It is two years since the UK evacuated British nationals from Afghanistan and Afghans who had worked for the UK government there, for example as interpreters.
The so-called ‘Operation Warm Welcome’ was set up to ensure that these refugees, who faced persecution and death in Afghanistan after helping British forces, received “the vital health, education, support into employment and accommodation they need to fully integrate into [UK] society.”
Resettlement schemes are slow and many have been left behind
The numbers fall considerably short of the government’s stated aims (20,000 under the ACRS alone). This compares with over 174,000 Ukrainians who have moved to the UK under the Homes for Ukraine and sponsorship schemes.
While More in Common welcomes the Afghan settlement schemes, they are critical of how slow the funding was to start. The schemes have also been criticised by expert groups such as Human Rights Watch as “arbitrary” and “unjustifiably restrictive”.
A recent defence select committee report showed that thousands of Afghans eligible under the schemes are still in Afghanistan and living in fear of their lives. Poor co-ordination between ministries and changes in eligibility criteria have compounded the problem.
It’s perhaps unsurprising then that Afghan refugees are the most common nationality arriving in small boats, with over 1,000 arriving in the first three months of 2023. These desperate asylum seekers face the very real threat of being deported under the recent Illegal Migration Act, however valid their claim.
Thousands are living in hotels or at risk of homelessness
More in Common are particularly critical of the government’s approach to accommodation for Afghan refugees, which they call “unacceptable”. Most of the Afghans who managed to escape to the UK have been housed in hotels for the past two years, often in cramped and unsuitable conditions.
From January this year, the government started to move families from London to often remote locations in the north of England, uprooting them from communities where they had started to rebuild their lives and disrupting the children’s education. But a High Court ruling found that the government did not act unlawfully.
Worse still, many families have now been evicted from hotel accommodation, with one in five presenting as homeless. Labour MP Dan Jarvis, who himself served in Afghanistan, calls the situation “shameful”, after the government promised Afghans who had helped British forces a safe haven in the UK. The local government association reports that this is understandably causing the families great “disruption and distress”.
Veterans minister Johnny Mercer responded: “Local authorities have had plenty of time to identify suitable accommodation…but this is also about Afghans helping themselves, and central government has put forward a £285m package to assist with this.” But research by More in Common highlights the difficulties that Afghan refugees face in trying to find permanent accommodation.
Many Afghan women are unable to rejoin British husbands
A further example of insensitive and uncaring government thinking is that Afghan women still stuck in Afghanistan are unable to reunite with their British-Afghan husbands because of English language requirements. These women are ineligible to apply for one of the resettlement schemes, where there is no language requirement.
This presents an almost insurmountable obstacle, because all English language test centres in Afghanistan have been closed by the Taliban and women’s education has now been banned.
MPs have criticised these barriers as “bureaucratic” and “inflexible”. Brighton MP Caroline Lucas, who has appealed to immigration minister Robert Jenrick on behalf of constituents, says: “The Home Office’s cruel and callous inflexibility on English language requirements is putting vulnerable refugees in danger and tearing families apart.”
The Home Office responded: “The UK has made an ambitious and generous commitment to help at-risk people in Afghanistan…We expect applicants to take these tests whenever possible but we will consider details of any exceptional circumstances for those unable to do so.”
Lucas’s constituent’s case was overturned after her intervention, but many other women remain trapped in Afghanistan, unable to obtain spousal visas.
Lessons must be learnt
Unsurprisingly, More in Common’s report concludes that Operation Warm Welcome “has not lived up to its potential”, though they acknowledge that around 10,000 Afghan refugees are now in permanent accommodation and able to start rebuilding their lives in the UK.
The researchers make a plea for better planning for more appropriate accommodation, in the short and longer term. They found that almost three-quarters of Homes for Ukraine hosts would be willing to support Afghan families, yet a similar scheme for Afghans has never been made available. A major recommendation of the report is that an extension to this model is made available to other refugee groups, with appropriate changes.
The study also highlights the crucial importance of integration support: “…from education and employment opportunities to cultural awareness and English language instruction.”
It’s surely the very least that the government can do to help Afghan refugees and their families, many of whom risked their lives to help British forces in Afghanistan.