Hundreds of Afghan refugees who have arrived in the UK in recent months are being forced to live in hotels and are at risk of missing out on vital health and education services, charities have warned.
The quality and safety of accommodation provided to families arriving in Britain under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) – a UK relocation scheme for current and former interpreters and other locally employed staff – has been under the spotlight after a five-year-old Afghan boy tragically fell to his death from a hotel window in Sheffield.
Mohammed Munib Majeedi had arrived with family under the scheme two weeks earlier and fell from a ninth-floor room where he was staying with his mother.
MPs have demanded an independent review looking into what the Home Office knew about the safety of the hotel where the incident took place, after it emerged asylum seekers were previously removed from the venue over safety concerns. The Home Office has said it is investigating what happened.
Labour shadow frontbencher Louise Haigh, who is MP for Sheffield Heeley, said that: “We know that the Home Office placed some refugees there last August, in 2020, and then moved them following concerns about the suitability of that accommodation.
“So why vulnerable families from Afghanistan, involving children, were placed in this accommodation again this year is a very serious question that they have to urgently answer.”
It is understood previous concerns had been surrounding fire safety.
An online review of the hotel in 2019 raised concerns about how widely the windows could open, and suggested a child could fall out, it was reported on Friday. “Please don’t stay at this dangerous hotel,” the review added.
The Independent understands that around 144 families that have arrived in the UK under the ARAP since 22 June – many of which have a number of small children – are currently in what are called “holding hotels” while local authorities struggle to find permanent housing for them. A further 100 families are in 10-day hotel quarantine.
This means that more than half of the approximately 2,000 people – or 429 families – who have arrived under the scheme have not yet been moved into a permanent home.
Charities that would usually support these families from the moment they arrive in the UK have not had access to the hotels, and say they are concerned about the level of support being provided in the facilities.
Louise Calvey, head of services and safeguarding at Refugee Action, said she was concerned about the level of support new arrivals were being provided while in temporary accommodation.
“We have sought assurance from Home Office on the support offer available in these hotels, but we haven’t been able to seek any clarification on access to statutory education and health services, which obviously leaves us with us the concern that people won’t have access to these vital services,” she said.
“We have no understanding of any support offer available to them while they’re in hotels, or how long their stay is likely to be there,” she added.
“Our concern is that this is going to get significantly worse as the evacuation of locally employed staff and British nationals escalates and hotel usage is likely to lengthen significantly. We need urgent clarity on what support is in place for people in hotels, and how their basic needs will be met.”
Thousands of asylum seekers have been put up in hotels by the Home Office over the past two years – a practice that increased during the pandemic, with 9,000 people in hotels across the UK at one point.
The government on Friday announced an additional £5m in funding for local councils to provide housing support to Afghans coming to the UK. All new arrivals will also receive Covid vaccines, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, told the Today programme on Friday morning that the charity had seen some “really disturbing” cases of the provision in hotels falling short.
Listing some examples, he said: “People with mobility problems being put on higher floors when there were no lifts, someone who had a problem with their kidneys not being able to get enough water, and people arriving with only the clothes on their backs not being able to access toiletries.”
Local authorities and NGOs say the delay in having accommodation ready for arrivals is in part due to the department’s lack of a clear commitment to refugee resettlement over the past year, which has led councils to “wind down” their resettlement services.
Peter Barnett, lead officer of refugee resettlement at Coventry Council, said that time pressures meant it had been “challenging” to get services up and running in time.
“The worry is with Afghans arriving at an accelerated pace over the last week, those people might be expected to spend a bit longer in the holding accommodation unless the properties procurement can be accelerated,” he said.
He said that due to the lack of clarity over the future of resettlement, the council was forced to start winding down services in December 2020. Since it was informed about the ARAP in the spring, the council has had to recruit new staff to work on the programme in a short space of time.
The council has offered to welcome 100-150 people under the ARAP scheme, and has so far procured properties for around 25.
Mr Barnett added: “In hotels people don’t have their own space to cook, choose their own meals. We very much want people to have their own properties and for children to start making preparations for school, and families to start, where they want to, learning English. It’s quite hard to do things like that in the holding accommodation.”
It is also unlikely refugees will be able to register for GP services while in temporary accommodation.
One Afghan national who arrived under the ARAP scheme, and who did not wish to be named, told The Independent that on arrival in the UK three weeks ago, he and his pregnant wife stayed in quarantine in Manchester for 10 days, before spending a week in a holding hotel in Watford, and then being moved to a home in Birmingham.
“The hotel was okay for us, but some families had six or seven children, and they stayed there for longer than us. They were not happy. They were saying they wanted their own homes so they could cook and care for their children.”
Another Afghan national, Nasim Naimy, a former interpreter for the British army, arrived in the UK with his family in mid-July and spent 12 days in hotel quarantine in Manchester, before being moved to a holding hotel in Bradford for eight days. On 5 August, the family was moved into their current home in Coventry.
Mr Naimy, who has a wife and three children, aged five, three and eight months, said the quarantine period was challenging for the children, but that once the family arrived in the other hotel they were happy to be in the UK.
“We’re all happy. There’s a much worse situation in my country. I’ve been worried about my parents. They’re at very big risk. They are hiding,” he said.
A government spokesperson said hotel accommodation was necessary to support the accelerated efforts to relocate Afghans.
“We are extremely saddened by the tragic death of a child at a hotel in Sheffield. The police are providing support to the family while the investigation continues and we are providing accommodation and support,” they added.
“We are absolutely committed to ensuring that Afghan refugees are appropriately accommodated and supported and we are working hard with local authorities to deliver this.”
With additional reporting from PA
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