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Operation Warm Welcome cools: over 9,000 Afghans still in temporary accommodation

The fall of Kabul in August 2021 prompted an emergency evacuation of around 15,000 people eligible for repatriation or relocation in the UK. Within weeks, amid intense criticism of the UK government’s mishandling of the situation and leadership failures surrounding the Afghanistan evacuation, Operation Warm Welcome was launched, to ensure support for Afghan arrivals to rebuild their lives in the UK. More than a year after the fall of Kabul, over 9,000 Afghans remain in temporary bridging accommodation.

Bridging accommodation is a key function in the government’s Warm Welcome strategy. It refers to the use of temporary hotels and serviced accommodation procured by the Home Office to house those arriving in the UK. Nearly all Afghans arriving in the UK have been or continue to be placed in temporary bridging accommodation before more permanent accommodation has been found.

Within weeks of temporary bridging hotels beginning to be used, a 5-year-old Afghan boy died falling from a window of a hotel in Sheffield. Following his death, it emerged that the Home Office did not carry out any safety checks on the hotel, which was the subject of a fire enforcement action at the time the Home Office placed families there.

Criticism of bridging accommodation has continued since then. And yet the government has continued to run this housing model for over a year despite recognising that it “is not, and has never been, intended to be a permanent housing solution”.

In early September 2021, stakeholders began sounding the alarm over a chaotic resettlement process. Louise Calvey, head of services and safeguarding at Refugee Action, expressed “significant concerns about the potential for hotel accommodation to compound damage caused by trauma, particularly if there’s no information on how long they’re likely to be there and what their ultimate destination is”. Councils reported being left “in the dark” about what was required of them.

During the course of 2022, delays in securing permanent accommodation to resettle Afghans continued to be condemned, with charities and councils describing the resettlement schemes as underfunded, flawed and poorly planned. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper described it as “shameful” that families were still living in hotels, and Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, told the Guardian that the government had struggled to establish an effective partnership with local authorities to quickly move Afghans into long-term homes in the community.

In April 2022, the Local Government Association said it was “seeking an urgent conversation” with the Home Office, but needed engagement from central government and improved data sharing to enable proper planning of placements, housing, school places and other support across the UK. 

In August 2022, a year after the evacuation, the Minister for Refugees, Lord Harrington, recognised that the use of hotels as bridging accommodation was “not a policy we want to pursue” and committed to trying to move people out of bridging accommodation as quickly as possible. In the same month, the Home Office apparently started advising people to find their own rented accommodation. At the same time, they reportedly started negotiations with some local authorities to extend the Afghan hotel scheme into 2023.

Although the number of hotels in use has reduced from 84 to 63 this year, recent data published by the Home Office show that more Afghans are living in temporary accommodation than have secured suitable long-term housing. As of 4 November 2022, 7,572 people have moved into permanent accommodation, with 779 people in the process of moving. By contrast, 9,242 people (around half of whom are children) remain in hotels.

The responsibility for sourcing long-term housing for Afghans in bridging accommodation lies with local authorities. Where permanent housing is found, the government gives the relevant local authority core funding of £20,520 per person over three years to cover health, education and integration support costs. Many councils already facing a shortage of social housing. Instead, they have been told to source private rented accommodation to rehouse Afghans currently staying in hotels.

The Home Office did announce it was approaching landlords, property developers and the wider private rented sector to encourage further offers of homes. But affordability within the private rental sector, compounded by the gap between housing benefits and the rising cost of market rents, is said to be restricting the properties available to families. Other challenges reported by local authorities include the limited availability of properties for larger Afghan households, “overburdened” Home Office personnel struggling to operate complex bureaucratic processes, and a lack of clear channels of communication with local authorities.

On 14 December 2022, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, launched a £500 million Local Authority Housing Fund as part of the Homes for Ukraine Scheme, some of which is to be directed to providing homes for up to 500 Afghan families currently living in bridging hotels. It is unlikely that this will resolve the Home Office’s reliance on bridging accommodation. In a letter to councils in June 2022, a government minister confirmed that more than 2,000 properties were still required to house Afghan families, with more than 500 four-bedroom houses needed to accommodate larger families. In the context of the current national housing crisis and a chronic shortage of affordable, suitable accommodation, a realistic solution still seems far off.

In the meantime, many Afghans may find themselves being moved around the ‘bridging estate’, pending permanent accommodation. Recently published guidance sets out the considerations the Home Office makes when closing bridging accommodation and requiring guests to move to another bridging provider. The guidance notes that “[m]oving guests to another bridging provider is not a decision that we take lightly”. Whilst the Home Office will consider people’s needs and preferences, “the capacity and availability of the bridging estate is limited and while every effort is made to re-accommodate guests in line with their preferences this cannot always be achieved”.

In November 2022, a group of Afghan families were granted permission to bring a legal challenge against the Home Office for mismanaging the scheme set up to support their settlement and integration. In October 2022, the families were moved to an airport hotel in a northern city after spending almost a year living in London. The Public Law Project, representing one of the families, said “[t]he unexpected move resulted in the loss of job offers, training opportunities, school places and the support networks they had built with other families”.

Daniel Rourke, a Public Law Project solicitor, said: “A shocking part of the Home Office’s legal argument is that the Home Secretary does not owe a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children involved”. This week, a court will hear how the Home Office has not addressed the impact of hotel moves on schooling, as a move in hotels forced children to leave their school during their GCSEs.  

The widespread use of hotels and other forms of contingency accommodation by the Home Office has increased in recent years. The suitability of short-stay accommodation to house asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, often for long periods of time, has generated concern.  Meanwhile, resettlement schemes continue to process new arrivals as the crisis develops in Afghanistan. Through the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) the UK government has committed to resettling hundreds of Afghans per month over the next 3 years, as well as up to 20,000 people over the next few years under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). In 2023, over 3,500 Afghans are expected to arrive in the UK under the scheme. Without a coherent housing strategy in place, it is difficult to see how this can be managed effectively.

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