Months in unsuitable UK accommodation face Afghan refugees

Community and aid groups fear that military interpreters and Afghan refugees who have been evacuated from Kabul could face months or even years in a state of ‘limbo’ as they are placed in temporary accommodation due to a shortage of suitable housing.

Recent figures show that Britain’s already stretched resettlement and asylum system faces a level of demand four or five times higher than previously expected following the arrival of approximately 8.000 Afghan nationals thought to be at risk of being targeted by the Taliban as a result of last month’s emergency airlift.

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, pledged that approximately 30,000 people arriving under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap), the scheme set up to help those such as military translators who worked on the frontline with the British Army, and a separate new scheme to run over the next five years, will receive help such as housing and schooling to integrate into British society as part of ‘Operation Warm Welcome’.

Support groups together with local authorities have spoken of alarming gaps that are already appearing in the system as refugees emerge from their initial stay in quarantine hotels in locations from Manchester to Chelmsford and are moved to other hotels to serve as ‘bridging’ accommodation.

The Home Office is believed to be at an advanced stage in establishing a plan to use holiday camps, including two sites belonging to Pontins, as a temporary base for evacuees with on-site healthcare and education.

However, there is evidence that many of the Arup arrivals, of whom half are children or minors, have been left in quarantine hotels without access to basic needs from nappies and sanitary products to medication and toys, leaving voluntary groups to hurriedly step in with donations.

The Home Office minister placed in charge of Operation Warm Welcome, Victoria Atkins, admitted that there is a shortage of the type of housing needed for Afghan families.

Charities have warned of long delays for refugees, many of who it is feared have urgent mental health needs and local authorities are saying councils are still waiting to hear how much funding will be allocated for resettlement among reports of a £560m shortfall in Treasury funding.

There is currently criticism of what campaigners say is a failure by the UK Government to set specific targets for resettlement provision during the pandemic, leaving councils unable to plan for new arrivals.

Chief executive of Refugee Action, Tim Naor Hilton, said: “Leaving thousands of refugees to live in limbo for months on end in unsuitable hotels is not the ‘warm welcome’ they were promised.  Ministers’ refusal to commit to resettlement over the past 18 months has meant councils have been unable to maintain the supply of homes that could have helped prevent this crisis”.

It is imperative that the Government take a lead and properly back local authorities with a confirmed funding package so Afghan refugees have the support they need to rebuild their lives in the UK.

The strain being placed on the refugee resettlement system is highlighted by Home Office figures which show that in 2019, prior to the pandemic, the UK was receiving around 1,300 to 1,600 refugees per quarter for resettlement from conflict zones such as Syria.

The arrival of 8,000 Afghan nationals, the bulk of them under Arup,in the space of two weeks means local authorities, which provide the bulk of services under resettlement schemes, are dealing with demand four to five times higher than at any time previously.

Migration expert at human rights organisation Free Movement, CJ McKinney said: “The resettlement system is having to cope with a level of demand four or five times higher than it has previously faced at any one point in time.  The question being can it cope.

“Any resettlement scheme is going to be a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed.  The UN estimate some 1.5m refugees around the world currently need resettlement but fewer than 35,000 were last year”.

Working with Afghan arrivals, one community group warned that many are likely to be traumatised by the events of their departure after having to run a gauntlet of Taliban chekpoints and spending days in large dangerous crowds outside of Kabul airport.

Founder and chief executive of the London-based Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, said that his organisation had been inundated with enquiries from refugees.  “For these latest arrivals it may take a few years before they are permanently housed.  That is not time that they have.  The mental health issues alone are enormous for those who were in the crowds outside the airport”.

“We and they are grateful for the hospitality and generosity shown by the UK.  However, these people must not be left in limbo, this storey cannot end at the end of the runway of Kabul airport”.

According to the Home Office a third of local authorities have come forward to house Warm Welcome arrivals with accommodation for 2,000 already found.  Further pleas are being made for private landlords and other organisations from churches to universities to offer accommodation with a premium on larger properties to accommodate Afghan families, where four or more are children.

Local authority sources also confirm that around two thirds of councils have offered to help refugees but say they are hindered by the lack of clarity from the Government regarding the level of funding that will be guaranteed. “It feels at the moment that ministers are in a stalling process.  Councils are willing to help but after so many cuts to their budgets they cannot do anything until they know their expenses will be met”.

Consultations between ministers, councils and private sector providers remain ongoing. The proposed use of holiday camps with self catering chalet-style accommodation is understood to be at an advanced stage, with officials seeking to establish so-called ‘wrap around’ services, including the establishment of schools on site or in close proximity, to avoid existing services being overwhelmed.

The Home Office declined to comment on these discussions.  In a statement, a Government spokesperson said: “The Government is working urgently to ensure thousands of Afghans who were evacuated to the UK in exceptional circumstances receive the support they need to rebuild their lives, find work, pursue education and integrate into their local communities.”

“We are working with local authorities to ensure appropriate temporary accommodation for all recent arrivals while bringing on stream permanent housing to allow people to settle”.