Louise Ryan, Maria Lopez and Alessia Dalceggio
In the summer of 2021, both the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and Home Secretary, Priti Patel, promised a ‘warm welcome’ for refugees evacuated from Kabul airport and brought to the UK under the Afghan resettlement scheme. Meanwhile, Afghans were also among the largest groups arriving in small boats on British shores. Thus, in both political and media discourse, Afghans were simultaneously praised as heroic allies of Britain in Afghanistan and vilified as an invading ‘swarm’ of ‘illegal’ migrants (Lopez and Ryan, 2023).
Over recent years the government has introduced a raft of immigration measures to address the humanitarian crisis following wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Yet, it seems that such schemes are rushed through on an ad-hoc basis, without any obvious evaluation of their effectiveness and with little evidence that the government is learning any lessons from these resettlement programmes.
Against the backdrop of the ‘hostile environment’, whereby the government is primarily concerned with attempting to control and reduce migration, there seems little appetite to develop effective schemes to support refugees (see contributions by Erel et al; Reynolds et al and D’Angelo in this special issue). When wider geo-political events force the government to act quickly, as in the case of the Afghan evacuation, the results appear chaotic, ill-planned and extremely expensive.
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 (Ryan et al, 2022). In 2023, we started a new project to understand how evacuees are getting on two years after leaving Afghanistan (Ryan et al 2023). We examine how the Afghan resettlement schemes are working in practice.
In this article, we begin by briefly reviewing the government’s recent immigration policies, focusing specifically on the Afghan resettlement schemes, and on the protracted periods that evacuees have spent in temporary hotel accommodation. We then present the stories of some research participants to illustrate the impact of such prolonged insecurity. We conclude by arguing for a more coordinated, efficient and effective approach to supporting refugees by properly evaluating previous schemes and learning lessons across these programmes.
A broken asylum system
The UK asylum system has been described as shambolic, ‘broken’ and chronically dysfunctional. Under the hostile environment, the development of policies and legislations that criminalise and stigmatise people seeking asylum, such as the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and the pursuit of forced removal policies (e.g. Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda – see also Blitz in this special issue), led to a “significant regression” in the protection of people seeking safety in the UK (Commissioner for Human Rights 2022).
Meanwhile, inefficiency and understaffing in the Home Office caused a dramatic increase in the backlog of cases with 166,000 people awaiting decision, two-thirds of whom have been waiting for more than six months. These protracted waiting times impact not only on the mental and physical health of applicants, but are also extremely costly. In 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak admitted the cost to accommodate asylum seekers in hotels was £5.5 million a day (Institute for Government 2023).
In an attempt to clear the backlog, the PM announced a new ‘fast track’ system, which will apply to people coming from countries with a 95% asylum grant rate, i.e. Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Under this widely criticised system, 12,000 people will forgo the customary asylum interview and will instead receive an allegedly lengthy and complex form to be completed with evidence of their asylum claim. This system will affect those Afghans who are currently in the asylum system.
However, it was understood that Afghans would be resettled through specific schemes under the government’s ‘Warm Welcome’ operation, i.e. 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, have to date granted Indefinite Leave to Remain to 12,527 individuals, 6,235 under ARAP and 6,292 ACRS Pathway 1 respectively (Home Office 2023). Although the government claimed the focus of ACRS would be on people who remain in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, so far only 22 people have been resettled under Pathway 2; meanwhile, the number of Afghans arriving in the UK through unsafe routes, including cross-Channel migration, amounted to 8,633 in 2022 (The Guardian 2023).
Instead of finding sustainable solutions to address the shortcomings and deficiencies of the asylum system, as well as providing functional safe routes of passage, the government is continually establishing new, seemingly improvised, resettlement schemes, without a proper evaluation of their impact. We argue that such measures highlight a lack of long-term strategy in relation to asylum and humanitarian response and instead reinforce the government’s commitment to the hostile environment.
Life in Hotels
While those evacuated from Kabul Airport in August 2021 were moved to bridging hotels, including 5 stars hotels in central London which were empty due to the pandemic, Afghans who arrived around the same time, via unofficial routes, were accommodated in ‘contingency hotels’, often cheaper and lower quality accommodation, with far fewer support services (Ryan et al, 2022). One of our key informants from a local authority suggested that these processes have created ‘two types of Afghans’ when, in reality, there is no difference between them:
‘while those living in bridging hotels will be allowed to work and claim benefits… the others are stuck in limbo, in a hotel where meals are provided with £8 a week’.
Our study participants in bridging hotels expressed their gratitude to British authorities for providing accommodation in comfortable hotels in nice areas of London. There was also praise for NGOs promptly mobilising to assist new arrivals. Visiting bridging hotels, we observed NGOs, including Afghan organisations, providing advice and support.
However, as months passed, participants became increasingly concerned about being moved around the country from one hotel to another at short notice. For example, Liqman, who was living in a hotel room with his pregnant wife, heard from the Home Office that they may be relocated to other hotels in Aberdeen, Leeds or Manchester because London hotels were very expensive. Indeed, through follow up emails, we found that many interviewees had been moved to hotels outside London at short notice disrupting their study and work plans, as illustrated below.
When we completed our first round of interviews in the summer of 2022, both our participants and ourselves were surprised that people were still in temporary hotel accommodation 12 months since the evacuation.
At the start of 2023, 18 months since the evacuation, the numbers of Afghans still remaining in hotels was around 9,000. There is clearly a push from government to remove people from expensive, central London hotels. However, rather than housing people in permanent accommodation, there is evidence that many Afghans are being moved to cheaper hotels in other parts of the country. The Guardian recently reported that 40 Afghan families, who had lived for 18 months in a Kensington hotel, were given only a few weeks’ notice that they were to be moved to another hotel near Leeds, which meant that 150 children suddenly had to move schools.
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. Moreover, there is a lack of available properties, especially for larger families, due to the as London already has a housing crisis in London.
The lack of transparency and information from the Home Office about when they might move out of hotels caused issues and further worries among our participants. Slow processing times and uncertainty added to our participants’ anxieties about having left their home country hastily, leaving family and close friends behind. The speed of the evacuation has meant rapid and dramatic changes in our participants’ lives. Nasreen, a law student in her 20s, explained that she tried to keep herself busy to avoid getting too anxious about her situation:
‘In Afghanistan, I was always busy with my training, my studies … It is so hard for you and it’s a new country, new people, nobody is friendly to you… I try to continue and work hard. I try to move forward.’
In March 2023, we followed up with another participant, Liloma, a Hazara woman in her 30s who was evacuated alone. Eighteen months later, she is still living in a hotel. In July 2022 Liloma was moved from her central London accommodation to a cheaper hotel in a small commuter town, south of the capital. Liloma has tried to rebuild her life, attending a course run by a nearby college and securing a job working in the local hospital.
Moreover, Liloma is also desperate to be reunited with her young son. When she was evacuated in 2021, her child stayed behind with her estranged husband, who at that time, was reluctant to let the son leave. Now, as conditions worsen in Afghanistan, especially for the Hazara minority community, her husband has finally relented and agreed that the boy can join his mother in the UK. Liloma hopes her son will be able to come through the ACRS programme, but the process is extremely slow, complex and bureaucratic. Liloma has been waiting many months for a Home Office decision about her son without any indication of when the outcome will be known.
Moreover, Liloma is aware that her stay in the hotel, albeit protracted, is temporary. In line with recent Home Office policy, she has been advised to find her own privately rented accommodation. Liloma is keen to stay in that area to be close to her new job, however private rentals in her town are high and well beyond what she can afford on her salary; as a result, she feels caught in a financial bind.
Malala, a student in her 20s, followed Home Office advice and moved to private rented accommodation in London. However, she informed us, she is now experiencing anxiety about not being able to afford the high costs:
‘I wish I knew the living situation before moving in’.
Our findings highlight that hastily planned, ad-hoc refugee policies are not efficient or effective from a financial perspective, while also heavily impacting on people’s ability to make any plans for their future. Despite high costs, the government appears to favour working with private agencies, rather than coordinating with public bodies and statutory services. Keeping Afghan evacuees in hotels is costing around £1 million per day; instead of being paid into the pockets of private hoteliers, this funding could have been given to local authorities 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. Lack of sustainable solutions, coupled with a lack of transparency and information about relocation outside of hotels, add to the protracted uncertainty and anxiety experienced by our Afghan participants.
Issues related to displacement and resettlement are complex and require thoughtful planning. There is an urgent need to learn lesson. Of course, as the recent events in Ukraine illustrate, it is not always possible to predict when and where the next humanitarian crisis will occur. Nonetheless, history has a habit of repeating itself. During the 1960s and 1970s thousands of Asian migrants arrived in the UK fleeing the Amin administration in Uganda (including the parents of Priti Patel). Beyond the ideology of ‘hostile environment’ and the apparent determination to reduce migration, the reality is that, in the coming decades, wider geopolitical events, as well as the climate crisis, are likely to increase the number of displaced people in the world. Therefore, it makes sense to plan ahead and be ready to address these challenges instead of pretending they can simply be legislated to go away.
López, María E., and Louise Ryan. ““What are you doing here?”: Narratives of border crossings among diverse Afghans going to the UK at different times.” Frontiers in Sociology 8 (2023): 1-11.
Ryan, Louise, Maria Lopez and Alessia Dalceggio (2022) Afghan Migrants in London: Accessing Support in Hostile Times.
Ryan, Louise, Maria Lopez and Alessia Dalceggio (2023) An evaluation of the Syrian and Aghan resettlement programmes in Islington.
Louise Ryan is Senior Professor of Sociology and Director of the Global Diversities and Inequalities Research Centre at London Metropolitan University. She has been researching migration for over twenty years and during that time has published numerous highly cited articles in leading international journals. In 2015 she was awarded a Fellowship of the Academy of Social Sciences for her contribution to migration research. Her books include Gendering Migration (with Webster, 2008), Migrant Capital (with Erel and D’Angelo, 2015) and her most recent monograph is Social Networks and Migration (2023). Louise is currently chair of the British Sociological Association.
María López is a Reader in Sociology at the School of Social Sciences and Professions and Deputy Director of the Global Diversities and Inequalities Research Centre at London Metropolitan University. She is deeply committed to voicing the needs of gendered, sexualised and racialised communities in hostile global environments, such as the LGBTQ+ community in Cuba, women migrants in Mexico, and Afghan and Syrian refugees in the UK. She is the author of journal articles, book chapters and two books, Homosexuality and Invisibility in Revolutionary Cuba (Tamesis, 2015) and Gender Violence in Twenty-First-Century Latin American Women’s Writing (Tamesis, 2022), co-authored with Stephen M. Hart.
Alessia Dalceggio is a PhD student at the School of Social Sciences and Professions and an awardee of the Vice-Chancellor PhD Scholarship at London Metropolitan University. Alessia’s research focuses on the experiences of forced migrant students in higher education and how they navigate the hostile environment.
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TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:
Ryan, Louise, Maria Lopez and Alessia Dalceggio 2023. ‘Leaving Kabul – what happens next? The experiences of recently arrived Afghans in London during hostile times’ Discover Society: New Series 3 (2):