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‘Some of them Wish they had Stayed and Been Killed’: Life for Afghan Refugees in the UK

Katharine Quarmby meets some of the 8,000 Afghan nationals evacuated to the UK and hears of the chaos and confusion they have faced since arriving in Britain after the fall of Kabul

Home Secretary Priti Patel watches as a refugee has her fingerprints taken after arriving from Afghanistan on a evacuation flight at Heathrow Airport on 26 August 2021. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/Reuters/Alamy

‘Some of them Wish they had Stayed & Been Killed’Life for Afghan Refugees in the UK

Katharine Quarmby meets some of the 8,000 Afghan nationals evacuated to the UK and hears of the chaos and confusion they have faced since arriving in Britain after the fall of Kabul

“As an Afghan woman, as a Hazara, I am used to living in dangerous places. I know how to behave around Pashtun people, but sometimes I am scared here.”

Farzana (not her real name) is a social activist from the Hazara minority group in Afghanistan. A lone parent whose children are still in Kabul, she was evacuated from the city on 27 August.

Since then, she has lived in a large hotel in London’s Russell Square, where there are just a handful of Hazara, Uzbek, Tajik and people of other ethnicities. The majority of evacuees are Pashtun – the majority ethnicity in Afghanistan.

Farzana has never worn the headscarf or hijab. She tells Byline Times of the tensions within the hotel. “I don’t wear hijab so some of the men called me a bitch,” she says. “They also tell me off for not praying. They can’t fight us physically, so they use words instead.” She claims that she told her Home Office caseworker about this but was merely told to call 999 if things escalated.

Farzana is one of the estimated 8,000 Afghan nationals evacuated by the UK – after the Afghan Government fell in August following the withdrawal of US, UK and allied troops – who have been housed in 80 hotels around the UK. But she and another recently arrived asylum seeker, Farhad (not his real name), say they have received a welcome that has been chaotic and left them feeling as if they are living in limbo. 

I am not sure it would be possible to stick over 1,000 people in a London hotel and just abandon them if they weren’t foreign

Dr Liza Schuster

Living in Limbo

The UK Government has not said when permanent housing will be found for the refugees, with policy stating that the families can be homed anywhere in the UK. That has led to reports that some families have chosen to declare themselves homeless so that they can stay in the capital. But there are other problems too. 

Farhad is an academic conducting fieldwork for his PhD about the experiences of recent arrivals. He was evacuated via Poland to the UK at the end of August. He tells Byline Times that one of the main reasons for his leaving Afghanistan was that the Taliban had denied his daughter education. Yet, he says, because Afghan qualifications are not accepted here, his 16-year-old was initially refused entry to school here too.

“I asked the education authority what was the difference between here and Afghanistan,” he says. “They said that was different.” Over two months after arriving, she has finally been allowed to attend school in a special class. 

Farhad points to the confusion and terrible guilt that he says many of the recent arrivals report. “We all had to leave family behind and they now think that because we are in London we are not thinking of them. The Home Office is not helpful.”

His sister was a police officer in Afghanistan and so is doubly vulnerable as a Hazara woman and government worker. “Many of us who have left feel complete despair as the Taliban is becoming more and more powerful. Everything looks fine for us but inside we feel destroyed.”

Inadequate Conditions

The hotel Farzana lives in houses around 1,200 refugees. Although she praises the staff, she says that the facilities offered to the evacuees are poor. There is one language course a week and little information about how to access NHS services. 

Dewah Khan, who runs the Dewa Trust Foundation, a charity that works to challenge poverty and child marriage, has been visiting new arrivals in a south London borough where 41 families are currently housed in one hotel.

She tells Byline Times that she has been bringing hot food in from local families as she claims that the hotel has only provided cold sandwiches. Khan says that the refugees are traumatised from their experiences of leaving Kabul – but also from their experiences of arriving in the UK.

“They left everything behind them, some of them lost loved ones [in the airport blast],” she says. “But now some of them have told us they wished they had stayed there and been killed, because they do not feel they are getting humanitarian treatment here.”

One of the main concerns is that the families have been told that they will soon be dispersed around the country. Khan claims that one young man was so distressed that he attempted suicide but was found in time. 

A Multitude of Problems

Dr Liza Schuster, Reader in Sociology at City University, London, has spent much of the past decade conducting fieldwork in Afghanistan. She tells Byline Times that both funding and attention seem to be lacking from the UK Government. 

“The fall of the Afghan Government was not unexpected; it was clear that there would be a refugee crisis,” she says. “I am not sure it would be possible to stick over 1,000 people in a London hotel and just abandon them if they weren’t foreign… they don’t speak English, they have no social networks, there has been no forethought about getting children into schools.”

Dr Sheila Melzak, director of the Baobab Centre, which supports refugee children and young people, says that arrivals feel that there is a “lack of care” for them and that many Afghans say that they are stuck in hotels, without provision, especially for their children, who are “stuck in tiny spaces”. 

Some far-right groups are also now capitalising on the situation, demonstrating outside hotels and spreading false rumours about criminality. 

This means that refugees like Farzana are caught between multiple problems – harassed inside the hotel for being a feminist Hazara activist; demonised on the outside by some on the far-right. But she has a deeper trauma to resolve than such hostility.

“Nobody tells me how I can be reunified with my children,” she tells Byline Times. “My brother-in-law is in jail. My sister called me this morning and told me that I am doing nothing for them. I am under such stress. I don’t know how to help them. I don’t know how to get them out.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We undertook the UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history. Those still temporarily accommodated in hotels have access to healthcare, education and essential items.”

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