Afghan refugees miss out on chances to work and study under UK government's hotel policy

Those evacuated from Afghanistan in August last year say their mental and physical health has suffered

Eyes On... Afghanistan's Refugees

Eyes On... Afghanistan's Refugees
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Farida loves to work.

The Afghan refugee told The National in November she was confident that her wealth of experience at an international NGO in Afghanistan would be attractive to employers in the UK, where she was resettled in September.

She has since received several job offers.

However, nine months on, the UK government’s policy of housing Afghans in temporary hotels has hampered her ability to accept one of them.

Although many people associate a stay in a hotel with luxury and relaxation, refugees who have been living in the same room for the past year have said their mental and physical health has worsened as they grapple with life in limbo.

About 18,000 Afghans and Britons were evacuated to the UK in August last year as the Taliban overran Afghanistan.

According to the latest government figures, only 7,000 Afghans have been moved into permanent homes and 9,500 people are still living in UK hotels at a cost to the taxpayer of £1 million ($1.2m) a day.

Farida and her family have spent an unsettled year living in two different hotels in London. They have now been told they will be moved to yet another hotel, hundreds of miles away in Manchester.

As a result, Farida cannot accept one of her job offers and says she will focus on enrolling and acclimatising her two children at new schools in a new city instead.

“It's a really tough time. I don't know why the government is doing all these things with us. They are not listening to us,” Farida tells The National.

Evacuees from Afghanistan arrive in Europe - in pictures

"They haven’t done anything with housing but they're also not taking care of our jobs. Every day they push us to find work, and then when I did, they want us to leave."

She says the uncertainty and constant need to start again is a "kind of mental torture".

“They’ve left us here for a year in a room that is not designed to stay in for a long time but we thought ‘OK, this is a tough time and we’ll get through it eventually’,” she says.

“But now I feel like their plan is just to leave us in these hotels for a long time.”

Worse still, the move to Manchester is but another temporary situation. There is no guarantee that the city will be able to offer them permanent homes.

When the London hotel’s Afghan occupants gather to discuss their futures, Farida says they often wonder whether they made the right decision leaving their homes.

“Sometimes we say that in Kabul we might have lived, we might have died, but since arriving here we don’t know if we are alive or if we are dead,” she says.

'No privacy' for forgotten families

When Khalil first spoke to The National in October last year, the former security manager with the UK’s Foreign Office in Afghanistan had been in a hotel in London with his wife and children for two months.

He had high hopes that a permanent home would come quickly, but understood that the government had "a lot to deal with”.

He shared one room with his wife and their two daughters, aged 11 and 15, for nine out of the 11 months they lived in the hotel, a time Khalil recalls as being mentally and physically challenging.

“There was no privacy. The children struggled to sleep sometimes and there wasn’t really space for them to do their homework," he tells The National.

“It was like they just dropped us in a hotel and forgot about us. No one really checked in on us any more.”

Case workers are assigned to each hotel, but the war in Ukraine and subsequent influx of refugees from the Eastern European country have diverted a lot of human resources away from the Afghan resettlement scheme.

Life in the hotel meant “always the same food”, Khalil says. Without kitchen facilities, they could not cook for themselves. He says he took his family out almost every night to places serving Afghan food.

“The housekeeping was also really poor,” he says. “All of us broke out in rashes for weeks.”

“Most people are not happy there but there is no choice for them.”

Luckily for Khalil, he and his family were moved into a permanent home in Kent in June.

“It’s a very nice house, comfortable,” he tells The National by phone from his new home.

“But it’s far from everywhere. There’s no mosque or halal shops close to us and the transport links are quite bad.”

He says he worries about getting a job in London — a more likely place to find suitable employment — and about how he would get there and if he will be able to leave his wife, who does not speak English, alone in a small village all day.

'Like being in a prison'

Latifa was keen to rebuild her life as soon as she landed in England.

Young, ambitious and smart, she worked with the British government in Kabul and believed the UK’s “warm welcome” meant she would settle into a home of her own quickly.

When The National first spoke to her last winter, she was already struggling with a lack of clarity from the Home Office on their plans for housing her, and was worried about the vulnerable family members she had left behind.

A few months after staying in one London hotel, she was moved to another one in a different part of the UK capital where her despondency only worsened.

“The food was terrible, it smelled bad and I believed it was expired but when we complained, the management would say that it was free and coming out of their pocket. They wouldn’t even let us take fruit into our rooms and the staff were rude to us,” she told The National.

“They would only clean the rooms once a week, which is really hard when you have children, and they wouldn’t let us use the lifts because they said our children were pressing the buttons too much.”

She described often feeling like she was in a prison. Her attempts at creating an independent existence have been thwarted by bureaucracy and the housing problem.

Latifa was offered a job and place at a university in London, but she had to give up both because the Home Office moved her for a third time to another holding hotel in the outskirts of the city.

No home yet, but 'it's getting easier'

When The National met Omran in October, three months after he landed in the UK, he was visibly struggling with anxiety and depression. Haunted by the distressing scenes he witnessed while trying to flee Kabul and the trauma of leaving his parents and country behind, he was having regular nightmares.

Nine months later, Omran is still in that same hotel with his wife, 3-year-old son and 2-month-old baby daughter. He works as a kitchen porter in the hotel four days a week and sounds much happier. His English is certainly more proficient.

“It was much harder before — a new country and new people, but it is getting easier now. My wife likes the area, the town centre and playgrounds are nearby so she can go by herself quite easily,” he says.

Omran says he was not sure if his new job in the hotel has influenced the standard of service, but the food was “much better now”. After being given a second hotel room, the family had more space for the children’s pushchairs and toys, as well as their suitcases.

He has not heard if he will be moved to a permanent home, but he says he understands the large demand for housing “especially after the Ukrainians arrived, too”.

Updated: August 10, 2022, 3:00 AM