It was billed as a "warm welcome" but the UK's offer of refuge to around 16,000 Afghans after the Taliban takeover has turned into a bureaucratic trap that is taking its toll on those involved.
In recent days, hundreds of Afghan evacuees have transferred from central London to alternative accommodation at a “bridging hotel” hours away, a development the Afghans told The National was upsetting and confusing.
Refugees staying in one of the hotels in the Camden Council area were told by letter that they would be moved to another hotel near Gatwick airport. Many had only just registered with local doctors, job centres and schools for their children, only to be told they would have to repeat the process all over again, and almost certainly not for the last time.
Months after the UK government announced its welcome, promising permanent housing, integration courses and the immediate right to work, many Afghans remain in limbo, moving from pillar to post as opportunities to rebuild their lives pass them by.
Several Afghans said they had offers from employers and educational institutions but could not take them because of a lack of government-issued paperwork and a permanent address.
Amin Zada’s eager plans to rebuild his life in the UK have been thwarted by these delays. Fluent in English, the former first officer in the Afghan air force was just two months away from completing his undergraduate degree in computer science and software engineering at Kabul University when the Taliban takeover ended both his education and career.
Mr Zada was nevertheless keen to restart his studies from scratch and immediately searched for a local college to take UK GCSE exams when he arrived to London. He told me he wants to attain whatever qualifications and retraining are necessary to pursue his dream of becoming a British Airways pilot, and he has already been visiting flight schools in England.
Although he was accepted by the college, they would not let him enrol because his current visa is only valid until February 2022. Without being issued a British Residency Permit (BRP) confirming his long-term right to stay in the country, no employer or institution is willing to take the risk of proceeding, even though the Home Office has said Afghan evacuees can work and study immediately.
“We have so much talent here, lecturers, engineers, doctors … I’m sure the British government could use them in the best way if they sped up the process,” says Mr Zada.
“I have the motivation, I have the planning, I have the experience. And I want to start, but it’s just ‘sorry, you don’t have a BRP card.’”
Disheartened, he feels he’s “lost the year” sitting in his room “counting the clouds go by.”
Thankfully, Mr Zada's language skills and fast adaptation to the country were quickly spotted by some of the governing bodies responsible for integrating Afghan refugees. He has been kept busy volunteering with the Department of Work and Pensions and become a crucial point of contact for many Afghans, who have found navigating the administrative tasks required to set up a life in the UK difficult.
“They're my countrymen and I have to help them,” says Mr Zada, in a cafe near the hotel he has been staying for nearly three months.
He has helped people enrol in TESOL (English) classes, open bank accounts, register for welfare under Universal Credit and with doctors. However, Amin says that being moved to an entirely new borough two hours away puts people back at square one, undoing much of that progress and creating distress.
“I have to change my job centre, my GP, then I have to become familiar with the area and then I’ll be moved again to another location and then again, I have to start from zero,” says Mr Zada.
His sister, a former lawyer with the international organisation Women for Women in Kabul, has been offered a job with the same organisation in London, but she too cannot begin without a BRP. It is a similar situation for several Afghans in the UK, many of whom are former "white-collar" professionals, frustrated by their inability to continue their work.
Nasima Karimi was a human resources employee at the British Embassy in Kabul for four years before she left aboard an evacuation flight with her elderly mother. Also a university lecturer, she is used to a professionally active life and is finding it hard to adjust to a life of passive waiting.
“I want to study, I want to get a job. Since I’ve been here I feel very depressed because I left my work and the university. I had a busy schedule and I enjoyed that, and I also want to work here,” she says.
Without a BRP, however, she can neither study nor work. Being told they would be moved to another temporary hotel outside the city near Gatwick Airport has only increased her despondency.
“All the Afghans here are being displaced again after just getting used to this place … and so again we are facing pressure, stress and anxiety as we worry about how to deal with the new place,” says Ms Karimi.
She added that she and most of those she knows in the hotel have been left largely in the dark about what is happening to them and, months later, still have not met their caseworker.
Representatives from the Home Office are on site at the hotel but Ms Karimi says she often feels she is “passed like a ball” when she approaches them with questions.
“They are not taking responsibility. They don't even know themselves. That's what they tell us.”
The Home Office did not respond when asked why residents of this particular hotel are being moved to another hotel, but a representative said: “there is a huge effort under way to get families into permanent homes so they can settle and rebuild their lives, and to ensure those still temporarily accommodated in hotels have access to health care, education, any essential items they need and employment opportunities or Universal Credit.”
Meanwhile, Camden’s Counsellor Georgia Gould criticised the Home Office for “failing to make clear” plans for how families would be housed and the “unacceptable situation” of families being kept in hotels for months on end.
“We are demanding the Home Office provide a plan for long-term accommodation of refugees and meanwhile, we are working with other London boroughs to agree London’s housing offer, with the aim being to house as many refugees as possible. We will be here to support these families with their transition to living in our communities, and we will continue to keep up our dedicated wraparound support at the bridging hotels for as long as it takes.”
Children's education disrupted again
For parents, the disruption to their children’s education, particularly after the difficulties already faced in enrolling them the first time, is their biggest concern.
Forzan Mashal has a toddler and teenager in school. It took her a month to get her children into school and is concerned about being able to find places for them again in a totally new area.
“We want to know that what will happen — our children's future is very important,” says Ms Mashal. She and her husband, Irfan, worked for international NGOs in Afghanistan. They complained about a general lack of information from officials, a pervasive criticism among refugees and those who are trying to help them.
She said many other Afghans feel “demoralised” right now, particularly as rumours swirl among the hotel occupants about the reason for their transfer.
“I don't know if it is the hotel, or the council or the government who don’t want us to stay here but there are a lot of rumours like that which are also disturbing us mentally,” says Ms Mashal.
“So overall, life is so confusing and this confusion is hard.”
The former head of safeguarding and advocacy for an international NGO has also been offered a job in London. She shows me a recent letter sent by the Home Office reiterating their eligibility to work in the UK but says with only four months left on their visa and no permanent address, employers refuse to sign a contract.
Used to working hard and engaging with people in their day-to-day work, the couple have been volunteering, to “keep us alive.”
The Home Office has been staggering the move of Afghans from this particular hotel over the week and Mr Zada says many have already cried on his shoulder, panicked by the renewed separation and ambiguity they are facing.
He has put in a request for his family to stay in London on account of his sister’s job offer and his mother’s continuing medical treatment in one of the city’s hospitals. He is hoping that if they stay in London, time and patience will give the family an opportunity to become independent members of the community.
“I want to build my career over here. I want to work, I want to study and I just want to be a normal citizen here … I just ask the British government to speed up the issuing of our BRP cards.”
Where is the government's resettlement scheme?
The urgency is all the more acute for Mr Zada's sister whose husband and 2-year-old child remain in Kabul and are unable to join them in the UK without formal avenues to do so. Having a job might allow her to sponsor her husband and child to move to the UK.
Despite the UK’s pledge to relocate up to 20,000 Afghans in August, the scheme has not yet started and the minister responsible for Afghan resettlement, Victoria Atkins, told the House of Commons earlier this week that the scheme was still in its design stage.
Campaigners have accused the government of “dawdling” amid growing concern that time is running out for the most vulnerable and threatened in Afghanistan. Several Afghans in the UK have reported that members of their remaining family in Afghanistan have been murdered or arrested since the evacuations ended.
Ms Karimi's siblings remain in Afghanistan despite their former military connections putting them at great risk of Taliban reprisals. The family all lived together in Kabul and this sudden separation has created emotional turmoil for her mother, who is ill.
“I can't really go out for very long. If I had my sister or my brother with me here, we could manage in shifts to care for her but it's just me alone here with her and she can't leave the hotel … we asked for a wheelchair months ago but that hasn't come.”
While there are undoubtedly strong feelings of gratitude at having been among the evacuated, the anxiety and confusion over the direction of their lives remains ubiquitous among the Afghans who spoke to The National. The sense of being left in the dark and shunted around, without due consideration for their aspirations, abilities and needs, risks worsening an already difficult situation.