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LONDON — British MPs are used to dealing with requests for help from people trying to flee their home countries — but the scramble to help Afghans escape from the Taliban has been of a different magnitude.
Afghans in the U.K. have been appealing to their local MPs to do anything they can to ensure their relatives can leave Afghanistan, a task made much more difficult since Thursday’s attack on Kabul airport by ISIS.
“It has been the most upsetting, stressful and round-the-clock few weeks at work I’ve ever known,” said Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and shadow Home Office minister. “My staff are at the end of the line.”
She said that MPs representing constituencies with significant Afghan populations were being inundated with pleas for help, but in most cases they had not been able to secure safe passage out of Afghanistan.
Alison Thewliss, SNP MP for Glasgow Central, said of 60 cases her office was dealing with, she knew of only one person who had made it out of the country.
Those who do make it to the U.K. will initially stay in hotels before they are matched with local authorities in an effort coordinated by the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing.
Together with the local authorities and charities, MPs are planning specialist meetings to offer advice and provide access to services.
Nusrat Ghani, Conservative MP for Wealden, said her office was now working virtually full-time on assisting Afghans. “It’s a crisis and people’s lives are at risk and my staff have been brilliant — they are responding to correspondence 24/7.”
“We’re all working nonstop, because we have a duty and a responsibility,” she said.
Ghani has made several speeches and interventions on Afghanistan in the House of Commons this year and said that after each occasion she had been contacted by people searching for help.
“There are people in hiding,” she said. “The situation is desperate, it really, really is.”
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed on Friday morning that evacuations had now ceased, and British personnel would continue processing those inside the airfield. But he admitted to LBC radio: “We think there will be circa between 800 and 1,100 [Afghans eligible for relocation] who didn’t make it through.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The U.K. has a proud history of protecting people in life-threatening situations and we are determined to help as many Afghans as possible through the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme.”
While the U.K. has pledged to accommodate 5,000 Afghans in year one and 20,000 in the long term, some local authorities have expressed nervousness about the potential strain on resources.
Birmingham City Councillor John Cotton told the Birmingham Mail the city was ready to welcome refugees, but “more should be done to ensure that other local authorities play their part in this humanitarian effort.” Torbay Council has ruled out taking refugees because of “massive challenges” with the existing population.
James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents councils across England and Wales, said councils “stand ready” but the design of the new resettlement scheme must “consider ongoing pressures from other existing schemes.”
While the government has announced an extra £5 million for Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, covering interpreters and others who worked with the British military, it has not yet announced any funding for the wider resettlement program.
According to Phillips, the implications for local services have not yet become clear “as we’ve just been trying to get people out.” And as the military-aided evacuation comes to an end, her staff will now focus on “trying to support Afghan families who are in some cases suicidal with grief.”
Thewliss said: “Waking up this morning, realizing … the Baron Hotel [where the U.K. has been processing Afghans and which was targeted by the ISIS bombers] isn’t taking any more cases, that’s really difficult. Everybody’s seen that and is asking: what happens now? What happens to my husband, my sister, my wife, my children?”