Priti Patel has said the Government wants to avoid Afghan refugees travelling to the UK unsafely, including crossing the English Channel, as she pledged to create safe routes of passage.
The Home Secretary said the UK is “dedicated” to helping those who do not escape Afghanistan as part of the UK’s withdrawal before August 31, as she visited Heathrow Terminal 4 where a plane carrying 369 refugees arrived on Thursday morning.
Ms Patel told reporters that Afghans crossing the Channel with people smugglers is “exactly what we want to avoid”.
She added: “We want to avoid that because clearly it puts families in danger. The world has seen this in the Syria crisis. In 2015 we saw thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean, making the most perilous, treacherous journeys that puts them in the hands of people traffickers, people smugglers who just don’t care about safety.”
The Home Secretary also said the Government is “absolutely dedicated and committed” to making sure people who do not escape Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal are able to make safe journeys to resettle in the UK.
She said: “Those individuals who may not get out, there is huge work taking place right now, you saw it at the G7, the Prime Minister said that we will supply safe passage.”
Heathrow has been used as a refugee processing centre since Tuesday, with between five and six flights a day carrying more than 1,000 refugee passengers between them arriving at Terminal 4.
Other airports being used in the UK’s evacuation effort, known as Operation Pitting, include Birmingham and Brize Norton.
Ms Patel said “vigorous” checks are being carried out on all Afghans arriving in the UK to prevent security threats.
Once processed by Border Force at Heathrow, the refugees are asked to quarantine for 10 days at a hotel as part of Covid health security measures, because Afghanistan is currently on the travel red list.
The Home Secretary met Afghans arriving at Heathrow during her visit, including Malalai Hussiny, 20, and her family, who told Ms Patel about their journey to Kabul airport after being allowed to settle in the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap).
Ms Patel defended the UK’s record on resettling Afghans after hearing of the difficulties refugees face travelling to Kabul airport.
She added: “The emergency has concentrated the need, with the Taliban coming in but also the securitisation of the airport with security partners around the world, America in particular.
“Our relocation programme has been ongoing but quite frankly with the security picture changing, the intelligence picture changing, the Taliban being on the move and coming right on to Kabul has had an intensified effect.
“It is the intensification of that effect that basically has led to the evacuation and we are seeing thousands of people coming in every single day.”
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described Ms Patel’s promises of safe passage after the evacuation from Kabul ends as “like trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted”.
He added: “The appalling mishandling of the collapse in Afghanistan by Conservative ministers has left huge numbers of lives at risk and a potential humanitarian crisis. The lack of planning to get people at risk out is unforgivable, given it has been 18 months since the Doha deal.
“We still don’t know when these supposed safe routes will open or how people fearing for their lives will be able to access help once the airport closes, and the military has left.
“It is a dangerous mess, ministers should take responsibility and outline plans immediately.”