It has now been a week since Operation Warm Welcome launched, the British government’s initiative to help Afghan evacuees settle in Britain. Based on reports from the field, the response so far has been characterized by communication failure, delivery failure, delivery failure, and support failure.
There are currently around 8,000 Afghans in the UK under the evacuation program, more than half of whom are children. Once in the UK they were sent to a quarantine hotel for two weeks. Many are still there today. After that, they are sent to a relay hotel, which is supposed to house them while waiting for accommodation which will allow them to start a new life here.
Over the past few days, I have spoken to nearly a dozen personalities from the voluntary sector and local councils who are involved in helping Afghan refugees, to ask them how it is going. Their assessment is damning, as is that of the Refugee Council, which called on the Interior Ministry to do more to help Afghan refugees.
The government, it seems, dumped thousands of Afghans in quarantine hotels across the UK without letting many local authorities know what was going on.
There was food in the quarantine hotels, but I was told that in many of them there was not much else: no drugs, no toiletries, no sanitary products, no diapers, no baby food, no toys. The Refugee Council reported the same. Volunteers told me that there is no support given to families to establish or maintain contact with family members, including those still in Afghanistan.
It would have been exhausting for anyone – being basically trapped in a hotel room, with no ability to leave the premises, or essential goods, or information about what is going on. But for these families, it was worse than that. They had just left a war zone, fearing for their lives. It appears that instead of a “warm welcome” they were left in quarantine and had to fend for themselves.
“It’s overwhelming,” one Afghan community group volunteer told me. “We distributed goods to people in quarantine. We have been in contact with over a hundred families.
The group had received a phone call from a pregnant woman who needed medical help, but they were limited in what they could do. She was not registered with a general practice clinic or local services because there was no way of even knowing where she would eventually be placed. None of the doctors the group knew could enter the hotel to help them. She was only speaking to one woman, so the group found a female doctor in her community to give her advice over the phone.
The essential services that the government should have provided were provided, to the extent possible, by support groups. Charities like the Refugee Council, the Afghan Association of London, the Afghan Association Paiwand and the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association have stepped in.
Local elected officials are also involved. Those I spoke to told me that they had to ask for information on the whereabouts of the Afghan refugees and how many of them were there. Sometimes they are contacted directly by hotels, which have given up on expecting the government to provide them with what they need. They set to work – procuring clothes, toiletries and food and bringing them to the refugees.
“I have just returned from dropping off culturally appropriate food for a pregnant Afghan woman at a local hotel, who has not eaten properly for 4 days,” said Mariam Lovalar, union adviser for Blackheath. tweeted on Monday. “Priti Patel, why am I doing your job for you?” I’m exhausted. Our volunteers are exhausted, the staff at the Royal Borough of Greenwich are exhausted. All because we are filling in the gaps in your totally chaotic and shoddy offer.
Enver Soloman, CEO of the Refugee Council, which is desperately trying to provide basic necessities to Afghan evacuees, denounced the Interior Ministry this morning. “The government has worked hard to respond to this unprecedented situation,” he said, “but it is alarming that traumatized families and children have been left without basic commodities, such as health products and medicines. , and with little information about what is happening to them. Safe and appropriate interim accommodation is essential to help them recover and rebuild their lives. ”
The problems do not seem to have disappeared once the refugees reach the halfway hotels. Refugee support groups, including the Refugee Council, say they know families who have not received money from the Home Office, leaving them penniless for up to two weeks and relying on volunteers. They received no health or mental health services, education information, help opening a bank account, or advice on how to apply for benefits. Many have sought legal advice as they were not told how long they would be allowed to stay in the UK.
One of the most striking distinctions is between government and civil society response. Volunteers worked around the clock to get supplies to the evacuees. Community groups keep talking about the extraordinary generosity of the local people who provide whatever goods they may need.
It is clear to me that the same cannot be said of the central government. This is a high speed situation where officials will make mistakes. It didn’t help that the crisis subsided in August, when people were away, and included a bank holiday weekend. But the lack of infrastructure is no accident. It is the direct result of politics. Specifically, it is a consequence of the hostile environment – which then Home Secretary Theresa May said in 2012 she wanted to create for “illegal immigrants”.
Since then, I believe the Home Office has been geared towards punishment. If they could make life as unpleasant as possible for asylum seekers, they believed, it would reduce the so-called ‘pull factor’ that drives people to the UK.
In reality, the pull factor theory was unfounded. We have seen the footage of what is happening in Afghanistan. We have seen the kind of horrors people face that force them to flee overseas and seek refuge. It is the factor of oppression, violence and horror that dictates the flow of refugees, not the pull factor of the welcome they can expect once they escape.
But regardless, it has been the approach of the Ministry of the Interior for years. And now all of a sudden he’s being asked to do something different. He must deliver “the warm welcome operation”. But he has no idea how to do it.
The failures I have been told about, and which campaign groups raise, are typical of how the Home Office often behaves towards refugees: depriving them of the essentials, information, support, fundamental facets of a dignified life. And now it is being inflicted, by accident and habit, on those who have managed to escape from Afghanistan.
A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry said:
“A significant intergovernmental effort is underway to ensure that the thousands of Afghans who were evacuated to the UK receive the support they need to rebuild their lives, find work, continue their education and integrate into their communities. local communities.
“We continue to work with local authorities to find suitable accommodation as quickly as possible, although we have had to use hotels as a temporary measure due to unprecedented demand.
“Families receive full board meals and we do our best to make sure they have the essentials and specific support they need. The government will also issue payment cards, with emergency funds available to those who need them in the interim. “