“We think that we've got the overwhelming majority of those eligible.”

Boris Johnson, BBC News

August 26, 2021

Facts

Speaking about the Kabul evacuation, after the country fell to the Taliban, the Prime Minister said that the “majority” of “eligible” people had been evacuated. However, after the evacuation,  serious questions were raised about the competence of the team running the evacuations. 

The Guardian reported that the Foreign Office ignored pleas to help Afghans evacuate from the country. An official email address used to collate potential Afghan cases from MPs and others regularly contained 5,000 unread emails throughout the week, including emails detailing cases of Afghans who fear for their families lives being left unopened for days. 

Emails from Keir Starmer, the offices of Victoria Atkins, the newly appointed minister for Afghan resettlement, the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the Tory chair of the defence select committee, Tobias Ellwood, were also among those left unread. 

Whistleblower Raphael Marshall, a desk officer who told MPs on the foreign affairs select committee that he worked in the Foreign Office’s Afghanistan crisis response team, said that the emails often contained details of more than one person, meaning that ministers could have no clear idea of the real numbers left behind. 

He said: “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.

“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.”

The revelation calls into question the suggestion from ministers that the number of Afghans left behind would be up to 1,100 in total. 

There are also tangible examples of people being left behind. The Foreign Office promised to evacuate a team of 125 British embassy guards from Afghanistan after Kabul fell to the Taliban.  By September 3rd 2021 just one of the 125 men made it to the UK. 

A Foreign Office spokesperson was quoted at the time saying: “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.”

Verdict 

Boris Johnson protected himself by saying “we think”, a qualifying phrase conveying uncertainty. Nevertheless his suggestion that the Foreign Office had a clear idea of how many people were left behind is at odds with powerful testimony - not least from whistleblower Raphael Marshall, who worked in the Foreign Office’s Afghanistan crisis response team.  It is therefore hard to judge whether the Prime Minister was justified in making his claim that  “we've got the overwhelming majority of those eligible.”

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