The scheme, which the UK Government has heralded as “one of the world's most generous humanitarian offers to vulnerable Afghans”, was announced in August, but had come under fire from refugee groups after it was slow to open to Afghans.
A separate scheme, the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), brought thousands of Afghans to Britain when the Taliban first took control of the country in April.
UK Government minister for afghan resettlement Victoria Atkins told Westminster that the scheme, which formally opened on Thursday, would provide up to 20,000 Afghan citizens with a safe and legal route to resettle in the UK.
It prioritises those who assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law – as well as at-risk women, girls, and members of minority groups, such as those who identify as LGBTQ.
Ms Atkins said the scheme originally aimed to resettle 5,000 people in the first year, but would exceed that due to the “emerging situation” in the country.
From the spring, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will refer refugees in need of resettlement, who have fled Afghanistan. After the first year, “wider groups” of Afghans will be considered for resettlement under two separate pathways.
Ms Atkins said: “Launching the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme is a landmark moment for our country. I am proud that communities up and down the UK have opened their arms to vulnerable Afghan families who have been forced to flee their country.
"The Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme provides a safe, legal and secure way for the most vulnerable and at-risk people from Afghanistan to come to the United Kingdom and rebuild their lives, as part of the New Plan for Immigration.
"This scheme is just the beginning. Now it’s time to pick up the pace and get more Afghan families into work, into education and into permanent homes, so they can integrate, thrive and rebuild their lives here in the UK.”
Speaking in the House of Commons, MP Yvette Cooper said: “The Prime Minister and the home secretary rightly promised we would help both those to whom we owed direct obligations … their families, those who worked for us on on our projects, and also that we would do our bit alongside other countries to resettle others whose lives were at risk through the Afghan resettlement scheme.
"Five months and thousands of hours have passed since then [the Operation Pitting evacuation of Afghanistan], until the resettlement scheme is now opened. Since then we've seen a truly dire humanitarian crisis escalate in Afghanistan, with those we promised to help still in peril, British nationals and British Council staff and others still in hiding. That is shameful.”
SNP MP Joanna Cherry raised the plight of female judges in Afghanistan and requested a meeting with the minister to discuss how judges could either be settled in the UK or directed to other third-party countries.
Ms Atkins said the UK Government had received 99,000 applications to the resettlement schemes since April.
She said: “We have a dedicated team working seven days a week to assess and bring eligible Afghans to the UK. We completely reject the accusation that the programme has been ineffective.”
Wafa Shaheen, head of integration at the Scottish Refugee Council, said: “The situation in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous and for every day this scheme has been delayed, people’s lives have been put at risk.
"We’re pleased to hear the announcement today, pleased to know that there will now be progress to bring people to safety.
"We work with a number of people in Scotland who have family members and loved ones at risk in Afghanistan. This is such a difficult time for them and this scheme will offer a small glimmer of hope.
"But we need to remember that many people at risk will already have tried to leave the country on their own terms. Some of them may arrive in the UK after making horrendously dangerous journeys. They also need support and to be given refugee protection and the means to rebuild their lives in safety.”
UK Government data released on Thursday shows there are over 12,000 people brought to the UK from Afghanistan under ARAP still living in around 80 bridging hotels.
The Government said that all children of school age who arrived during Operation Pitting had been enrolled in schools, while Afghan settlers have also been encouraged to register with a GP and have been offered Covid-19 vaccines.