One year later, UK’s Afghan refugees hit with harsh realities

Many Afghan refugees living in Britain are unable to find jobs, community connections, or plan their future. Some languish in hotels that cost the government almost $1.4 million a day, others are living in remote towns. But some still hold hope for brighter days to come. 

Bahaar Joya/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Fatemah Habib, who worked for the British Council in Afghanistan, plays with her son at their new home in Caterham, Surrey, June 18, 2022. The family was evacuated by the British government a year ago as the Taliban swept into power.

When Jahan was evacuated to Britain after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, she felt like an angel had come to take her to “paradise.” But being stuck in a tiny hotel room for most of a year has verged on purgatory.

More than half of the 20,000 Afghans who have arrived in Britain in the last year are still in temporary accommodation, unable to put down roots and rebuild their lives.

“A hotel is very nice for a week if you’re sightseeing, but not for a year,” said Jahan, a former manager at an international organization who went into hiding after the Taliban seized power on Aug. 15 last year.

“We don’t know from one day to the next what will happen to us. We can’t look for jobs or plan for the future because we don’t know if we’ll suddenly be moved to another town,” added Jahan, who asked not to use her full name.

The Taliban captured Kabul after international forces backing a pro-Western government pulled out. Foreign countries have since accused the hardline Islamist group of a litany of human rights abuses.

Afghans evacuated by Britain include former interpreters and others who worked closely with the British military and government, as well as human rights activists.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to more than a dozen Afghan refugees, but most requested anonymity. Many feared publicly criticizing local authorities on whom they relied.

Jahan is very grateful to Britain for “saving her life” and sees a bright future for her three children, but says the government has wasted a fortune on hotels through poor planning.

The government said earlier this year it was costing 1.2 million pounds ($1.47 million) a day to accommodate the Afghans in hotels.

“With all this money they could have bought houses for us to rent, they could have even built them,” Jahan said.

Homes For Afghans?

Problems in finding homes are exacerbated by Britain’s chronic housing shortage. There is a particular dearth of properties for large Afghan families.

Jahan said the government’s focus on the Ukrainian refugee crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion in February had also slowed efforts to resolve their predicament.

“We’re totally forgotten,” added Jahan, who does not even have space in her room for a table.

About 100,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Britain in recent months. Most are being hosted by British families under a scheme called Homes for Ukraine.

Refugee support groups have urged the government to set up a Homes for Afghans scheme allowing businesses, civic groups, faith groups, military charities, and others to sponsor Afghans with offers of accommodation.

The government declined to comment on the proposal, but said that aside from liaising with local authorities it was encouraging property developers and the private rental sector to offer housing.

“We are proud to have provided homes for over 7,000 Afghan refugees ... but we know more needs to be done,” said refugees minister Richard Harrington.

Postcode lottery

But Sara de Jong, co-founder of The Sulha Alliance which supports Afghan interpreters, said some of the families who had been moved out of hotels had been put in very isolated areas.

The government’s resettlement scheme is known as Operation Warm Welcome, but Ms. de Jong calls it “Operation Not So Warm Welcome.”

She said many interpreters and other Afghans had risked their lives working for the British.

Some families have been housed in extremely remote towns in the far north of Scotland, she said, more than three hours from the nearest city where they might find work.

There is no Muslim community and a trip to the closest halal shop or mosque entails a 7-hour drive.

“There’s a postcode lottery in terms of where you end up and whether your case worker has the necessary expertise and networks as well as the commitment to do more than the absolute minimum,” Ms. de Jong said.

Some families have been moved into houses with no furniture and bedding, or into damp homes with mold on the walls that are making children sick, she added.

Other Afghans said they had been offered housing hundreds of miles from their jobs or job offers.

One former interpreter had a job lined up in the central city of Birmingham, but had to turn it down after he was placed in a small Welsh coastal town.

Fatemah Habib, who spent five months in a hotel in central England, said her family was offered housing in Scotland even though her husband was working in London.

Ms. Habib said living in a small room with their two young sons had been enormously stressful, especially when trying to work.

Many Afghans in hotels said there was nowhere for children to play and the food was atrocious, repetitive, and unhealthy.

The temporary accommodation ranges from 4-star hotels in London and other cities to hotels in the countryside some distance from the nearest town. The refugees receive financial support and their children have been placed in schools.

Deep loneliness

Ms. Habib also said many women were severely depressed and felt unable to seek help for widespread domestic abuse.

“Some men did not allow their wives to leave their rooms. Even the food used to be delivered to their rooms,” she added.

One woman in a Birmingham hotel said her husband sometimes locked her in her room while he went out for hours. He had made her tell officials that she did not want to learn English or take part in activities outside the home.

Another said her violent husband had cut off all her contact with the outside world.

But victims of domestic abuse said they dare not ask for help for fear their husbands would hurt their family back in Afghanistan.

Many Afghans – even those like Ms. Habib who speak English – said the move to Britain had been a huge culture shock.

Refugee experts urged the authorities to house groups of families in the same localities so they could support each other as they integrated and to prevent people becoming isolated.

Ms. Habib, who now lives on a housing estate south of London, said getting to know her neighbors and making new friends was hard.

“I feel deep loneliness most of the time,” she said, sipping saffron tea from a decorative glass – one of the few items she brought with her to remind her of home.

But Ms. Habib said she was determined to integrate and was particularly excited about the opportunities for women.

Currently working with the British Council, the educational and cultural organization which employed her in Afghanistan, Ms. Habib eventually hopes to run her own business.

“I wasn’t able to pursue my dreams and ambitions in Afghanistan,” she said. “Now I can.”

This story was reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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