “The Conservatives’ handling of the Afghanistan crisis has been catastrophic from the very start,” she said. “Now ministers can’t even seem to get the figures right. It’s important that James Heappey corrects the record as soon as possible.”

The senior MP added: “Getting the facts right is surely the very least that we owe to those brave Afghans who supported our efforts in Afghanistan – and have been so badly let down by the Conservative government.”

The Independent understands that the MoD has judged that Mr Heappey does not need to correct the record in parliament – despite the mistake being discussed by his officials.

The former Afghan air force pilot outside Westminster and (inset) in his plane

(The Independent)

The ministry revealed that the latest figures show that only 15,420 Afghans – comprising applicants and their family members – have been identified as eligible for help under the Arap scheme. Some 12,200 of them have already been relocated to the UK.

Guidance on the government’s website says that the Arap scheme is for “Afghan citizens who worked for or with the UK government in Afghanistan in exposed or meaningful roles”. However, The Independent understands that its remit is in fact far more narrow than this suggests.

The scheme is only accepting those who were directly employed by the British forces, or those who held a role that materially contributed to a specific British effort in Afghanistan.

The Afghan pilot being threatened with removal to Rwanda has said he feels “forgotten” by the government.

Dozens of military chiefs, politicians, and celebrities including Sting, Guy Ritchie and Piers Morgan, have backed The Independent’s campaign demanding that the pilot’s case be reconsidered under the Arap scheme.

Asked about the pilot’s case on Monday, Mr Heappey said his department was looking at “whether or not there are any special circumstances under which the application could be approved”.

But despite the former airman having flown dozens of missions against the Taliban, Mr Heappey added that “in principle, as a member of the Afghan national security forces rather than somebody who worked alongside the British armed forces, [the pilot] would not automatically be in scope”.

An MoD spokesperson said: “We owe a debt of gratitude to those interpreters and other staff eligible under the Arap scheme, who worked for, or with, UK forces in Afghanistan. That’s why we have committed to relocating all eligible Afghans and their families to the UK under the Arap scheme – a commitment we will honour.

“Our absolute priority is supporting the movement of eligible people out of Afghanistan, and to date we have relocated over 12,200 individuals to the UK under Arap.”

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