Council leaders are making contingency plans for thousands of refugees evacuated from Kabul to remain housed in hotel rooms for up to a year, while criticisising ministers for slow progress in finding long-term housing for people who fled Afghanistan.
More than two months after the airlift to the UK, about 7,000 refugees remain in hotel rooms and have been given no guidance about when permanent homes are likely to materialise.
Local government officials warn it is unsafe to keep large numbers of children in hotels on a long-term basis, and say the uncertainty is compounding the trauma they experienced when they fled with their families in August.
Launching Operation Warm Welcome at the end of August, Boris Johnson promised to support the 8,500 Afghan refugees who were brought to the UK to rebuild their lives in Britain. Committing the government to provide the support needed, he added: “We will never forget the brave sacrifice made by Afghans who chose to work with us, at great risk to themselves.”
However, council bosses in areas of the UK with refugees in about 80 hotels have complained that failures of planning and funding are making that welcome impossible to provide.
Although council leaders have expressed a desire to do everything they can to support the refugees, they list a number of complaints about the handling of the resettlement programme. Several councils said they had been given no advance notice that the Home Office was block-booking hotels in their area and were unable to start preparing services until refugees had already arrived.
Some said there was no support from the Home Office to perform immediate needs assessment on the arrivals after quarantine, and said there had been only one visit from Home Office staff in the course of six weeks. With no clarity about where the refugees will be housed in the longer term, organising school places has become complex.
One central London council has hired extra members of staff to work with the refugees in hotels on six-month contracts. “We’re planning for a year, to be honest. We don’t think it will be quick,” the official said, asking not to be named to avoid risking local tensions. Officials at another central London council said they had been told by the Home Office to expect to be housing refugees in hotels for nine months.
Some refugees have been housed in good hotels, while others have been placed in former student accommodation and inexpensive hostels described as “accommodation of last resort”. The hotels are becoming increasingly unsuitable for families as they cannot provide structured activity for children, , council staff warn.
“There are kids in lots of hotels with nothing to do; their mental health wellbeing is not being met, they are becoming frustrated and playing up. We could and should be doing better,” one charity worker said after visiting London hotels.
An official at one central London council said: “There seems to have been a complete breakdown of communication with local government. We were given only a few hours’ notice, or in some cases the refugees had already arrived in hotels before we knew they were coming. There was no one to check that people had milk and what they needed to feed their babies; we stepped in to provide that basic welcome. We are doing our best but we are really concerned about people’s health and wellbeing.”
Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle city council, who heads the Local Government Association taskforce on asylum, refugees and migration, said: “I get no sense that the government sees this as an urgent priority. I’m concerned that now they are in hotels they are out of sight and out of mind.”
Most refugees travelled with only a small bag, with little more than the clothes they were wearing when they left. Councils have been forced to set up Amazon wishlists calling for donors to help buy essential items such as children’s pyjamas and underwear.
Hotels are providing three meals a day and basic needs. Funding has been provided for NHS access, and extra money has been promised to pay for school places. A flat payment of £28 per person a day is due to be paid to councils for the initial resettlement period but has not yet come through. Officials are concerned that it will not be enough for to cover the social care, education, translation, winter clothing and refugees’ other needs. Most have brought no money with them and are hoping to start working.
About 4,000 of the refugees are being housed in hotels in London. Some of the hotels have a mix of tourists and refugees, while others only house Afghans.
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said finding long-term accommodation for 7,000 people was eminently possible even if just half of the UK’s 343 local authorities offered housing for 60 individuals. “That’s just 12 homes each – that should be doable, shouldn’t it?”
Georgia Gould, the chair of London councils and leader of Camden council, said: “As London boroughs we are determined to welcome people who have been though a traumatic situation but we have been really disappointed by the lack of planning and communication from the Home Office.”
Elizabeth Campbell, the leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, paid tribute to the wave of voluntary support for refugees in the borough and said: “We need the Home Office to match this effort on the ground urgently … The UK-wide rehousing effort needs to gather pace.”
A government spokesperson said: “The UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history helped bring over 15,000 people from Afghanistan to safety in the UK. There is now a huge effort under way to get families into permanent homes so they can settle and rebuild their lives, and to ensure those still temporarily accommodated in hotels have access to healthcare, education, any essential items they need and employment opportunities or universal credit.”
A government website has been created to help process offers of support from the public.