Afghan mother-of-two says living in London hotel ‘like a prison’ amid affordable housing shortage

Afghan mum Zahra Shaheer, 32, spent six months in a hotel before moving to a home  (Elena Heatherwick for the IRC)
Afghan mum Zahra Shaheer, 32, spent six months in a hotel before moving to a home (Elena Heatherwick for the IRC)

A single mother of two who fled Afghanistan when Kabul fell to the Taliban says living in a Watford hotel for six months was “like a prison”.

Former television news anchor Zahra Shaheer is one of thousands of Afghan refugees who have lived in hotels for months on end while waiting for permanent accommodation.

“When you say to someone, ‘I lived in a hotel for six months’ maybe they might think ‘Wow [what a] luxury’, but it’s not the same,” Zahra told the Standard.

“It’s like a prison for families who are refugees and who come to a new place.”

While Zahra was eventually provided a home in Buckinghamshire with her two children, there are still 9,242 Afghan refugees living in 63 hotels across the UK, according to the latest Home Office figures. Around half are children.

In London, wait times are exacerbated by a “severe affordable housing shortage” that “continues to be a major hindrance to the resettlement programme”, London Councils executive member for communities Councillor Claire Holland said.

The Home Office has not disclosed how many Afghan refugees are living in hotels in the capital, but it is working with more than 350 local authorities to find long-term accommodation across the UK.

More than 2,000 properties are required so families can move out of hotels and into homes.

London Metropolitan University Professor Louise Ryan, who researched the experience of Afghan migrants in London, said some are “starting to lose hope” and feel “they’ve been forgotten”.

“They just felt very powerless, they had no control over their futures,” she told the Standard.

Zahra is grateful to have a home, but said it was difficult as a “free woman”, single mum and female activist to live closely with other Afghan refugees “with different ideas”.

Schooling was disrupted for six months for her daughter.

“As I am a single mum, it was difficult for me to resettle in the new country. And sometimes you can see the inequality in the UK,” she explained.

“I had a good career in my country, now I’m jobless. So the [Home Office] should think about these things as well.”

Zahra is speaking to MPs in Parliament later this month at an International Rescue Committee (IRC) event about how the government can support more tailored integration for refugees, such as recognising their qualifications.

Councillor Holland said “far too many Afghan refugees are still living in hotel accommodation arranged by the Home Office”.

“This is an unsustainable situation, particularly for the many families with children we’re supporting, and boroughs want to see Afghan refugees moved into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

“The experience of the Afghan evacuation but also the work to resettle Ukrainians and asylum-seekers and refugees from elsewhere has demonstrated beyond doubt that councils have a crucial role to play, but too often we lack the resources we need.

“Although we’re relieved the government has listened to our concerns and clarified future funding arrangements for the Homes for Ukraine Scheme while also announcing extra funding to help acquire more refugee housing, these pressures – including the chronic shortage of affordable accommodation in the capital – are not going away anytime soon.

“Boosting boroughs’ funding over the long term and improving our ability to access suitable housing would undoubtedly make a positive difference.”

Zahra Shaheer, 32, fled Afghanistan with her two children in 2021 (Elena Heatherwick for the IRC)
Zahra Shaheer, 32, fled Afghanistan with her two children in 2021 (Elena Heatherwick for the IRC)

The affordable housing shortage in London is compounded with the fact that many refugees prefer to live in the capital.

Ms Ryan said “almost all” of the Afghan refugees she spoke to during her research wanted to remain in London, rather than being rehoused in other parts of the UK.

“Many of them had now started English language classes, and they started going to college. Their children who were very young and recovered from this trauma were just getting used to school,” she said.

“One of the families was subsequently moved to Hull where they knew nobody. They had to start from scratch getting the kids back into school again, so it’s just that sense of complete powerlessness and disruption.”

Ms Ryan suggested funding be given to local authorities in London to renovate empty private homes instead of being put in the hands of hoteliers.

To address the problem, the government announced an assisted departures policy, or a “refusals policy”, where if households in Afghan bridging hotels do not accept two “appropriate” settled housing offers, they may be given 56 days notice to leave hotels.

Under the Enhanced Matching Process, families are given two accommodation offers which take into account their key needs and essential services like schools.

Homes have already been provided for nearly 7,600 Afghan evacuees. The Home Office and DLUHC are contacting landlords, property developers and RightMove to encourage further offers of homes.

A government spokesperson said: “The UK has made one of the largest commitments to support Afghans of any country and, so far, we have brought almost 23,000 vulnerable people to safety, including thousands of people eligible for our Afghan relocation schemes.

“Supporting the resettlement of eligible Afghans remains a top priority and we continue to work with the UNHCR, likeminded partners and countries neighbouring Afghanistan to support their safe passage here.”

Councils also have powers to bring empty properties back into use - they can increase council tax by up to 300 per cent on long-term empty properties, take over empty homes by Compulsory Purchase Orders and Empty Dwelling Management Orders, and convert commercial buildings to residential without the need for a full planning application.