We are now two weeks into “Operation Warm Welcome”, the government’s initiative to help Afghan refugees rebuild their lives in Britain.
Some 8,000 evacuees, many of them children, are currently holed up in hotels across the country, waiting to hear what happens next for them.
They came here with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Everything they knew and loved before has been left behind. Their lives in Afghanistan must already feel worlds away from the daunting future that lies ahead.
Earlier this month Boris Johnson spoke of the “immense debt” we owe to those who worked with the British armed forces in Afghanistan. He promised them a warm welcome, ensuring refugees arriving in the UK under the Afghanistan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) would receive the vital support they need to rebuild their lives, find work, pursue education and integrate into their local communities.
But just days after Johnson and Priti Patel made promises to the brave Afghans who risked their lives to assist the British army, charities working on the ground reported the government’s response so far has been characterised by failure of communication, failure of provision, failure of delivery and failure of support.
Last week the Refugee Council revealed thousands of refugees were taken to quarantine hotels on their arrival in the UK, where many of them had no access to medicine, toiletries, sanitary products, baby food and nappies.
The organisation reported how some families had been left without cash for up to two weeks after being moved to temporary hotel accommodation following their quarantine period, forcing them to try to take essential items from shops without paying for them.
Some had been left without information about what was going to happen to them – such as a welcome or induction pack – and little understanding of the situation or the process.
Volunteers reported how there had been no support to help refugees make contact with family members left behind in Afghanistan, including children.
And there had been little or no resources for children cooped up in hotel accommodation, such as toys or craft materials, and limited access to outside play space.
Last Monday Blackheath Labour councillor Mariam Lovalar tweeted: “Just home from dropping culturally appropriate food for a pregnant Afghan woman in a local hotel, who hasn’t eaten properly in four days. Priti Patel, why am I doing your job for you? I am exhausted. Our volunteers are exhausted, Royal Borough of Greenwich staff are exhausted. All because we are filling the gaps in your utterly shambolic and shoddy offer.”
So this is what the British government calls a “warm welcome”. We should be angry, but sadly not surprised. It is characteristic of a government that prides itself on its “hostile environment” for those seeking refuge in this country to “forget” all about necessities such as nappies and sanitary products, and simple comforts such as toys for children who have just fled a war zone.
As thousands of Afghans begin to navigate their new lives in the UK at the mercy of Johnson’s government, it is vital that they are not just given basic provisions to survive, but everything they need to rebuild a life.