Some 20,000 Afghans are to be welcomed into the UK over the coming years as part of a scheme to provide sanctuary for those most at risk of persecution by the Taliban.
Fears have been building for those who have been working against the Taliban in Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul to the militants on Sunday, with increasing calls for ministers to step up to rescue those who wish to leave the country.
The government has promised that up to 5,000 Afghans can find refuge in the UK this year, with up to 20,000 in the longer term.
A plane carrying British nationals and Afghans from Afghanistan lands at Brize Norton Royal Air Force station on Tuesday night as the evacuation continues
In an emergency address to the commons on Wednesday Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that 2,052 Afghan nationals had been evacuated to the UK.
He said: "I can tell the House that we have so far… secured the safe return of 306 UK nationals and 2,052 Afghan nationals as part of our resettlement programme, with a further 2,000 Afghan applications completed and many more being processed."
"UK officials are working round the clock to keep the exit door open in the most difficult circumstances and actively seeking those we believe are eligible but as yet unregistered."
But the Home Office confirmed the 2,052 figure does not refer to the number of Afghans evacuated to the UK since the Taliban takeover on Sunday.
It said that 2,000 former Afghan staff and their families have been evacuated from the country since June 22, 2021, as part of the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy.
The scheme was launched at the start of April and was brought in to help re-settle Afghan interpreters and other personnel who have worked with the UK in Afghanistan.
Under the policy, any current or former locally employed staff whose life is assessed to be under serious threat are offered priority relocation to the UK - regardless of their employment status, rank or role, or length of time served.
Confirming the longer-term plans to accept fleeing Afghans into the UK, Home Secretary Priti Patel told ITV News: "Our long time plan is absolutely about bringing 20,000 people over."
"We are bringing in more categories of people everyday that we are taking out of Afghanistan. So, we have set some numbers right now: 5,000 for year 1; 20,000 in the longer-term.
"But this is all evolving right now because people are coming forward and we want to do the right thing and protect lives," Ms Patel added, as she acknowledged "changing circumstances" may present practical hurdles to the sanctuary mission.
However, opposition parties have said the plans do not go far enough and are too vague to make a difference.
Evacuation flights carrying British nationals and Afghans have been arriving in the UK with the first evacuation flight including nationals and embassy staff arriving on Sunday night at Brize Norton, a Royal Air Force airbase in Oxfordshire. A second flight arrived late on Tuesday night, while another landed early on Wednesday morning.
In its first press conference since seizing control, the Taliban said on Tuesday that it would guarantee safety for those who had previously opposed the group and uphold women’s rights, albeit within the constraints of Sharia law.
But experts have expressed scepticism and warned that the country could again become a hotbed for terrorism.
A UK citizen stranded in Afghanistan said to ITV News that he had seen the Taliban going door to door in search of people and people in his street had been executed.
The new Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme will target women, children, and others who have been forced to flee their home or face threats of persecution from the Taliban.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, welcomed the news that a scheme was in place but said there needed to be a “more urgent plan of action”.
He said: “This proposal does not meet the scale of the challenge.
"Not only does that risk leaving people in Afghanistan in deadly danger, it will also undermine the leadership role Britain must play in persuading international partners to live up to their responsibilities”.
The government said the new scheme was in addition to the 5,000 Afghans already expected to move to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which is designed to offer local allies such as interpreters priority relocation to the UK.
Government figures showed 2,000 have already arrived under the ARAP programme.
On Tuesday evening, Ms Patel chaired a meeting of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States – to identify safe and legal routes for those who need to leave Afghanistan.
Priority will be given to women and girls, and religious and other minorities.
Ms Patel said: “I want to ensure that as a nation we do everything possible to provide support to the most vulnerable fleeing Afghanistan so they can start a new life in safety in the UK, away from the tyranny and oppression they now face”.
Ministers said they would keep the scheme under review in coming years, and would work with devolved nations and local councils to deliver support for those fleeing to the UK.
Local leaders have already made clear their intentions to help with the effort of housing the refugees.
James Jamieson, chair of the Local Government Association – which represents councils across England and Wales - said councils “stand ready to work with government to design any new resettlement scheme, so it ensures new arrivals get the support they need to settle into their new communities”.
The government said the new route was modelled on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, which resettled 20,000 Syrian refugees over a seven-year period from 2014 to 2021.
Mr Johnson will address Parliament on the UK’s work on the crisis in Afghanistan so far when Parliament is recalled on Wednesday.
The PM is expected to outline how the international community can act to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the country, which he will say will require an immediate increase in humanitarian aid.