Britain is to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees over the coming years, the government has announced.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have worked with us to make Afghanistan a better place over the past 20 years. Many of them, especially women, now urgently need our help,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a Home Office statement.
He said he was “proud that the UK has been able to put in place this route to help them and their families live safely in the UK.”
Johnson is to present the scheme to lawmakers on Wednesday after recalling parliament early.
5,000 Afghans will be eligible for the programme during its first year, with priority given to those “threatened by the current crisis”, in particular women, girls and religious minorities, the Home Office said.
It is unclear how long the programme will run and by when the UK will have welcomed the 20,000 refugees. A similar scheme for relocate 20,000 Syrian refugees ran over seven years, from 2014 to 2021.
It comes on top of the Resettlement Scheme for Afghans who worked with the British embassy or army. According to the Home Office, 2,000 Afghan employees and their families have so far been resettled since June 22.
The latest scheme has however already been criticised by lawmakers.
Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) leader in Westminster, branded it “woefully inadequate.”
“The UK government shares responsibility for this crisis in Afghanistan. They must now step up and welcome at least 35,000-40,000 refugees to the UK,” he wrote on Twitter.
Layla Moran, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Development for the Liberal Democrats, said “20K should be the starting point of this scheme, not the target.”
NGOs assisting refugees and asylum seekers in the UK have welcomed the scheme but also called for more.
“The government must also immediately expand eligibility for family reunion to enable family members who have relatives in the UK to travel safely to join their loves ones,” the Refugee Council said on Twitter.
“The Home Office must also suspend any returns of people to Afghanistan and quickly decide all asylum claims from Afghans who have arrived in the UK independently, including reviews of those who have previously been refused, as the country is clearly not safe for them right now,” it added.
Refugee Action said that although the scheme is “truly life-changing”, it “cannot act as a mask to hide this Government’s real intentions to effectively end the asylum system through the #AntiRefugeeBill.”
“Under the bill, Afghan refugees arriving in the UK through other means would be met with punishment, not protection,” it said.