Afghan refugees in Britain are still in limbo as Ukrainians arrive

Afghan refugee Eid Mohammed with two of his sons in one of two adjoining hotel rooms that houses the family south of London. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON (NYTIMES) - A toddler cries on his mother's lap while his twin naps a few feet away. The mother hushes their older siblings, who are watching videos on an iPad in the next room.

The mother, Ms Seema Mohammed; her husband, Mr Eid Mohammed; and their five children have lived in two adjoining hotel rooms south of London since November after they fled Afghanistan. It is a cramped and claustrophobic existence that feels like limbo while they await permanent housing. But a reminder of what they left behind is only a video call away: An elder brother, a doctor and former police officer, is in hiding back home and desperately looking for a way out.

"It's a struggle," Mr Eid said. "Living a life is different than staying alive." He was referring to the family he left in Afghanistan, but the same sentiment could apply to his current situation.

Britain evacuated about 16,000 people from Afghanistan last year, most of them during the chaotic final days of August as the Taliban suddenly seized control of the country. Most of them have been living temporarily in hotels across Britain ever since, a situation that British lawmakers have said is increasingly untenable.

In February, the government said that just 4,000 Afghans brought to Britain during the mass evacuation had been moved into homes - leaving 12,000 still housed temporarily in hotels.

With a new and even larger refugee crisis exploding much closer to home now, officials are talking about taking in tens of thousands more refugees from the war in Ukraine. But the experience of Afghans has raised questions about whether the country can cope with much larger numbers when it has still not managed to settle thousands of Afghans many months after they arrived.

The government has offered a number of reasons for the inability to find permanent homes for the Afghan evacuees, key among them a shortage of affordable housing across the country. But critics of the government say the situation is also a result of inept planning, a lack of will and even a hostility toward asylum-seekers and migrants in general.

"There is a xenophobic attitude underpinning immigration and asylum policy in the UK," said Mr Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights programme director for Amnesty International UK.

This criticism has been echoed with regards to Britain's response to the refugee crisis created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has driven millions of people from their homes. Much of Europe has allowed the refugees to enter without visas, but Britain has required visas and an application process that is confusing many and slowing their arrival.

When asked about the delays in housing Afghan evacuees, the government said there was still no deadline to find permanent housing for all of them and that it was matching people with accommodation as quickly as possible.

Most of those evacuated had worked in Afghanistan for the British military or government and fled with little more than the clothes on their backs, traumatised by their experiences.

Large families are crowded into small rooms where they cannot cook their own food, and they do not know where or when they will be given a permanent home. Many said they felt eager but unable to restart their lives.

Despite the difficult circumstances, most Afghan refugees in Britain say they are deeply grateful for the chance at a safe future, with stable housing, ample food and access to medical care.

Still, Ms Becky Brook, a volunteer with Kensington and Chelsea Mutual Aid, a community group supporting refugees in West London, said the situation was not sustainable. Families are increasingly desperate to move on, among other reasons, because it is difficult for them to find work if they do not know where they will be living.

"Being in hotels long term is not healthy for anybody," she said.

For Mr Khalil Motawakel, 37, who was evacuated from Afghanistan in August, having a permanent home near London, where he has managed to find a job, would mean independence and security. As a former government minister, he was once responsible for overhauling Afghanistan's troubled prison system.

When it became clear that the Taliban were going to retake the country and free its supporters from prison, he knew he would be a target.

"Our lives were under deadly threat," he said.

Mr Motawakel, who earned a graduate degree in public policy at the University of Bristol in England, said he had dedicated his entire adult life to strengthening democratic systems in Afghanistan and never thought he would be forced to leave.

When he arrived in England in August, he was keen to immediately restart his life, and by November, he had found a job at an international public relations firm. Now, he commutes a few days a week to an office in London from his temporary home in a hotel an hour north of the city, where he lives with his wife and small child.

Khalil Motawakel, an Afghan refugee, at work at APCO Worldwide in London, on March 9, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

While they have all of the essentials, and he is grateful for the support, he is eager for permanence.

"You'd like to take some kind of ownership over your life," he said. "It's about the freedom of choice."

Groups that support refugees say the government system for absorbing migrants is flawed and underfunded. The Local Government Association, which represents local councils tasked with ensuring that the needs of Afghan families are met, has asked the government for better funding and coordination.

Last month, the government asked private landlords to register available properties on a relaunched housing portal. But the government's reluctance to pay market value for properties leaves limited options, said Ms Leyla Ferguson, deputy director of West London Welcome, a charity aiding refugees and asylum-seekers.

She said the government's failure to secure long-term housing was a problem for other asylum-seekers long before Afghan refugees arrived last year. About 25,000 asylum-seekers from different countries, in addition to the Afghan evacuees, are also housed in hotels, the government said in February.

Charities and veterans have often stepped in to fill the gaps left by government programs.

Volunteers from Kensington Mutual Aid bringing supplies to a church in London, where it will be distributed to refugees. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Matt Simmons, a veteran stationed in Afghanistan with the British Royal Air Force in the early 2000s, set up Ems4Afghans, a community aid group in southern England that provides support to the refugees still in hotels.

"It's going to be a long road," he said. "Naively, everyone thought when they first arrived that by December, everyone would be in houses soon."

Mr Simmons has helped a number of refugees, including Mr Eid, who praised him and other US and British former colleagues for their support.

Mr Eid had worked as a translator for British and US military forces and on a series of other internationally funded development projects for years beginning in 2005.

Recently, he travelled with his family to Lincoln, England, to visit a cousin. With his children on a school break, the journey was a welcome respite from monotonous hotel life. It was also a chance to share home-cooked meals that they had missed.

He described how he had savoured one of the meals in particular - a dish made of okra, vegetables and spices - that he had not had since leaving Afghanistan.

His children bounced on a trampoline while he spoke on a video call to his elder brother, who is in hiding in Afghanistan, and other family members there. The children leaned forward with wide smiles and waved when their grandmother came on the screen.

Mr Eid's daughter, Sahar, threw her arms around his neck, her dress flowing with each bounce. There is good here, he said, grateful to see his children in school and safe.

"I can imagine a bright future for my kids now," he said.

Another Afghan refugee, Mr Abdul Sultani, said his family was fortunate to have received permanent housing in November - a small house in northeast London.

Abdul Sultani, his wife and their three young children were resettled in a small house in North London. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"I am not here to just sit and watch. I am here to work," he said of the job he recently started teaching English. He sends some of the money he earns to his family in Afghanistan.

Mr Sultani, 33, worked as a translator with the British and US military. He said his children were beaten by members of the Taliban as they headed to the airport for their evacuation flight in August.

In the living room, his 4-year-old daughter blows bubbles that her younger sister pops, while he picks up a call: the local council offering English classes to his wife.

They are the reason he knew he had to leave Afghanistan, he said, and seeing that they have begun rebuilding their lives gives him solace.

"Still, it's not my home. I am just a guest here," he said. "But I will always act like a guest and try to be useful to them because they helped me."

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