A year on, thousands of Afghan refugees languish in UK hotels

Problems in finding homes are exacerbated by Britain's chronic housing shortage. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - 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 the 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 organisation 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 criticising the local authorities on whom they relied.

Jahan, 47, 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 that it was costing US$1.47 million (S$2 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.

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 too, 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 the 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.

But Ms 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 seven-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 mould 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.

Ms 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, 33, said living in a small room with their two young sons had been enormously stressful, especially when trying to work.

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