The UK government has been urged to reunite an Afghan pilot recently granted asylum in Britain with his family, who remain trapped in Afghanistan.
The pilot, who flew numerous missions with his country’s airforce against the Taliban and was described as a “patriot” by coalition allies, had been stuck in limbo after his initial asylum request was denied and he was threatened with deportation.
After a five-month campaign, the initial decision was overturned, but the pilot now faces the challenge of relocating his family to the safety of the UK.
The pilot told The Independent newspaper: “This morning I spoke with my lawyer and he said once I have received my (refugee) ID then I can apply for my family to join me. But it could take time — maybe nine months. My main focus is for them.”
Throughout his ordeal, the pilot has been supported by senior military and political figures, many of whom are now urging the government to expedite the process of relocating the family.
Labour peer Lord Dubs, who fled the Nazis as a child and has become a champion of the rights of refugees, said: “I fear getting family out of Afghanistan won’t be easy for him. We don’t want them to be in danger from the Taliban. Family reunion should be a high priority for the government. We need to speed up the process for him, and many others.”
Falklands war veteran Simon Weston echoed those sentiments, telling The Independent: “I don’t understand why it takes so long to get family members here. We shouldn’t make it that difficult. He (the pilot) put so much at risk to work with us against the Taliban — himself and his family — so he deserves to be reunited with them and have some normality.”
At present, around 11,000 people with asylum in the UK are waiting for family members to join them, but the process has been delayed by backlogs in processing at the Home Office, with waiting times currently around nine months, and 1,800 people having waited over a year for their applications to be resolved.
The pilot’s family would likely have to first travel to Pakistan to provide details, including biometric data, to UK officials and apply for visas, with no on-ground presence in Afghanistan.
Some campaigners argue that the current system is too difficult and time-consuming for people living in immediate danger, such as the pilot’s family.
The CEO of Care4Calais, Steve Smith, said: “This is a great outcome for the pilot, but it’s not the end.
“His wife and child remain in danger in Afghanistan and steps should be taken to reunite them in the UK as soon as possible. But we also need justice for all the other Afghans who supported the UK in Afghanistan. Their claims are equally as clear cut, and should be processed immediately.”
Jonathan Featonby, policy manager at the charity Refugee Council, said: “Family members (in Afghanistan) have to get to Pakistan or Iran at their own expense to provide details. There are very few exceptions.”
Human rights lawyer Alamara Khwaja Bettum, who works with the charity Safe Passage, said she had applied on behalf of several Afghans for their families to be allowed to apply for visas online, but that none had been granted. “It can be risky for family to make that journey over the border to Pakistan because most don’t have passports. We need a simpler and faster process,” she added.
Robert Buckland MP, the former justice secretary, told The Independent: “We need to deal with the cases humanely and efficiently so people — some of whom have risked everything to defend us — can rebuild their lives and make a productive contribution to the UK.”
Labour MP Kevan Jones told The Independent: “The system is broken … It’s an absolute mess.”
He added: “It can’t be right to make it so difficult. There has to be a joined-up approach. We owe a debt of gratitude to people who worked with us, and they should be able to have their families here. It shouldn’t take MPs to intercede to sort these problems out.”
A government spokesperson told The Independent: “The government provides a safe and legal route through its family reunion policy which enables individuals with protection status in the UK to sponsor their partner or children to stay with or join them here, provided they formed part of the family unit before the sponsor fled their country of origin to seek protection.”