The grace period the Taliban has granted people to leave Afghanistan is a “PR exercise” that may only last until the weekend, it has been warned.
Thousands of ordinary Afghans have attempted to leave the country via Kabul airport – the only viable route out of Afghanistan – since the capital city was captured by the Taliban in a shock offensive on Sunday.
A massive operation to evacuate British nationals and local Afghans who aided the war effort is now underway, with the UK aiming to bring back around 1,000 people a day.
During an emergency debate in parliament, Boris Johnson said the Taliban was currently allowing the evacuation to go ahead and that the situation had “stabilised since the weekend, but it remains precarious.”
And Sarah Champion, the Labour chair of the international development committee, warned that the UK must act quickly because the window of opportunity for people to leave would not be open for long.
“My gut feeling is the grace period the Taliban is giving us is a PR exercise,” she told HuffPost UK.
“The priority for me should be to provide sanctuary to the people that, in good faith, have been working with us the last 20 years and now their lives are in danger because of this.
“I think the grace we’ve got is to literally bide them a bit of time, and I would imagine that the way they’re accommodating people to leave will end pretty quickly – if it goes beyond the weekend we’re doing well.”
According to Downing Street, there are more than 3,000 British national dual nationals on the ground in Afghanistan, not including Afghans who are eligible to come to Britain under Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) that offers relocation or other assistance to current and former locally employed staff.
Around 5,000 Afghans and their families are expected to come to the UK via the scheme this year. No.10 said that more than 2,000 people have already been flown out of Afghanistan under the scheme.
In the days since the Taliban takeover there has been chaos at the airport, with reports of women throwing babies over barbed wire in an attempt to pass them to troops for safety.
There has also been concern that some planes have been taking off half-empty – a charge denied this morning by defence secretary Ben Wallace, who said the UK was “absolutely ploughing through the numbers”.
The Taliban has so far sought to present an acceptable face to the world, insisting it would not seek “revenge” on those who worked with or helped western forces during the 20-year war.
But Champion said the Taliban’s “true colours” were already emerging and urged the UK to expand the Arap settlement scheme.
“We are now seeing the true colours of the Taliban as they mark the doors of prominent Afghan women,” she said.
“The support of China will have emboldened them and I’ve no doubt that act of retribution will start soon.
“The Arap policy states that eligibility depends on having ‘worked for HMG’ applies to Afghans who worked for implementing partners funded by HMG.
“The government needs to clarify this includes contractors as well as direct employees. Hundreds of Afghans worked on UK aid funded projects whose lives are now in jeopardy.
“We must swiftly expand the refugee scheme so that all those who worked alongside us, put their trust in us, can receive sanctuary. Time is not on their side.”
Her call for the Arap scheme to be expanded was echoed by fellow Labour MP and chair of the home affairs select committee Yvette Cooper, who said it should include people who worked for UK-funded programmes, UK aid agencies and UK contractors “who are also in fear for their lives, hiding from and being chased by the Taliban as we speak?”
On Wednesday Downing Street suggested the 5,000 expected under the Arap scheme could expand, saying it was not a “capped” offer.
Both Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel had suggested numbers could rise to around 10,000 people.
In response, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “I think that’s a recognition that more may come forward via that route now.
“Obviously this is not a time-limited or capped offer, as the prime minister has said we owe a debt to those Afghan nationals that have helped Britain over the last 20 years and we intend to honour them.”