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September 22, 2022

One year on: Afghanistan’s refugees attempt to settle in London

Over one year on from the initial evacuation of Afghan people, is the UK’s capital providing sufficient support to allow refugees to live a secure life?

By Liam Murphy

In August last year, people around the world watched as Afghan civilians clung to the fuselages of aircraft in a desperate attempt to flee the country. As the US withdrew military ground support from Afghanistan and the Taliban reclaimed Kabul along with other key areas shortly after that, a conflict 20 years in the making was over in a day. 

Afghanistan refugees
The London Mayor’s Welcome Message to Afghan refugees is displayed at Piccadilly Circus in September 2021. (Photo by Joe Maher/Getty Images)

As of August of this year, the government says more than 21,000 refugees have arrived from Afghanistan, victims of an ongoing conflict in which the UK has been directly involved. 

The ‘Afghanistan: UK support for aid workers and the Afghan people’ report states the UK “has a moral obligation to the Afghan people”. That was met with many Afghan people being rehomed and their assimilation into a new life beginning. Aspects of the programme have continued, but as refugees are left in hotels or, in some cases, to find accommodation themselves, the programme is being scrutinised.

What happens when refugees arrive in London?

Though Operation Pitting’s – the military operation to evacuate British nationals and eligible Afghans from Afghanistan – initial evacuation effort ended on 28 August, the process remains the same for any refugees arriving today. As they arrive from Afghanistan to the UK, they are placed in managed quarantine service hotels due to Covid-19 still being a risk factor. From there, individuals are moved to bridging hotels. At this point, local councils provide essentials for the refugees. 

“Our staff were on the front line making sure Afghans had food to eat and clothes to wear, as well as coordinating health and care provision, enrolling children in local schools and arranging other crucial services,” Councillor Claire Holland, London Councils executive member for communities, tells City Monitor.

However, it became apparent that the housing stage of the Afghan refugees’ assimilation into UK society was not going to proceed as effectively as it should have. Without enough housing to offer to those arriving from Afghanistan, London’s councils had to skip this stage in many cases and look towards other means of assimilation. 

How are Afghanistan refugees integrated into life in the UK?

Ramin, a refugee speaking to City Monitor on condition that only his first name is used, fled Kabul with his wife and two young daughters. They were relocated to the London borough of Islington, although they had no connections or companions in the immediate vicinity.  

As part of the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), they were supported by the local council and Beam – a social enterprise that uses crowdfunding to remove the financial barriers facing homeless people and refugees – among other organisations.

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“Beam helped me raise money so I could go on a training programme to get a job in security, and I completed the CCTV course, door supervisor and first aid training. I now have a job in security for a big hotel in London and I’m very happy in my job right now.”

[Read more: Amid competition in the Middle East, Kabul emerges as a ground for Gulf rivalry]

Ramin’s family are learning English in local community centres, where support is available to them. His daughters are both in school and are very happy, with big aspirations for their future (one wants to be a doctor and the other a teacher). (A large number of those evacuated from Kabul were children and the government reported earlier this year that “all children of school age who arrived during Operation Pitting have been enrolled in schools”.) His wife also aspires to teach. 

They have even welcomed a new addition too, a three-month-old son who was born in a university college hospital. Ramin’s managers allowed him time off to be there when his wife gave birth. “I am very thankful to them,” he explains.

“My big wish is to one day support another person or family who have been in my situation,” he continues. “ I’m waiting for that opportunity to help other people. The kindness shown by everyone, including Islington Council and Beam, made me feel like a champion.”

Is there a housing shortage for refugees? 

In both ARAP and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), councils are asked to ‘pledge’ properties that are available. It is then left to the government to ‘match’ properties with a suitable family. From there, funds are taken from a specially created housing resource to make the difference between rental prices and LHA/benefits payments. 

London Councils estimates 150,000 Londoners are homeless and living in temporary accommodation arranged by their local borough, while 300,000 Londoners are on social housing waiting lists. London Councils expects these figures to rise in the coming months as cost-of-living pressures worsen, City Monitor was told. 

“It’s unsustainable to have Afghan arrivals still living in hotels, especially families with children,” Holland says, adding that “a number of challenges remain”. 

Matchmaking has been a slow process and some families have been matched with properties some distance away from where they initially settled. Housing fund payments have been late as well, forcing councils to take on the risk of making up the difference on the promise of reimbursement.

What is the two-strike system? 

Around mid-2022, refugees staying in hotels and non-permanent accommodation received a letter, the contents of which – as described in a document from the East Midlands Council – states that the remaining refugees will receive “a maximum of two appropriate offers for accommodation”. If these offers are “rejected without good reason”, then the individuals in question would have 56 days before being evicted from their current accommodation and left to “make their own arrangements” concerning permanent housing. 

Krish Kandiah, an adviser to the government on refugees, noted the letter’s tone as “scary”. He spoke to a refugee “who moved from Watford all the way up to rural Scotland, and he was the only immigrant with his family for miles and miles. They felt very lonely and isolated”. 

Is there a prospect of homelessness? 

A Refugee Council report found that newly recognised refugees often experience homelessness and/or destitution. Another report by The No Accommodation Network (NACCOM) found that, in 2019, there were multiple reports of homeless refugees seeking shelter. A shelter in Camden accommodated 78 people, ten of whom were refugees and one of which had left their asylum accommodation within the previous few weeks.

Another story highlighted how refugees were being told to look on Rightmove and other private property marketplaces. With 7,385 having been rehoused, but 9,667 still living in temporary accommodation at the time of writing, the majority of Afghan refugees still need to be resettled.

However, recent policy changes from the government will allow those who present as homeless to still receive the £20,500 funding per head provided as part of ARAP and ACRS. But, being that some of these individuals will no longer have a fixed address, it may mean that it will be harder for these funds to reach those that need them.

Holland admits that “much more needs to be done by the government in terms of sharing information with councils”, but says that there are instances where London Councils have raised concerns that have resulted in policy change, like an increase in funding per person.

The government and local councils have been successful in resettling a number of Afghan refugees, allowing them to enter into a stable life with access to education, housing and employment. However, with many still left in temporary accommodation and certain parts of the process not running as successfully as they should, more still needs to be done.

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