Hundreds of Afghans in UK ordered to move to new cities

Stability for those who fled Taliban rule in their home country almost a year ago looks a long way off

Refugees from Afghanistan in London. The UK Home Office says it has permanently housed 6,000 people but between 6,000 and 9,000 are still living in bridging hotels. Getty Images
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At a table outside a hotel in London, a former colonel in the Afghan Army can at least reflect on the fact that the safety and happiness of his children are his priority.

Despite the traumatic upheaval of a chaotic and dangerous evacuation from Afghanistan last year, the former officer's children are “doing very well” at the school they attend in London.

His youngest, who is 6, now speaks English fluently, while his father has been taking courses for construction skills in the hope of starting a new career once he is finally settled.

But a recent letter from the UK Home Office poses the challenge of renewed upheaval, underlining how far off remains the stability he and thousands of other Afghans have craved.

After being put up in a bridging hotel in London for the past 10 months, the colonel has been told that next month they will be moved to another hotel, 320 kilometres away in Manchester.

Others have been told they will be sent to hotels near Gatwick in West Sussex, or in Kent, both in the south-east of England. Some still do not know where in the UK they will be moved to when the reshuffle of accommodation begins.

In March, 100 families staying in one central London hotel were dispersed to hotels in cities outside the capital.

Elsewhere, hotels in Wigan, in Greater Manchester, north-west England, and Stafford, in Staffordshire, in the West Midlands, are now said to be closing to Afghan refugees. That group is in the process of being moved up to 130km away to Liverpool.

Having not yet been offered a permanent home, the father-of-five in London finds the move to yet another temporary accommodation in a city four hours’ drive away disappointing and difficult.

“Where’s the strategy? Where’s the planning? If I had a permanent home I could just focus on the children and our future. I would like to work eventually too, but how can we plan anything?” he told The National.

His children will have to re-enrol in a school in Manchester, although how long they will stay in the city is not clear.

“Our concern is mainly for our children, creating a good environment for them. We have already lost so much of our physical lives and possessions, I don’t want to lose our family.”

About 15,000 Afghan and British citizens were rescued by the UK. They were to be put up in hotels until permanent homes were found, but 10 months later, more than half are still living in hotels. Getty Images

Another Afghan refugee at the hotel, who has already been moved to three different hotels since arriving in the UK in August, said that everyone is “sad, stressed and anxious” about the impending move.

“We used to gather together at dinner time and talk about our plans to study or to work, how our children were doing at school, the things we wanted to do with our lives.

“Now everyone is just comparing notes on what the Home Office letter told them and what city they are now going to be sent to,” said the resident, who asked not to be identified.

These hotel occupants are all part of the 15,000 Afghans and British citizens who were moved to the UK in August after Kabul fell to the Taliban.

The government’s promise of a warm welcome and permanent homes encouraged many to try to rebuild their fractured lives with new friendships, jobs and education opportunities, but ever-changing living conditions are threatening an already fragile situation.

Unsettled: the 'warm welcome' leaving Afghans in the cold

In the hotel The National visited, about two thirds of the families have children who are at school and at least two people have jobs in London. Several people told me they were applying to do postgraduate studies ― one had already been accepted on a scholarship to study at a university in the capital.

These building blocks are now at risk of being dismantled, and not for the last time.

“My children have been doing really well at school here. One of them got put in advanced computer classes but now that we are moving, I’m not sure if he can continue with them,” said an Afghan father in the lobby of the hotel.

Afghan and British citizens being evacuated from Kabul on a British military aircraft. PA

He was hoping to apply to study for a postgraduate degree himself, but said it was “impossible to make any plans” without clarity on where they will live.

According to a Home Office official, more than 6,000 people have been moved — or are in the process of moving — into homes since June 2021.

This leaves 6,000 to 9,000 people still living in temporary accommodation.

But as London hotels look to welcome back tourists in the first summer after pandemic restrictions were removed, some establishments are not renewing the contracts made with the Home Office to temporarily house Afghan refugees.

Poor planning, insufficient staff numbers

The problem, say those who are working on resettling Afghans in the UK, stems from a lack of government planning and “unmanaged expectations”, which has led to some Afghans rejecting available homes.

“I don’t see an end to bridging hotels, not in the near future, not in the next six months unless they come up with a very robust housing plan,” Yvonne Kachikoti from Refugee Action, which helps refugees build new lives in the UK, told The National.

A lack of strategy and insufficient Home Office staffing ― some of which has been diverted to assisting Ukrainian refugees ― leaves Afghans caught in a holding cycle.

While the government speaks of its “leading role in the international response to supporting at-risk Afghan citizens”, it has urged more local authorities to come forward to offer homes.

This week, a top civil servant commended “the positive contribution” by the government in resettling Afghans and said families in hotels were “better off” than if they were in Afghanistan.

“Even for a family in a hotel who would rather be integrated somewhere else, they are still better off in the UK than they would have been in Afghanistan,” Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, said.

“And I think it is worth remembering the big picture about why we do this sort of thing,”

But Ms Kachikoti, who heads resettlement and integration services at Refugee Action, blames poor Home Office management for leaving people in limbo.

“I don’t believe it is local authorities who aren’t coming in to help. We’ve sent information on Afghans and houses available to the Home Office before and it takes weeks for them to get back to us,” she said.

The criticism was echoed by a source working with a local authority on the resettlement programme who told The National that the government’s promised wraparound support, but that has not been that readily available.

“There are people who have been moved to areas where there is very little support offered and no relatable community so they feel quite vulnerable and confused,” he said.

As part of the government’s Operation Warm Welcome to Afghan refugees, local councils were allocated funding packages of £20,520 ($25,230) per person over three years. The funding will help refugees to enrol in education, find work and integrate in their new communities.

Finding homes for Afghan families proves slow and difficult

The process of matching people with homes has come under fire from Afghans and those working to resettle them.

One of the Afghans The National spoke to wondered why the Home Office sent them a long form to fill out in which their circumstances and preferences for where to live were explained, if ultimately “they were never going to listen to us”.

“They told us to fill out the form and let them know all our circumstances, what we were doing, where we wanted to live. And now there are people with jobs in London who are being told they’re moving hours away to Manchester,” the hotel resident said.

Poor communication and “unmanaged expectations” have resulted in some Afghan refugees rejecting offers of permanent homes in areas where they would prefer not to live.

“There is a level of fear, people who have moved out are telling others that it is really difficult to budget, that there aren’t many Afghans or ethnic minorities around, that it feels isolated,” Ms Kachikoti said.

As a result, she fears the UK has created “a dependency syndrome” for hotel residents who worry that the availability of a caseworker, three meals a day and a room ― even an impersonal hotel one ― is better than what is being offered in the long term.

Earlier this year, the Home Office revealed that keeping Afghans in hotels was costing the taxpayer £1.2 million a day and, like some of the Afghans interviewed, Ms Kachikoti wonders if that money would not be better spent providing financial assistance to Afghans to find and rent their own homes.

“We have always said that from the word go that the government should let people find their own homes. They should have a private rental scheme, give people deposits, help them search within a local housing rate ― we just won’t find enough housing otherwise,” Ms Kachikoti said.

This housing crisis may yet worsen as hundreds of Ukrainian refugees who were hosted under the Homes For Ukraine scheme become homeless, adding more burden on local authorities who need to house them.

The worry is that a confluence of an increasing number of refugees, a slow resettlement process and decreasing housing options will keep these unsettled people trapped in a cycle of dependency where they are unable to build new lives for themselves, however much they want to.

Updated: June 25, 2022, 8:37 PM