Thousands of Afghan Refugees Face an Uncertain Future in the UK
For several weeks in September 2021, our news media covered the plight of Afghani nationals desperately trying to escape the new oppressive Taliban regime, which immediately filled the vacuum left behind after US troops left the country. In the last few weeks, however, the media has moved on to new stories, leaving some to perhaps suppose that those who needed refuge were successful and have now been successfully resettled. In the UK, over 15,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan in September, and around 7,000 of these were given temporary emergency accommodation, many of whom face a deeply uncertain future here. In this article, we will take a look at the current situation facing thousands of Afghani refugees in the UK and two Afghan national resettlement schemes (ACRS and ARAP).
What is the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS)?
The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS) was put in place by the Home Office to provide protection for many Afghani citizens identified as at-risk who need protection in the UK. According to the Home Office, the scheme will prioritise the protection of:
- · those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and rule of law
- · vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk, and members of minority groups at risk (including ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT+)
The Home Office is aiming to bring 5,000 to the UK in the first year and up to 20,000 in the following years. To identify those who need protection in the UK, they say they will work closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Before this, however, the Home Office advise they will review the cases of those who came to the UK under the recent emergency evacuation programme as this will be the first cohort who will be settled here under ACRS.
The ACRS differs from the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP).
What is the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP)?
The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) is a scheme that is specifically intended to help current and former locally employed staff (i.e. Afghan nationals employed by the UK government in Afghanistan). The scheme prioritises those eligible according to their cohort:
Category 1 High risk / imminent threat: Urgent relocation – includes those with an imminent threat to life
Category 2 Eligible for relocation by default: Routine relocation – includes those who were employed by HMG in exposed meaningful enabling roles. Or those who were contracted to provide linguistic services in support of the UK Armed Forces.
Category 3 Not eligible for relocation: Other support offered – includes those who are neither assessed to be at high and imminent risk of threat to life nor eligible by default due to holding exposed meaningful enabling roles.
Category 4 Special cases: Case-by-case basis – includes those in extraordinary and unconventional contexts.
What has happened to the Afghani nationals who were evacuated to the UK?
Under Operation Warm Welcome, the Home Office has placed many thousands of Afghan nationals in temporary accommodation across the UK, mainly in hotels. According to the Home Office, Operation Warm Welcome will provide support “similar to the commitments in the Syrian Resettlement Programme and ensure that those who worked closely with the British military and UK Government in Afghanistan and risked their lives in doing so, get the vital health, education, support into employment and accommodation they need to fully integrate into society”.
In terms of numbers, around 7,000 Afghan refugees were recently placed into hotels, but this is in addition to around 8,000 asylum seekers already in hotels. The 7,000 includes approximately 70 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, of whom 16 are under 16 years old.
The reality is that those placed into hotel accommodation, including those families with children and living in a single room, may be unable to move to more suitable housing for many months. At the end of September, Matthew Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, said the department hoped to rehouse some people within two months but added that “clearly for some people, it will take a lot longer”.
According to Patricia Hayes from the Home Office, around 100 local authorities have come forward to offer assistance in the form of permanent housing, but she said that more need to come forward to assist; “We can’t at the minute put a date on when we’re going to get people out of hotels. I think we all really just want to do it as quickly as possible”.
The challenge is that even without the recent sudden influx of vulnerable Afghan nationals to the UK, the processing time for asylum applications was already around one year, and hence it is possible this time will increase further as existing Home Office resources are stretched further. To assist, the Home Office aims to increase the number of caseworkers by around 1,000.
In the meantime, according to some in hotel accommodation, they are unable to leave, their children are unable to play outside of their rooms, and there is a general lack of support available. According to one GP who has been working with newly arrived Afghani citizens, who spoke to the Guardian, “I’ve had a few patients telling me they want to go home. One guy, who was 67, kept saying: ‘I can’t take this anymore. I have to get out of this [hotel] room.’….Another said: ‘I just want my freedom from the hotel.’ I had to put him on medication, and his wife, because they were so upset”.
In response, the Home Office has stated, “The UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history helped over 15,000 people to safety, and hotels remain a temporary measure to help accommodate those we brought here. It is going to take time to find permanent homes for everyone, but we are working urgently with our partners to do so. Our aim is to support everyone who is resettled here to build a successful life in the UK, and that is why we work around the clock to provide wrap-around support to families. This includes working closely with local authorities across the UK to ensure everyone temporarily accommodated in hotels has access to essential provisions, healthcare, education and universal credit.”
Evacuating vulnerable Afghani nationals is one thing, but providing the support and permanent housing they need in the coming months will be a genuine challenge to all concerned. A joined-up approach involving the Home Office, local authorities, charities and other stakeholders will be needed to ensure that everyone is given the help they need as soon as possible.