Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has promised civil servants will reply to emails about vulnerable Afghans who are trapped within the country “in days”, after it emerged thousands of queries from MPs and charities had remained unread.
There are an estimated 9,000 people who have worked with British officials – and are therefore at serious risk of harm by the Taliban – estimated to be trapped in Afghanistan now that evacuation flights have ended.
However, this figure could be much higher. Over the weekend, the Observer reported that the official email accounts people were told to contact to flag cases of Afghans who were eligible to be evacuated had 5,000 unread emails.
Some emails appeared to have been unopened for days, the newspaper reported. Those unread included cases raised by ministers including Victoria Atkins, minister for Afghan resettlement and home secretary Priti Patel, as well as Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and Defence Select Committee chair Tobias Ellwood.
“It’s not just that MPs weren’t getting replies – their emails weren’t being read. The inbox currently has a 5,000-email backlog. It’s not that they are the emails which haven’t been actioned. It’s not even that they are emails which haven’t been processed and put into a spreadsheet. It’s that no one has actually opened the email,” a whistleblower with access to the email accounts told the Observer.
Raab has now told Sky News officials “will go over all of those emails [and] make sure they’re properly answered in days”.
“We’ll go back and answer all of those emails, but I think people would expect us to have been focused on evacuating individuals, contacting individuals on the ground,” he told Sky News.
“We’re getting a lot of cases coming through that needed to be sifted and triaged on – we did that as best we could.”
The report suggests that ministers’ estimates of the number of people needing assistance – which range from around 800 to 1,100 – could be much lower than the actual number.
The Observer's source said that ministers could not have a clear idea of how many people were still trapped in Afghanistan because many of the cases were being dealt with by multiple people.
“They cannot possibly know [how many people have been left behind] because they haven’t even read the emails. Even among those who’ve been registered, many have been left behind. But there’s also a much, much larger group of people who just haven’t been dealt with at all.”
But he said the unanswered emails were not the fault of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He said the two email accounts being used to report cases concerned the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, Arap, which is being run by the Ministry of Defence, and the Home Office, which is handling special cases through a resettlement scheme.
The Labour Party has wrote to Raab about what it called “extremely concerning” reports the FCDO had missed emails.
“At the height of the evacuation we were told less than a dozen people in the Foreign Office had been tasked with processing the details of those trying to flee. They were so under-resourced and overstretched that by the final days the only realistic route to assist people was by sending WhatsApp messages to the defence secretary or the minister for Afghanistan,” shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy wrote.
She urged the foreign secretary to simplify communication channels to ensure messages could be dealt with effectively.
She wrote: “The evacuation efforts cannot have been helped by the range of email addresses and phone numbers that were provided by the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Home Office, most of which either did not work or were not answered. Can you work with colleagues in government to establish one cross-departmental unit with adequate resources to take responsibility for this next phase?”
Despite criticising the resourcing and organisation of the evacuation effort, Nandy praised the civil servants who had worked on it so far.
“Could you pass on my thanks to the FCDO staff and diplomats who have worked tirelessly in recent days to try to evacuate as many people as possible,” she said.
“I am only too aware of the agonising decisions they have had to make about who to prioritise. Now with this new crisis looming, I hope we can work together to ensure they have all the support they need.”
An FCDO spokesperson said: “We have been working tirelessly to evacuate over 15,000 people from Afghanistan in the last two weeks. We deployed a 24/7 cross-Whitehall team based in our crisis hub to triage incoming emails and calls from British nationals, ARAP applicants, and other vulnerable Afghans.”
“We always cautioned that the nature of the security situation in Afghanistan and our responsibility to keep our people safe meant that we would not be able to evacuate everyone we wanted to. Our efforts have now turned to doing everything we can to help any remaining British nationals and the Afghans who supported us leave Afghanistan safely.”