Expert comment: Is the 'warm welcome' for Afghan evacuees cooling down?

London Met academics Louise Ryan, Maria Lopez and Alessia Dalceggio react to the government's plan to end hotel accommodation for Aghan refugees.

Date: 28 March 2023

At the cost of £1 million per day, the Government plan to close down all 'bridging hotels’, announced today, comes as little surprise. Minister Johnny Mercer is right that it is "unacceptable and unsustainable" that thousands are still living in hotels.

Clearly, protracted temporary accommodation is far from ideal for anyone, especially for refugees who need to rebuild their lives from scratch in the UK. Long waiting times in hotels has caused uncertainty and insecurity for people who experienced trauma during the chaotic evacuation from Kabul airport in summer 2021.

Nonetheless, today’s announcement to discontinue support for hotel accommodation is not without risks and challenges.

With approximately 8,500 Afghans still in temporary hotel accommodation, over 18 months since the evacuation, today’s announcement raises pressing questions about where they will be housed.

There are also concerns that anyone refusing the offered accommodation will be forced to leave the hotel anyway leading to even more uncertainty and confusion.

However, as some of us have been pointing out for some time, this is largely a problem of the Government’s own making.

Since the Taliban take over in Afghanistan, approximately 12,500 Afghans arrived in the UK, through two government schemes: the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). These schemes, aimed at resettling Afghans who worked for the UK government/armed forces and other at-risk people (Home Office 2023).

At the time of the evacuation, many hotels in the UK were operating under capacity because of the pandemic. Thus, an apparently easy, short term solution was to house the newly arrived Afghan evacuees in these hotels. Many such hotels were located in central London and included high end such as 5 Star hotels.

It was very clear to anyone that this was not a long-term sustainable arrangement. In 2022, we undertook a research project in partnership with two Afghan community organisations in London, to understand the experiences of recently arrived people from Afghanistan. In 2023, we started a new project to understand how evacuees are getting on two years after leaving Afghanistan. In so doing, we examine how the Afghan resettlement schemes are working in practice. By early 2022, our report highlighted the challenges associated with re-housing so many evacuees in the midst of a housing crisis and already long waiting lists for accommodation across the city.

Nonetheless, our interviews with key informants emphasised some particular issues. Even when local authorities identified properties for Afghan families, many interviewees complained of long delays and complex bureaucratic processes when dealing with the Home Office.

While the government announcement today promises £35 million to support re-housing, this is only a small proportion of the money that has been spent on private hotels. As some of our key

informants noted, despite high costs, the government appears to favour working with private agencies, rather than coordinating with public bodies and statutory services. Instead of paying exorbitant sums of money into the pockets of private hoteliers, this funding could have been given to local authorities much sooner to invest in securing more cost-effective, long-term accommodation. Not only would such a strategy have saved money, it would also have given Afghans a more secure start to rebuilding their lives.

Today’s announcement has precedent. Since the summer of 2022, the Home Office has encouraged many hotel residents to find their own privately rented accommodation. However, this is difficult because private landlords are reluctant to rent to people on universal credit.

One of our research participants, Malala, a student in her 20s, followed Home Office advice and moved out of her central London hotel into private rented accommodation in an area of North London. However, several months later, she is now experiencing anxiety about not being able to afford the high costs:

‘I wish I knew the living situation before moving in’.

Malala found that she was unable to afford the high living costs in London and faced becoming homeless. Her experience is a salutary lesson for others leaving hotels.

So far, the Afghan resettlement schemes are providing time-limited support to help people adjust to living outside hotels. Local authorities are, in many cases, working hard to provide advice and support to new arrivals including access to language classes and help with opening bank accounts, setting up direct debts and dealing with fuel bills.

It is imperative that the government continues to honour its commitment to provide a ‘warm welcome’ for these evacuees especially as they move out of hotels in the midst of a cost of living crisis and soaring food costs. Without continued support, there is a real risk that Afghan families will face great financial hardship, poverty and even potential homelessness.

Title slide with expert comment with London Met academic