On 18 August 2021, in the midst of the Afghanistan crisis, Boris Johnson told parliament:
“I can announce today that we are committing to relocating another 5,000 Afghans this year, with a new and bespoke resettlement scheme focusing on the most vulnerable, particularly women and children.”
But the government now admits that, as of 6 January 2022, just one family had been resettled and granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK through the programme.
Watered-down promise or mixed messages?
If you’ve been following the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), you might have got the impression that the target was only ever to relocate 5,000 people by the end of the programme’s “first year” – rather than by the end of 2021.
That’s the line taken by government ministers since 18 August and on the ACRS webpage on gov.uk since it launched in September.
It’s an important departure from what the prime minister told MPs because, until yesterday, the scheme wasn’t officially “open”. So according to this version of the commitment, the government has until January 2023 to meet its 5,000-person target.
But was that the plan all along? Did the prime minister simply misspeak in the summer? The evidence we have is mixed.
On the evening of 17 August, just hours before Mr Johnson addressed parliament, several news outlets reported that the government’s deadline was the end of last year.
The Guardian wrote: “The scheme will allow 20,000 Afghans to settle in the UK, expected to happen over five years. Of that total, it is planned that 5,000 will arrive by the end of 2021.” A headline in the Metro read: “Up to 5,000 Afghans offered asylum in UK this year and 20,000 in ‘long term’”. And iNews reported: “Up to 5,000 refugees will be resettled in the UK by the end of 2021”.
These reports don’t name a specific source, but they suggest that someone in government had briefed journalists that the aim was to resettle 5,000 people by the end of 2021.
Nevertheless, the coverage was not uniform.
On 17 August, the Independent ran the headline: “Just 5,000 Afghans to be offered refuge in UK this year”. But the article itself said the plan was to welcome that number “over the coming year”, suggesting the deadline was August 2022.
That same night, Reuters relayed the government’s “plans to welcome up to 5,000 Afghans fleeing the Taliban during the first year of a new resettlement programme”.
And the internet archive shows that just over an hour before the prime minister addressed parliament, the government’s official webpage said: “The UK government’s ambition is for the new Afghanistan citizens’ resettlement scheme to resettle 5,000 Afghan nationals who are at risk due to the current crisis, in its first year.”
But if the prime minister did mean to say “in its first year” and not “this year”, he doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to correct the record. We’ve found no evidence of a formal correction on the Hansard website, which is the official account of parliamentary proceedings (we searched the terms “Afghan”, “Afghanistan”, “resettlement” and “refugee”).
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We helped over 15,000 people to safety in the largest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, and have continued to bring people to the UK, with around 1,500 people helped to enter since the evacuation.”
(Entering the UK is different to being granted indefinite leave to remain through a resettlement scheme).
The spokesperson added: “The ACRS is a bespoke scheme which responds to a challenging and complex situation and it’s been important to design this carefully to ensure it prioritises those who are most at risk.”
Boris Johnson said in parliament on 18 August 2021 that the government would “relocate 5,000 Afghans this year” through the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme.
As of 6 January 2022, just one family had been resettled through the scheme.
It’s possible that Mr Johnson misspoke in his parliamentary address. Perhaps he meant to say 5,000 people would be relocated by the end of the scheme’s first year. This has been the government’s official line since August and would push the deadline back to 2023 as the scheme only opened yesterday.
The evidence for this is inconclusive. However, press reports from before Mr Johnson’s statement suggest the initial plan may have been to relocate 5,000 people by the end of 2021.
But even if he did misspeak, the prime minister has not corrected the record – so it seems the government has broken the promise Mr Johnson made on 18 August.