Councils ‘scrambling’ to meet needs of Afghans amid ‘lack of clarity’

Councils ‘scrambling’ to meet needs of Afghans amid ‘lack of clarity’
Exclusive: Labour warns that recent arrivals will face ‘substantial challenges’ due to lack of coherent resettlement plan

The Home Office’s plan to resettle Afghan refugees has come under fire from local councils who say they have been left “scrambling” to meet the urgent needs of new arrivals due to a “lack of clarity” from central government.

A letter from Labour ministers to the home secretary and the housing minister, seen by The Independent, has also warned that the government must “step up and play its role in providing national coordination, leadership and support” to local authorities receiving Afghan arrivals, warning of “substantial challenges” for these refugees if it fails to do so.

In some cases, houses that have been procured for evacuated families have remained empty for more than a week despite the Home Office saying the process would take one day, councillors said.

Charities meanwhile warn that the time Afghans spend in hotels should be as “short as possible”, as living in this setting can have a detrimental impact on their mental health.

The UK has evacuated 15,000 people from Kabul over the last fortnight – including 5,000 British nationals and more than 8,000 Afghans who worked for the UK and their families, as well as many highly vulnerable people. Hundreds had already prior to this under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which opened in June.

All arrivals are require to spend 10 days in hotel quarantine, and are usually then moved to what are called “holding hotels” while local authorities find permanent housing for them.

The letter, coordinated by shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, raises concern about the “large number of refugees” the Home Office has placed in hotel accommodation, “sometimes for many months at a time, without prior notice or engagement, without giving prior notice to or having engagement with local councils”.

It says it is “vital” that councils are given clarity “as soon as possible” on the financial support the government intends to make available for them to permanent housing for recently arrived Afghan nationals.

“Failure to work in partnership with local authorities to ensure people are placed in suitable accommodation will bring about substantial challenges for those seeking to build a new life and the local authority,” it adds.

Peter Barnett, lead officer of refugee resettlement at Coventry Council, said his team had struggled to procure homes – but that even once it had they remained empty. He said there were five properties ready for Afghan families to move into that had been sitting empty for more than a week.

“They told us, get the properties and we will match a family the next day. It’s been over a week now since we gave full details and we’ve had no word about families moving in. I know there is a number of other councils in this situation. It just erodes trust,” he said.

“It’s frustrating. The last thing I want to be doing is procuring properties and them to be sitting empty. That’s a risk on a number of levels. You don’t want them sitting empty for ages and wasting rent on them.”

Councils say the Home Office’s lack of a clear commitment to refugee resettlement over the past year has also made it more difficult to quickly mobilise to take in Afghan arrivals. Home secretary Priti Patel scrapped the UK’s numerical resettlement target in March.

Councillor Kevin Bonavia, Lewisham Council’s member for democracy, refugees and accountability, said the council had informed the Home Office of its willingness to take in Afghan refugees, but that it needed to be “much clearer” on the terms of the resettlement programme.

“So much of this delay and uncertainty could have been avoided if the government had ensured that the UK had an effective resettlement strategy for refugees generally, which local councils and charities had been calling for since last year,” he said.

“The government refused to set annual target numbers or guarantee the duration of any resettlement programme, meaning that councils were unable to plan ahead in terms of securing housing and other essential support. Now we are scrambling to meet the urgent need as best we can. We need far better than this knee-jerk response.”

Louise Calvey, head of services at Refugee Action, warned that unless ministers “got a grip on resettlement roll-out and co-ordinate properly with local authorities”, Afghan refugees faced being left in “unfit homes without stable access to health care and education”.

She added: “Ministers have spent the last 18 months putting a match to their refugee resettlement programmes. This has created a system that’s totally unprepared to respond quickly to the emergency in Afghanistan and has left councils playing catch-up to find homes for people fleeing the Taliban.”

Jon Featonby, refugee and asylum policy manager at British Red Cross, said that staying in hotels for prolonged periods had a “detrimental impact” on refugees, adding: “We certainly think that people are better off when they’re able to get into that longer-term accommodation.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have evacuated over 16,000 people from Afghanistan, however we know more needs to be done. That is why we are establishing a bespoke scheme to provide protection for Afghan citizens identified most at risk, and are insisting that safe passage continues for those who want to leave.

“We are working with local government to develop the scheme and its funding, using the experience of the successful, world leading vulnerable person resettlement scheme as a basis. Last week, the home secretary spoke to with the Mayor of London and government officials held a meeting with local authorities to discuss further.”

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