Boris Johnson is set to announce a bespoke resettlement scheme for those “most in need” in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s dramatic takeover of the country, Downing Street has said.
Number 10 said the prime minister and his government were finalising details of a specific scheme to allow Afghans to claim asylum in the UK.
The programme will be focussed on helping the most vulnerable and women and girls in particular.
Mr Johnson has been under pressure, including from among his own Conservative MPs, to urgently set up a resettlement scheme for Afghan refugees amid the unfolding crisis in the country.
Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 after becoming a target due to her campaigning for girls’ education, has called on countries around the world to “open their borders” to Afghan refugees.
Canada has been among the first countries to promise help by unveiling plans to resettle more than 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, including women leaders, human rights workers and reporters.
Downing Street offered no detail on how many Afghans would be permitted asylum in the UK under the new scheme.
On Monday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK was “obviously a big-hearted nation”, adding: “We’ve got the criteria for asylum, that’s set in law, we work with the UN on that.
“We’re working very carefully on what kind of further commitment we might make.”
Under the scheme for Syrian refugees that closed earlier this year, on which the Afghanistan programme will reportedly be based, around 20,000 Syrians were resettled in the UK.
An existing scheme to offer relocation to current or former employees of the UK government in Afghanistan who are judged to be at risk, which launched in April this year, has so far seen nearly 2,000 eligible persons flown from the country on military chartered commercial flights.
In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy argued there were “hours, not days” to establish “safe and legal routes” for vulnerable Afghans to escape the country.
The prime minister is also this week attempting to use the UK’s presidency of the G7 to push for a coordinated international response to the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, following the swift collapse of the country’s Western-backed government.
Mr Johnson intends to host a virtual meeting of G7 leaders in the “coming days”.
This will attempt to focus efforts on ensuring Afghanistan doesn’t again become a base for terrorism, to coordinate humanitarian efforts, and to discuss expectations of what government might emerge in Afghanistan, Downing Street said.
The prime minister’s call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday saw the pair agree to work together on a joint resolution at the UN Security Council.
Mr Johnson will also soon be speaking with other world leaders, Number 10 said.
The prime minister chaired a third emergency COBRA meeting in four days on Monday afternoon, after which it was announcedan extra 200 British troops will be sent to Afghanistan capital Kabul to bring the number of UK armed forces personnel in the city to around 900.
Their primary focus will be the evacuation effort from the city’s airport, with Mr Raab saying on Monday – following talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – that the two countries’ “immediate priority is ensuring the safety of our nationals and those who supported our work over the last 20 years”.
But both Mr Raab and Mr Johnson are facing criticism over their response to the crisis in Afghanistan.
Former military chiefs have questioned why both the foreign secretary and prime minister took their summer holidays at the same time, before being forced back to London following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul.
Major Gen Charlie Herbert, who undertook three tours of duty in Afghanistan between 2007-18, told the Guardian: “It is almost impossible to believe that the prime minister departed on holiday on Saturday; he should hang his head in shame. It is dereliction of duty on an extraordinary scale.
“He is overseeing one of the greatest military humiliations in the recent history of this country.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The UK team in Afghanistan is working around the clock in incredibly difficult circumstances to help British nationals and as many others as we can get to safety as soon as possible.
“At the same time, we are bringing together the international community to prevent a humanitarian crisis emerging in Afghanistan – it’s in everyone’s interest not to let Afghanistan fail.
“That means providing whatever support we can to the Afghan people who have worked so hard to make the country a better place over the last twenty years and who are now in need of our help.”