Afghan refugees can soon expect Britain’s warm welcome to turn into cold comfort

For a brief moment, it would appear that the UK isn’t quite so “full up”, as the government launches Operation Warm Welcome to relocate refugees from Afghanistan. As the name – evocative of bold military action in the face of the Taliban’s triumph – suggests, this change in attitude is a result of a unique combination of guilt, media attention and a sort of colonial obligation to help those who helped us.

There will be photos of grateful families arriving in the UK, and earnest promises from politicians that Britain will do its part. But soon these headlines will fade; and as Afghanistan recedes from our consciousness, those we have let in will be left to the cold business of building a life in the UK.

In the war movie script of the Taliban’s dramatic takeover, the film ends with the British showing compassion and selflessness by saving thousands of lives. But once the credits roll and the audience leaves, no attention will be paid to what comes after the welcome. Refugees will soon find that Britain’s generosity extends little further than the point of entry.

What awaits is another trial. In addition to the ravages of relocation, there will be the distress of navigating an immigration system that is cruel and chaotic. Refugees will come up against the intersection of the two most compromised institutions in the country – a punitive Home Office and underfunded local councils.

Already the cracks are beginning to appear. About 10,000 Afghan refugees are currently housed in quarantine hotels across the UK, with little but the bags they were allowed to carry on to the evacuation flights. The infrastructure that has met them has been – as any refugee, immigrant or asylum seeker in the UK will immediately recognise – mostly informal, voluntary and, in the long term, utterly unsustainable.

A lattice of nongovernmental organisations and volunteers has kept the reception going so far. The Afghan charity the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association, based in west London, has been overwhelmed by requests for basic provisions and legal advice, and arranging foster care for unaccompanied minors. Its founder, Nooralhaq Nasimi, came to the UK as a refugee in 1999 and set up the organisation to help others navigate the challenges he and his family faced. His small team of volunteers is stretched and on its own. “Unfortunately we didn’t get any support from the council or the government,” he told me.

Once the evacuees are out of quarantine, they will almost certainly run into housing scarcity, bureaucratic holdups and poor translation services, despite the high-profile pledges of funding. For every shortcut the government manages to make, a barrier is raised. Westminster is constantly making promises the Home Office can’t keep.

Take the decision to give high-risk Afghans resettled in the UK indefinite leave to remain, an open-ended immigration status that allows them to work in the UK and eventually apply for a British passport. Their visas will be processed and fast-tracked without fees; they will be exempt from some of the usual paperwork requirements, and come with exceptional banking privileges allowing refugees to open bank accounts that enable them to work without permanent addresses.

But the system is not joined up in that way, and so applicants will themselves have to ping-pong between bank, employer, Home Office and local council. They will in all probability have to do so from temporary accommodation. Hotel stays will have to be extended until housing stock is secured. “Bridging solutions”, such as military barracks run by private companies, will serve in transition. The first state Afghan evacuees can expect after their arrival is a limbo of waiting.

In this limbo, they will join – despite the immediate political attention and fast-tracking of their entries – the other thousands of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants who roll through the crucible of Britain’s settlement system. In it they will risk harassment from the far right inside their temporary accommodation, and experience deterioration of their mental health, as well as lack of access to healthcare.

The Afghan evacuation had to happen suddenly, but even if there were time, the settlement difficulties would have been inevitable. Years of intentional policy have created an immigration and asylum network that allocates as few resources as possible to those within, from allowing local authorities to veto Home Office requests to house asylum seekers to shifting the legal load of challenging unjust decisions rejecting settlement on to stretched charities.

The heroics of helping the dispossessed, both on the part of the government and the thousands of British people who are sending in donations, are in sharp contrast to the usual status quo – indifference to the plight of asylum seekers at best, and hostility towards them at worst. The focus on the large gestures of saving our helpers from the villainous Taliban allows us to see the British as heroes. But some of the moral outrage that triggered that epic effort to help those in desperate need of relief should be directed internally. Saving a life is not enough if it is then sentenced to languish in the purgatory of process. Soon Britain’s warm welcome will freeze into a cold reception.

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