Imagine fleeing a war-torn country where your family is under threat, beginning to settle in a school in London and then being forcibly uprooted again to other parts of the country, where you have to change schools and make new friends again. This is the heartbreaking situation facing hundreds of Afghan children who fled the Taliban and arrived in the UK through the Afghan resettlement scheme eighteen months ago.
In August 2021 around 10,000 Afghans, who had helped British forces in Afghanistan, were evacuated with their families under Operation Pitting. Nearly two years on, most of them are still living in ‘bridging’ hotels, mainly in London. Now the government is starting to move these families to hotels further north. More than 40 families, with 150 children, who have been living for over a year in west London, are being moved to the outskirts of Leeds, causing another major upheaval in their already displaced lives.
Forcing children to change schools disrupts their education, especially mid-year, and some Afghan refugees are understandably resisting the moves. Over 120 adults and children protested in Downing Street and said they would refuse to leave their London hotel. These include the families of former British translators, interpreters and security personnel, who were under threat of reprisals if they stayed in Afghanistan.
A group of Afghan refugees forcibly moved from London to the north took the government to court in January, as their children could not find a suitable school to continue their GCSE studies. One of the girls, Marzia, said: “They told us they were going to put us in a good school. They broke their promise.”
The family is awaiting the outcome of the court case, but in the meantime Maria is currently having online lessons from teachers at her former London school, Ark Walworth Academy. School principal Jessica West commented:
“What is difficult is to see them move from a situation that was precarious, that we did everything we could to try and shore up for them, to another situation that isn’t permanent and is just as precarious.”
Two other Afghan teenage girls will be unable to take their GCSEs because they are being moved north without guaranteed school places. Zara had arrived in England with no English, had worked extremely hard and was due to take exams in English, maths and science. She and her headteacher Victoria Tully are understandably heartbroken.
Head of Fulham girls’ school, Tully was vociferous in her criticism of the move:
“These children have overcome unbelievable adversity, and despite living in a horrible hotel their work ethic has been through the roof. To take their GCSEs away seems barbaric.”
Young children’s education has also been affected by the enforced moves. Hamidullah Khan, a former parliamentary adviser in Kabul, who was evacuated to the UK with his family, said his five-year-old son Ibrahim had no school place in Yorkshire, despite promises.
Operation ‘warm welcome’?
The experiences of these refugees and their supporters contradict the official government position. Veterans minister Johnny Mercer told MPs that the education and welfare needs of Afghan families were being met:
“Operation Warm Welcome has ensured all those relocated to the UK through safe and legal routes have been able to access the vital health, education and employment support they need to integrate into our society.”
Yet at the same time, Mercer told refugee families that if they turned down the offer of a move to alternative accommodation, they would not be offered a second chance. He commented:
“Whilst this government realises our significant responsibilities to this cohort, there is a responsibility upon this group to take the opportunities that are offered under these schemes and integrate into UK society.”
The government’s position has been heavily criticised. Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, stated: “This is not how those who were promised a warm welcome in the UK should be treated.” He warned that there was a danger of families being left homeless if they did not move before the deadline.
Treated ‘like cattle’
“Everything about this is wrong. Traumatised young people who are succeeding despite all the odds against them are having their education sabotaged.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said:
“Most families have not been made an offer of a suitable home…Even if they get an offer, it could be anywhere in the country, forcing them to give up their jobs, take their children out of school and leave their support networks behind.”
There is a horrible irony that many young women, unable to go to school in Afghanistan, are having their schooling in the UK jeopardised by the cruel and short-sighted policies of the government.
On top of this, the government has slashed funding to support vulnerable girls and women in Afghanistan, is making it even harder for Afghan refugees to come to the UK legally, and is likely to deport young Afghans who flee the Taliban and arrive in the UK in small boats. This is nothing short of a betrayal.