Afghan refugees settled in London told to uproot families and move 200 miles

<span>Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian

Hundreds of Afghan refugees who settled in London after fleeing the Taliban 18 months ago have been told they have only weeks to uproot and move 200 miles away, the Guardian can reveal.

The Home Office has told 40 families with 150 children who have lived for more than a year in Kensington, west London, that they must leave the capital for another hotel in Wetherby, on the outskirts of Leeds.

Some of the refugees, who include a former Afghan general and former British army translators, say they will refuse to go because their children, already traumatised by war and displacement, will suffer again by being forced to drop out of their schools.

Others have found jobs in London and are concerned they will not find work in West Yorkshire.

It comes amid deepening concerns that the home secretary, Suella Braverman, has failed to uphold promises made by Boris Johnson to support Afghans who worked and fought alongside the UK in Afghanistan.

The government aims to move all Afghan families out of hotels by the end of this year, according to briefings given to local councils. An estimated 9,000 Afghans are still living in temporary accommodation in the UK 18 months after being evacuated from Afghanistan under Operation Pitting. Western forces withdrew and the Taliban took power in August 2021.

The families resisting a move to Wetherby were evacuated to the UK because a family member worked alongside the British authorities. They are currently housed in a four-star hotel near the Victoria and Albert Museum. Last week, some received letters telling them they must move to the Mercure hotel in Wetherby.

Hamidullah Khan, a former parliamentary adviser in Kabul who was evacuated to the UK with his wife and three sons aged between four and 14, said the government had broken a series of promises to help them find housing of their own.

“We asked the Home Office: ‘Why do you want to force us out?’ and they say: ‘This hotel is expensive. The Leeds hotel is cheaper.’ But we didn’t choose this hotel or this area to live in, the Home Office did,” he said. “Now we have been here, not out of choice, for 18 months. Our children are going to local schools, and in the middle of the school year they ask us to leave.”

Khan has asked the Home Office to stop paying tens of thousands of pounds in hotel fees and instead act as a guarantor so he can afford to rent a place near London. “Please do not send us to a Leeds hotel where our children will lose their schooling. They may have to drop out of their year because they won’t have places for them there,” he said.

Another refugee, a former general in the Afghan army who came to the UK with six children, said most hotel residents had decided they would protest against the plan and refuse to leave. “Two children who lived in this hotel are in hospital, and their parents are being asked to move on. Some people now have jobs. We cannot just leave these responsibilities and start again,” he said.

The refugees received letters from the Home Office that stagger their moving dates over several days, starting on 7 February.

Many of the refugees say they are suffering from mental health problems that will only get worse if they are displaced again.

A third male hotel resident, 44, who worked in logistics with the Ministry of Defence in Kabul before evacuating to London with his family, said he was anxious about the plight of his brothers who are in hiding after being captured and tortured by the Taliban. His wife has been suffering from blackouts, and his eldest son has threatened to kill himself.

“We hope to live independently in the UK. But the promises of help finding a home have come and gone, and now this threat of being forced to move,” he said.

The Home Office sent letters to the residents over the past three weeks, telling them that the Kensington hotel “will no longer be available for the Home Office therefore we will move everyone into alternative accommodation” in Wetherby.

A spokesperson said its officials had been telling the refugees since September that a move would be necessary.

In Wetherby, some residents have already voiced their opposition to the local hotel taking in Afghan residents. One told the Leeds Live website in November that the government had been “underhand and secretive”.

As well as drawing up plans to resist being forced to move out of Kensington, some of the Afghan refugees plan to demonstrate outside parliament on Friday morning.

Operation Warm Welcome was launched in August 2021 to aid the full integration of Afghans into British life after the UK followed the US in abandoning Kabul to the Taliban. Johnson as prime minister said at the time: “We will never forget the brave sacrifice made by Afghans who chose to work with us at great risk to themselves.”

The Home Office is required under the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children when it makes any immigration decision”.

Last summer, the government began encouraging Afghans to find their own homes to rent, but for many it has proved difficult. Many private landlords do not rent to those on universal credit and most Afghans struggle to find a guarantor.

According to Peymana Assad, a Labour councillor in Harrow who is of Afghan origin, many Afghans are finding it difficult to move on from hotels because they have low incomes and large families.

“With refugees being kicked out of hotels by the Home Office, councils across the country will see homeless applications from them and many refugees will be back where they started, in a hotel,” she said.

Asked to respond to the refugees’ detailed claims, a Home Office spokesperson said its officials had been telling the refugees for months that they would have to move to near Leeds.

“While hotels do not provide a long-term solution, they do offer safe, secure and clean accommodation. We will continue to bring down the number of people in bridging hotels, moving people into more sustainable accommodation as quickly as possible,” they said.

“Occasionally families may be moved from a hotel scheduled for closure to another hotel. In these instances, families are given appropriate notice of a move and are supported by their local authority. We are proud this country has provided homes for more than 7,500 Afghan evacuees, but there is a shortage of local housing accommodation for all.”

A Kensington community

One of the appointed leaders of the community living within the Kensington hotel is a 60-year-old general from Jalalabad province who spent 10 years working alongside the UK forces on intelligence matters.

Two weeks ago, one of his sons who remains in Afghanistan was captured and tortured by the Taliban. While being tortured, the son was asked whether his father might return in exchange for the son’s freedom. The son has been freed but is under surveillance, he said.

The general came to the UK in August 2021 along with his wife and six of his children, two of whom are now studying for A-levels while the rest are in college.

Ali, 54, worked as an accredited cultural adviser and translator with the British and US armies in Afghanistan for four years. He came to the UK with his wife and two young sons in August 2021, and said that initially the Home Office said they would be well looked after, but they had received very little help.

Recently he landed a translating job, and he is concerned that he will not be able to get an equivalent job in Yorkshire. “The hotel is one hour away from the city centre, and we will be 300 new people trying to get on the buses which do not come very often. How am I going to get a job? And which schools will welcome my children?” he said.

Gulalai, 25, came to the UK on an evacuation flight with her father, who is a British citizen. She also qualified for the flight because her uncle was a general in the army. Many of her family remain in hiding in Afghanistan.

She is studying for her GCSEs and hopes to become a lawyer one day, mindful that her friends in Afghanistan cannot study at all. Asked how she was coping with life in a hotel, she said: “I have serious anxiety issues for months now but my education is the only thing which gives me some comfort and happiness. I have some good friends at college.”

• This article was amended on 2 February 2023. An earlier version said the refugees had been given “a week” to move to Wetherby. As the article reports, the letters advising that moves would start on 7 February have been sent out over the past three weeks (the Home Office says from 9 January), although some were received only last week.