Thousands of Afghan Refugee Families Stuck in Limbo With No Sign of Being Housed

Around 7,000 refugees are currently living in UK hotels with no idea when they will be offered a permanent solution to their status.
October 28, 2021, 2:49pm
Refugees from Afghanistan wait to be processed after arriving on a evacuation flight at Heathrow Airport on August 26, 2021
Refugees from Afghanistan wait to be processed after arriving on an evacuation flight at Heathrow Airport on August 26, 2021. Photo: Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images

On the 28th of August, Britain’s last military flight left Afghanistan, carrying the last of over 15,000 refugees back to the UK. These refugees, and their families, most of whom had worked for the British military in some capacity over the past 21 years, were ushered into the UK under the banner of “Operation Warm Welcome”. 

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But two months on, at least 7,000 are still living in UK hotels, and don’t know when they will be given permanent accommodation.

“We are still in a hotel in Manchester city,” Ali, who worked as an interpreter for UK soldiers in Afghanistan for four years, told VICE World News. “The main problem is our children: They have to go to school as soon as possible, they have to learn the language. They told us we could stay here up to the new year.” 

Ali said that he has been told by officials not to speak to the press, which is why he asked to speak under the condition of anonymity. Additionally, he was warned that keeping a low profile might protect refugees from “some racist people,” that might “make trouble for those people coming from Afghanistan.”

Rights groups have expressed concern for the mental wellbeing of refugees who are now living in limbo in the UK, unable to fully rebuild their lives without access to their own homes. Professor Sara de Jong – who petitioned for the rights of former interpreters ahead of the evacuation with the group she co-founded, the Sulha Alliance – said that some Afghans had been moved “from hotel to hotel with their young children, without any prospect of permanent accommodation.” 

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“The continued instability and insecurity is affecting their and their families mental health…they need some stability so they can start rebuilding their lives.”

 Shafi Almas’s journey to the UK with his mother, wife, and sister was a traumatic experience. “It was very hard to get out from Kabul,” he told VICE World News. “Everything was terrible in that time. I am one hundred percent certain that if we had been caught by them at that time, we would have been killed by them.”

For a year in 2009, Alma served as a translator for UK soldiers working in Afghanistan. He says that members of his tribe had passed his details on to the Taliban. “Everyone in my village, in my hamlet, knew about my job,” he said. “It’s a terrible story.”

The Taliban swept across rural Afghanistan over May, before taking a string of provincial capitals over the early summer, pushing aside an Afghan National Army that had been trained by the US-led coalition for over a decade. On the 12th of August, US intelligence officials warned that Kabul might fall to the Taliban, but said it could hold out for 90 days. Militants overran the city just three days later. 

In the rush to evacuate those who had served alongside foreign forces during Afghanistan’s war, some interpreters were left behind. “There were four gates at the airport and a huge rush,” said Alma. “At each gate, 5-6,000 people trying to get out.” On the 26th of August, a suicide bombing carried out at the airport by the IS–K group killed 180 people.

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Alma told VICE World News that he has been staying at a Manchester hotel with 300 other Afghans for over seven weeks, having quarantined in a London hotel after his evacuation in late August. 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “We are waiting from the Home Office. It might be after one month, it might be after two, it’s not clear, we don’t know.”

Alma is also waiting for his indefinite leave to remain status to come through, a UK immigration status that allows the bearer to take up employment or study in the UK without any time limit on their stay. Safi, who has trained as an electrician, says the approval is vital for him to start rebuilding his life. “I’d like to start working as an electrician in the UK,” he said. 

A spokesperson for the Home Office told VICE World News: “There is now a huge effort underway to get families into permanent homes, and temporarily accommodated in hotels have access to healthcare, education, any essential items they need and employment opportunities.”

But the spokesperson also said that local authorities needed “to come forward to provide accommodation for permanent homes so refugees can settle.”

However, a representative of Manchester City Council told VICE World News that councils “were not, and are not now managing any of the hotel accommodation nor the longer-term housing. This is being managed by the Home Office.” 

In a briefing paper shared with VICE World News, the council says that there “is no indication of how long” temporary accommodation will be used to house refugees. “We are therefore planning for this to be some time and are negotiating with the government to ensure our teams and the residents get the support they need.”

To de Jong, the current instability is a hallmark of an evacuation and resettlement process that was rushed, with the speed of Afghanistan’s collapse surprising experts. Many former translators for UK forces were only told they were eligible to come to the UK after Kabul collapsed. 

She told VICE World News that a “frustrated” caseworker in one local authority had told her that “with the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme, it was much smoother and as soon as they indicated they had accommodation, they got the families assigned.”

For people like Ali, Alma, and thousands of others, that wait for a permanent home – and the start of a new life – looks set to go on.