POLITICS
01/09/2021 09:26 BST

UK In Talks With Senior Taliban Officials To 'Hold Them To Account', Minister Confirms

Victoria Atkins said the UK's special envoy, Simon Gass, has been seeking assurances that safe passage will be offered to refugees.

CRISTINA QUICLER via Getty Images
The UK has managed to transfer around 15,000 Afghans out of the country over a 14-day period.

Home Office minister Victoria Atkins has confirmed the UK is officially engaging with the Taliban as it seeks to assert diplomatic pressure over the new government in Afghanistan.

Atkins, who is leading the scheme to resettle Afghans in Britain, confirmed that Boris Johnson’s special envoy, Simon Gass, met with senior Taliban officials in Doha in an attempt to guarantee safe passage for those wishing to leave the country.

Asked whether Gass, who is also chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, had received assurances from the Taliban that they would guarantee safe passage for refugees, Atkins told the BBC the talks were “ongoing”.

“You’ll understand that this is international negotiation being conducted perhaps it’s best not to do it under the glare of the media, as we very much want this to these talks to progress so that we can try to hold the Taliban to account on the promises that they have made thus far about, for example, the safety of women,” she said.

This morning it was confirmed that Afghans who worked with British forces and who are eligible to come to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme will be granted indefinite leave to remain when they arrive.

But Atkins did not guarantee that other Afghans who will make their way to the UK under wider, separate schemes will be given the same status.

So far the UK has been able to transport around 15,000 Afghans out of the country, including 8,000 under the Arap scheme.

Atkins said Britain was working “as best we can” to help those still in danger, citing defence secretary Ben Wallace’s description of the government’s efforts as “Dunkirk by Whatsapp”.

Crucial to the resettlement are local councils, who will be tasked with finding new housing for Afghan arrivals in the UK.

So far only a third of councils have come forward to join the resettlement scheme, a figure Atkins said she was “confident” would increase in the coming weeks and months.

“We’ve had firm offers from at least a third of councils and we’re in talks with many, many more, so I’m confident that number will change over the coming days,” she said.

Atkins said local government chiefs would meet with the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, on how “we can make this scheme work fairly across the country”.

Earlier on Sky, the minister acknowledged how resettling Afghans could add extra pressure on the UK’s already under-strain housing waiting lists.

“I want to be straight with people – this is a very, very difficult challenge and we’re very, very aware of the pressures on the housing market and housing lists already,” she said.

“That’s why we’ve announced this top-up fund to help councils find larger properties for Afghan families.

“This policy will succeed if we welcome and integrate people into our societies and we get them settled into accommodation, help their children get into schools, get them registered at GPs and so on, and then they can begin to pay back into our society.”

On Tuesday night Wallace held a call with MPs in which he fielded multiple questions regarding how those still trapped in Afghanistan and their families could make it out of the country and to the UK.

Wallace said he was in communication with the governments of third countries, including Pakistan, to temporarily place Afghans under the Arap scheme at their border, before working towards transferring them to Britain.

Last night the Foreign Office confirmed it would send a small number of personnel to assist with this effort while offering guarantees that they would only be settled there as a temporary measure.