People who fled the Taliban in Afghanistan are at risk of homelessness in the UK, humanitarian groups have warned, after ministers announced plans to move the refugees out of hotels and into homes on the condition they accept the first offer made to them.
Afghans living in “temporary bridging accommodation” in the UK under the UK’s two resettlement schemes would be given additional support to find settled accommodation after 18 months in hotels, the Home Office said.
The veterans’ affairs minister, Johnny Mercer, told MPs any refugee who turned down an offer of accommodation would not be offered a second alternative. Concerns have been raised that refugees could face homelessness if they are unable to secure accommodation before leaving a hotel amid reports the government intends to set a deadline for the shift.
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “We are deeply concerned about many elements of these plans, in particular the risk that they could lead to people who fled the Taliban in Afghanistan being left homeless and destitute on the streets of Britain.
“This is not how those who were promised a warm welcome in the UK should be treated. Hotels are not the right place for refugees to live but the fact that thousands of Afghans have been left in them for months on end is a consequence of government mismanagement and a failure to work successfully in partnership with local councils and other agencies to find suitable housing.”
The government was providing £35m in new cash for local authorities that would go towards increasing the level of support available and overcoming barriers in accessing the housing system and employment, the Home Office said.
Announcing the move in the House of Commons, Mercer confirmed refugees in hotels who turned down a move would not receive a second offer.
“These measures represent a generous offer. And in return for this, we do expect families to help themselves,” he said. “Whilst this government realises our significant responsibilities to this cohort, there is a responsibility upon this group to take the opportunities that are offered under these schemes and integrate into UK society.
“Where an offer of accommodation can be made and is turned down, another will now not be forthcoming. At a time when there are many pressures on the taxpayer and the housing market, it is not right that people can choose to stay in hotels when other perfectly suitable accommodation is available.”
Afghans who arrived under two resettlement schemes, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS) and the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap), make up a fifth of people living in bridging hotels.
A government source told the Guardian the plan is to move move all Afghan families out of hotels by the end of this year.
There are almost 9,000 Afghans living in hotels in the UK after fleeing the Taliban in August 2021.
Peymana Assad, a Labour councillor of Afghan origin from Harrow in north-west London, who has worked closely with Afghan refugees in hotels, said the government was to blame for people being stuck in hotels, not the refugees.
“For the past year, the Conservative government has put the blame at the feet of Afghan refugees for continuing to be in hotels nearly two years on since evacuation. Yet the Conservative government are the ones who’ve failed on the promises they made to these families,” she said.
“With no proper plan in place to house Afghans, they have wasted taxpayers’ money on hotels, held Afghan refugee lives in limbo, caused untold damage to the mental wellbeing of individuals who stood side by side with British troops in Afghanistan, to then in the end throw these Afghan families out into the wilderness of homelessness, in the country they were brought to, not out of choice but necessity.”
Downing Street denied Afghan refugees would be kicked out of hotels and said the new package was about finding them “settled accommodation”.
Sunak’s official spokesperson said: “This is about how we’re accelerating support for Afghans who have been forced to remain in hotel accommodation for sometimes more than a year. We’ve made a large commitment to them to support them in the UK to make a new life here and this will be the next stage of that.
“We do think it is right to help them into settled accommodation, there will be a significant package of support that sits behind them to both help them to find accommodation and to help them fully integrate into their new community.”
The announcement is related to but separate from the issue of asylum seekers held in hotels as they await the outcome of their application for refugee status in the UK, of which there are approximately 50,000. It has been reported that two military bases, RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and RAF Wethersfield in Essex, have been pencilled as potential sites to house them.
Figures provided to the Commons home affairs committee last year showed that £5.6m a day was being spent on hotels for people who have arrived in the UK and submitted asylum claims, with £1.2m paid to house Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban.
The reports come as the UK government pushes its deeply controversial illegal migration bill through parliament.