Priti Patel meets Afghan evacuees who fled the Taliban at Heathrow as she pledges to create safe passage for those left behind so refugees don’t fall into hands of people smugglers

  • Home Secretary says UK is ‘dedicated’ to helping those who don’t escape Afghanistan as part of withdrawal
  • She has visited London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 4 as a plane carrying 369 refugees arrived this morning
  • Told reporters that Afghans crossing the Channel with people smugglers is ‘exactly what we want to avoid’
  • Priti Patel continues to face pressure to find a quick solution to the problem of migrants arriving at Kent

Priti Patel met with Afghan refugees arriving at London Heathrow Airport today as she pledged to create safe routes of passage to avoid them travelling to Britain on small boats across the English Channel.

The Home Secretary said the UK was ‘dedicated’ to helping those who do not escape Afghanistan as part of Britain’s withdrawal before August 31 amid the evacuation effort, known as Operation Pitting.

She spoke as she visited Heathrow Terminal 4 where a plane carrying 369 refugees arrived this morning, and told reporters that Afghans crossing the Channel with people smugglers is ‘exactly what we want to avoid’.

Ms Patel’s comments and photocall came hours before a large explosion outside Kabul Airport, as the US-led airlift of thousands of people continued inside the compound. The Pentagon said casualties are ‘unclear at this time’. 

Meanwhile Ms Patel continues to face pressure to find a quick solution to the problem of migrants crossing over the Channel to Kent, with the total for the year so far now at more than 12,000 – compared with 8,410 in 2020. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel (second left) talks to Malalai Hussiny (wearing a green headscarf), a refugee from Afghanistan who arrived on a evacuation flight at London Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 this morning

The Home Secretary met Afghans arriving at London Heathrow Airport today including Ms Hussiny, 20, and her family

Ms Hussiny told Ms Patel about her family’s journey to Kabul Airport, after she arrived at London Heathrow this morning

Home Secretary Priti Patel said today that the Government wants to avoid Afghan refugees travelling to the UK unsafely

Ms Patel said: ‘We want to avoid that (Afghans crossing the Channel) because clearly it puts families in danger. The world has seen this in the Syria crisis.

‘In 2015 we saw thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean, making the most perilous, treacherous journeys that puts them in the hands of people traffickers, people smugglers who just don’t care about safety.’

Shots are fired at Kabul evacuation plane: Italian transport plane comes under fire during take-off – but is not damaged – hours after warning ISIS attack was imminent

Shots have been fired at an Italian military transport plane as it flew out of Kabul airport hours after a British minister warned an ‘imminent’ and ‘lethal’ ISIS attack was expected in the Afghan capital.

The C-130 plane was not damaged in the incident, a source from Italy’s Defence Ministry added.

An Italian journalist traveling on the flight told Sky 24 TG that the plane had been carrying almost 100 Afghan civilians when it came under fire minutes after take-off.

Earlier, armed forces minister James Heappey said there is ‘very credible reporting’ of a ‘severe’ attack which could happen ‘within hours’ by ISIS-K, the sworn enemy of the Taliban who want to cause mayhem in the new regime.

The US, Britain and Australia had already told their citizens to flee the airport over the terror threat with Western forces still stationed at the transport hub, with a multiple car-bomb attack feared by officials.

The fears are heaping extra pressure on the operation to evacuate stranded foreigners, with Tuesday’s deadline for foreign troops to leave fast approaching.

Meanwhile Afghans who had been told to stay away from Kabul airport are instead flocking to Pakistan and Iran in a bid to escape after the UK told them to head to the border, while many countries have announced they are ending their airlift operations from today.

Mr Heappey told BBC Radio 4 today: ‘There is now very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack.’ 

Ms Patel also said the Government is ‘absolutely dedicated and committed’ to making sure people who do not escape Afghanistan ahead of the withdrawal are able to make safe journeys to resettle in the UK.

She said: ‘Those individuals who may not get out, there is huge work taking place right now, you saw it at the G7, the Prime Minister said that we will supply safe passage.’ 

Heathrow has been used as a refugee processing centre since Tuesday, with between five and six flights a day carrying more than 1,000 refugee passengers between them arriving at Terminal 4.

Other airports being used in the UK’s evacuation effort include Birmingham and Brize Norton.

Ms Patel said ‘vigorous’ checks are being carried out on all Afghans arriving in the UK to prevent security threats.

Once processed by Border Force at Heathrow, the refugees are asked to quarantine for 10 days at a hotel as part of Covid health security measures, because Afghanistan is currently on the travel red list.

The Home Secretary met Afghans arriving at Heathrow during her visit, including Malalai Hussiny, 20, and her family, who told Ms Patel about their journey to Kabul airport after being allowed to settle in the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap).

Ms Patel defended the UK’s record on resettling Afghans after hearing of the difficulties refugees face travelling to Kabul airport.

She added: ‘The emergency has concentrated the need, with the Taliban coming in but also the securitisation of the airport with security partners around the world, America in particular.

‘Our relocation programme has been ongoing but quite frankly with the security picture changing, the intelligence picture changing, the Taliban being on the move and coming right on to Kabul has had an intensified effect.

‘It is the intensification of that effect that basically has led to the evacuation and we are seeing thousands of people coming in every single day.’

Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described Ms Patel’s promises of safe passage after the evacuation from Kabul ends as ‘like trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted’.

He added: ‘The appalling mishandling of the collapse in Afghanistan by Conservative ministers has left huge numbers of lives at risk and a potential humanitarian crisis. The lack of planning to get people at risk out is unforgivable, given it has been 18 months since the Doha deal.

‘We still don’t know when these supposed safe routes will open or how people fearing for their lives will be able to access help once the airport closes, and the military has left.

Priti Patel watches as a refugee has her fingerprints taken after arriving from Afghanistan on a flight at Heathrow today

Home Secretary Priti Patel with Border Force regional director Tim Kingsbury at London Heathrow Airport this morning

A Border Force worker processes refugees from Afghanistan who arrived on a evacuation flight at Heathrow Airport today

Malalai Hussiny, a refugee from Afghanistan, poses for a photo at Heathrow today after arriving on a evacuation flight

‘It is a dangerous mess, ministers should take responsibility and outline plans immediately.’

Today, an explosion went off outside Kabul Airport, where thousands of people have gathered to try to flee the country on Western airlift since the Taliban seized power earlier this month. 

The Pentagon confirmed the blast, with no immediate word on casualties. Western nations had warned of a possible attack on Kabul’s airport in the waning days of the massive evacuation efforts.

Several countries urged people to avoid the airport, where an official said there was a threat of a suicide bombing. But just days – or even hours for some nations – before the evacuation effort ends, few appeared to heed the call.

Over the last week, the airport has been the scene of some of the most searing images of the chaotic end of America’s longest war and the Taliban’s takeover, as flight after flight took off carrying those who fear a return to the militants’ brutal rule.

Already, some countries have ended their evacuations and begun to withdraw their soldiers and diplomats, signaling the beginning of the end of one of history’s largest airlifts.  

Hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan arrive on a evacuation flight at London Heathrow Airport this morning

Refugees from Afghanistan wait to be processed after arriving on a evacuation flight at London Heathrow Airport today

A member of Border Force staff assists a female evacuee as refugees arrive from Afghanistan at Heathrow Airport today

Malalai Hussiny, a refugee from Afghanistan who arrived on a evacuation flight at London Heathrow Airport this morning

The Taliban have so far honored a pledge not to attack Western forces during the evacuation, but insist the foreign troops must be out by America’s self-imposed deadline of August 31.

Overnight, warnings emerged from Western capitals about a threat from Afghanistan’s Islamic State group affiliate, which likely has seen its ranks boosted by the Taliban’s freeing of prisoners during their blitz across the country.

British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told the BBC today that  there was ‘very, very credible reporting of an imminent attack’ at the airport, possibly within ‘hours.’ 

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said his country had received information from the US and other countries about the ‘threat of suicide attacks on the mass of people.’

The acting US ambassador to Kabul, Ross Wilson, said the security threat at the Kabul airport overnight was ‘clearly regarded as credible, as imminent, as compelling.’  

A member of Heathrow security staff gives a thumbs up to refugees arriving from Afghanistan at Heathrow Airport today

Refugees from Afghanistan arrive on a evacuation flight at London Heathrow Airport this morning

A refugee has his fingerprints taken after arriving from Afghanistan on a evacuation flight at Heathrow Airport today

Refugees from Afghanistan arrive on a evacuation flight at London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 4 this morning

But in an interview with ABC News, he would not give details and did not say whether the threat remained. Shortly after, the blast was reported.

Mr Wilson also said there remain ‘safe ways’ for Americans to reach the airport, but ‘there undoubtedly will be’ Afghans who had worked with or for the U.S. in Afghanistan who will not be able to get out before the evacuation ends.

Sadiq Khan announces London homes plan for Afghan refugees as he offers cash to local authorities to buy back council houses that have been sold off 

London mayor Sadiq Khan has announced plans to help the city’s councils and housing associations support the arrival of Afghan refugees.

Mr Khan says he will expand his new Right to Buy-back fund to help councils purchase homes which could be used to resettle families arriving from Afghanistan.

Housing associations are also being encouraged to apply for funding for suitable homes that can be delivered quickly.

Mr Khan said in a statement he would invite London councils to submit bids to his Right to Buy-back fund, which allows them to buy former council homes back from the private sector, with the programme to have a particular focus on family-sized homes.

Mr Khan announced the Right to Buy-back fund last month in a bid to help councils and council-owned housing companies acquire homes that would be let at social rent levels or used as accommodation for homeless families.

‘It has been devastating to watch the crisis unfold in Afghanistan and I’m determined to do everything in my power to support those escaping the country,’ Mr Khan said.

‘London has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those in need and by working together we can help these refugees find a welcoming home in our city.’

Several London boroughs have told the government they want to support those fleeing the brutal Taliban regime in Afghanistan and take in refugees.

Richmond, Camden, Ealing, Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kingston, Lambeth, Islington and Lewisham are among the London boroughs to offer their support.

Late yesterday, the US Embassy warned citizens at three airport gates to leave immediately due to an unspecified security threat. 

Australia, Britain and New Zealand also advised their citizens today not to go to the airport, with Australia’s foreign minister saying there was a ‘very high threat of a terrorist attack.’

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid earlier denied that any attack was imminent.

Earlier today, the Taliban sprayed a water cannon at those gathered at one airport gate to try to drive the crowd away, as someone launched tear gas canisters elsewhere. While some fled, others just sat on the ground, covered their faces and waited in the noxious fumes.

Nadia Sadat, a 27-year-old Afghan, carried her two-year-old daughter with her outside the airport. She and her husband, who had worked with coalition forces, missed a call from a number they believed was the State Department and were trying to get into the airport without any luck. Her husband had pressed ahead in the crowd to try to get them inside.

‘We have to find a way to evacuate because our lives are in danger,’ Ms Sadat said. ‘My husband received several threatening messages from unknown sources. We have no chance except escaping.’

Gunshots later echoed in the area as Ms Sadat waited. ‘There is anarchy because of immense crowds,’ she said, blaming the U.S. for the chaos.

Aman Karimi, 50, escorted his daughter and her family to the airport, fearful the Taliban would target her because of her husband’s work with NATO.

‘The Taliban have already begun seeking those who have worked with NATO,’ he said. ‘They are looking for them house-by-house at night.’

Many Afghans share those fears. The hard-line Islamic group wrested back control of the country nearly 20 years after being ousted in a U.S.-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaida orchestrated while being sheltered by the group.

Senior US officials said yesterday’s warning from the embassy was related to specific threats involving the Islamic State group and potential vehicle bombs. 

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss ongoing military operations.

The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan grew out of disaffected Taliban members who hold an even more extreme view of Islam. 

The Sunni extremists have carried out a series of brutal attacks, mainly targeting Afghanistan’s Shiite Muslim minority, including a 2020 assault on a maternity hospital in Kabul in which they killed women and infants.

The Taliban have fought against Islamic State militants in Afghanistan. But ISIS fighters were likely freed from prisons along with other inmates during the Taliban’s rapid advance. Extremists may have seized heavy weapons and equipment abandoned by Afghan troops. 

A young boy pulls a suitcase as refugees arrive from Afghanistan at Heathrow Airport in London this morning

A Border Force worker processes refugees from Afghanistan who arrived on a evacuation flight at Heathrow Airport today

Refugees from Afghanistan arrive on a evacuation flight at London Heathrow Airport this morning

A young boy pulls a suitcase as refugees arrive from Afghanistan at Heathrow Airport in London this morning

A member of Heathrow staff sets out cans of water on chairs before refugees from Afghanistan arrive on a flight today

Amid the warnings and the pending American withdrawal, Canada ended its evacuations, and European nations halted or prepared to stop their own operations.

‘The reality on the ground is the perimeter of the airport is closed. The Taliban have tightened the noose. It’s very, very difficult for anybody to get through at this point,’ said Canadian General Wayne Eyre, the country’s acting Chief of Defense Staff.

Lt Col Georges Eiden, Luxembourg’s army representative in neighboring Pakistan, said that tomorrow would mark the official end for US allies. But two Biden administration officials denied that was the case.

A third official said that the US worked with its allies to coordinate each country’s departure, and some nations asked for more time and were granted it.

‘Most depart later in the week,’ he said, while adding that some were stopping operations today. All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the information publicly.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex told RTL radio his country’s efforts would stop tomorrow evening. Danish Defense Minister Trine Bramsen bluntly warned: ‘It is no longer safe to fly in or out of Kabul.’

Denmark’s last flight has already departed, and Poland and Belgium have also announced the end of their evacuations. The Dutch government said it had been told by the US to leave today.

But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said some planes would continue to fly. 

US soldiers stand inside the Kabul Airport wall today as hundreds of people gather near an evacuation control checkpoint

Hundreds of people, some holding documents, gather near an evacuation control checkpoint at Kabul Airport today

Afghan nationals line up and wait for security checks in Pakistan at a border crossing point in Chaman today

US Air Force crews assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron load passengers at Kabul Airport this week

‘Evacuation operations in Kabul will not be wrapping up in 36 hours. We will continue to evacuate as many people as we can until the end of the mission,’ he said in a tweet.

The Taliban have said they will allow Afghans to leave via commercial flights after the deadline next week, but it remains unclear which airlines would return to an airport controlled by the militants. 

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said talks were underway between his country and the Taliban about allowing Turkish civilian experts to help run the facility.

The Taliban have promised to return Afghanistan to security and pledged they won’t seek revenge on those who opposed them or roll back progress on human rights. But many Afghans are skeptical.

An Afghan journalist from private broadcaster Tolo News described being beaten by Taliban. Ziar Yad said the fighters also beat his colleague and confiscated their cameras, technical equipment and a mobile phone as they tried to report on poverty in Kabul.

‘The issue has been shared with Taliban leaders; however, the perpetrators have not yet been arrested, which is a serious threat to freedom of expression,’ Mr Yad wrote on Twitter. 

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