“We’re a big hearted nation” were foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s exact words when asked how many Afghan refugees would be welcomed into the country following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. It was a response that avoided answering the question and advanced the myth that Britain’s attitude towards refugees is defined by tolerance and compassion.
Subsequent events have made clear the absurdity of this claim. Two months after evacuations began, thousands of refugees remain stuck in cramped hotel rooms with poor access to healthcare, education and other essentials.
Operation Warm Welcome – the cross-government effort launched to help Afghan refugees “rebuild their lives” – has been welcoming in name only. Despite having fled conflict and persecution, arrivals from Afghanistan have been treated with disregard by a government that purports to be a benevolent force in times of crisis.
As proven by the suffering of refugees around the country, this self-portrayal is dishonest in the extreme. Following an initial stint in hotels due to the Covid quarantine process, it was expected that refugees would then be placed in suitable accommodation and given the chance to establish a new life in the UK.
But as it stands, a number of local authorities are preparing for refugees to remain in hotels for up to a year, with government ministers coming under increasing criticism for failing to find long-term housing. Steve Valdez-Symonds, director of the refugee and migrant rights programme at Amnesty International in the UK, said: “It’s deeply frustrating to see the UK’s efforts to assist at-risk Afghans moving at a snail’s pace.”
Such is the uncertainty surrounding when they can leave that a number of Afghan refugees have declared themselves homeless in the hope it will see them placed in accommodation more quickly.
Unsurprisingly, being stuck somewhere for an indefinite length of time takes a severe toll on mental health. One doctor, herself an Afghan refugee, treated patients who asked to be sent back to Afghanistan rather than spend another day inside the hotel. Others had to be placed on medication due to their emotional distress.
Compounding these problems is inadequate access to healthcare. Numerous charities and advocacy groups have raised concerns about the lack of clarity surrounding entitlements, with a number of contractors at hotels unaware that they are responsible for helping refugees register with GPs.
This has disastrous consequences. In one instance, a malnourished child was found who had not yet been registered with health authorities, shedding light on the extent to which families have been left to suffer in silence.
In Sheffield, a five-year-old boy fell to his death from a hotel window – a tragedy that highlights the danger of using hotels instead of appropriate accommodation for extended periods of time. Basic rights are out of reach. In some cases, refugees have been allowed just 15 minutes of fresh air per day, and have had to book it hours in advance with the hotel reception.
But despite the shocking nature of these experiences, they ought to come as no surprise. Successive governments have introduced a raft of hostile immigration policies, all linked by the purpose of making life intentionally and unnecessarily difficult for refugees and migrants.
In recent months, this has been clear through the unveiling of the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill, which seeks to criminalise asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via “unauthorised routes”. This is despite the government’s own legislation creating an absence of authorised routes in the first place.
The bill will place any Afghan refugees who arrive in the UK independently of the official resettlement scheme in breach of the law, and therefore at risk of removal – a staggering situation given that the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme is yet to officially open.
Even if they are able to remain in the country, they will be subject to the “no recourse to public funds” condition and will be without crucial statutory support. The withdrawal of public funds for refugees granted temporary protection is a key facet of the bill, and will increase the pressure on charities such as Migrant Destitution Fund Greater Manchester – which provides grants to destitute migrants – to act as a lifeline.
Regardless of whether an Afghan refugee gains a place on the official resettlement scheme, they could face a life of destitution and misery on arrival in the UK. A thorough rethink of the government’s attitude towards, and treatment of refugees is needed. An apt starting point would be a degree of realism regarding the notion of Britain as a “big hearted nation”.
Cameron Boyle is a media officer for a leading charity and a Migrant Destitution Fund volunteer