MP fighting to evacuate 33 people in Afghanistan with links to South Shields 'given number for washing machine repair service' in Home Office debacle

A South Tyneside MP working to ensure more than 30 people with links to South Shields were evacuated from Afghanistan said she was given the number for a washing machine repair in a Home Office communications debacle.

Wednesday, 1st September 2021, 11:48 am
Updated Thursday, 2nd September 2021, 12:35 pm

Emma Lewell-Buck MP and her team have been devoting their time to pushing on evacuation efforts involving 33 relatives or loved ones of residents in her constituency.

She and the MP for Jarrow, Kate Osborne, have both been fiercely critical of Number 10’s handling of the withdrawal and evacuation operations.

Since August 14, the UK has seen around 15,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan – while the US has airlifted approximately 122,000.

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A race against the clock began as the Taliban swiftly took many of Afghanistan’s key territories – including the capital, Kabul – after two decades of Western occupation – earlier this month.

A deadline of August 31 was established as US and UK forces scrambled to get vulnerable Afghans and their own citizens out of the country.

"It could’ve all been avoidable – that’s what the heartbreaking thing is about this,” said Ms Lewell-Buck.

"From the minute things started to go wrong with the withdrawal, the process has not been clear at all for MPs. The people involved – including some working in the Foreign Office – are feeling broken now.

In this image provided by the US Marine Corps, evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30. 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)

"Communication has been extremely poor and at times exasperating. One of the phone numbers the Home Office gave us to hand out to other people was actually a phone number for a washing machine repair company in London.

“It’s unconscionable. These are people’s lives and people’s families at stake.”

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has been under fire over the handling of the recent operations in Afghanistan, as it was revealed that thousands of emails from charities and MPs to the Home and Foreign Office had gone unread in the lead-up to US and UK’s final exit from the country.

The correspondence reportedly highlighted up to 9,000 people who may have been eligible for rescue from the Taliban, which has now gained access to extensive intelligence records detailing people who worked with the West in the country.

Jarrow MP, Kate Osborne (left), and the MP for South Shields, Emma Lewell-Buck.

Mr Raab told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week: "We will be dealing with all MPs emails received by 30 August, by close of play on Monday 6 September.

"Then we will be in a position to signpost the best advice we can give them in terms of access via third countries.

"Between 16 August and 26 August the average waiting time to pick up a call on the MP hotline was under a minute. For the same period for the public lines it was a range of between 40 seconds and 3 minutes 40 seconds.”

Mrs Lewell-Buck said her experience of the past number of weeks has been ‘stomach-turning’ and she viewed the failures in Afghanistan as a damning indictment of Boris Johnson’s administration.

"When you’ve got incompetent people in charge, who live in their own little bubble, this is what happens,” she said.

"As Kabul was falling, the Foreign Secretary went on holiday. It speaks volumes. Me and my team cancelled our summer holidays to try and help people in Afghanistan with ties to South Shields – and meanwhile, Dominic Raab goes off on holiday and refuses to take urgent calls.

"And for Boris Johnson to carry on and bumble around like it’s all one big laugh just turns my stomach. The whole thing has been a complete failure of intelligence and of statecraft.”

Ms Osborne said her office is ‘yet to receive any correspondence acknowledging that something will be done to help these people’.

She said: “The Government’s reaction to the events in Kabul were plain to see when the Foreign Secretary refused to come home from his holiday early.

“Jarrow constituents have contacted my office distraught knowing that they have family members stuck in Kabul at the hands of the Taliban.

“After contacting the Home and Foreign Office on multiple occasions, my office is still yet to receive any correspondence acknowledging that something will be done to help these people.

“In reality, the government has absolutely no idea how many people have been abandoned in Afghanistan. Many of the people left behind are children, disabled, LGBTQ+ and those persecuted for their work.”

The Foreign Office told The Gazette that the UK Government had helped evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan this year - including 4,600 British nationals.

Whitehall believes that “roughly 500 British nationals” followed advice to leave by commercial means in April, although it stressed that any figures could only be estimates at present, given the “fluid” nature of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The UK and international partners are all committed to ensuring that our citizens, nationals and residents, employees, Afghans who have worked with us and those who are at risk can continue to travel freely to destinations outside Afghanistan.

"We have been clear that the Taliban must allow safe passage for those who want to leave.”

The Gazette has also contacted the Home Office for comment.

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