Londoners have opened their arms to those who have fled their homes and lives in Afghanistan following the resurgence of the Taliban regime. In the last few months, more than eight thousand have relocated to the UK for their own safety. Many of these are currently staying in 14 hotels across the capital until they are allocated long-term housing.
We can be proud that the vast majority of London’s councils, including the three that make up my London Assembly constituency – Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest – have signed up to support the families who have already arrived and those who will continue to come through the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP).
The refugees arriving in the capital obviously have complex needs, but as a basic start they need immediate access to stable housing, funds and integration guidance. That is why it has been incredibly alarming and disappointing to hear that many of those who arrived in August are still stuck in hotels with little prospect of a home or being registered with a GP.
The leader of Greenwich Council, Danny Thorpe, has said the start of Operation Warm Welcome “was one of the most shocking failures of government that I ever encountered.”
More than 200 waiting for permanent housing in London have reportedly taken the desperate step of declaring themselves homeless – in the process, losing the support they are entitled to from the Home Office.
There have also been reports that the army has been brought in to help collect information needed about refugees across the country in order to help them.
Through my office, I have been regularly asking the Home Office for updates on the progress of the allocation of housing places under Operation Warm Welcome, but they have so far refused to provide a breakdown for each borough.
In September, my motion to the London Assembly calling for the government to ensure local authorities are adequately supported with emergency funding was passed unanimously.
The government’s £17 million Afghan Housing Costs Scheme has been introduced to plug the gaps between the benefit cap and renting homes in the private sector. It is positive that this is a multi-year grant, but ministers must keep a close eye on whether it will continue to be sufficient, with rents on the increase once again.
Moreover, providing long-term accommodation will inevitably place further strain on London’s ever-dwindling local authority housing stock. The Local Government Association recently found that 250,000 Londoners are currently on waiting lists for council homes.
Fundamentally, this is down to the longer-term issue of a lack of supply. Even though City Hall has hit all of its affordable housing start targets since Sadiq Khan came into office, London needs around seven times as much funding as it currently receives.
To help to fill this deficit, the Mayor’s Right to Buy Back scheme is helping councils purchase properties previously sold under the Right to Buy. Islington Council recently bought back 80 homes and has earmarked 20 of these for Afghan refugees.
Beyond housing and financial aid, refugees also need strong emotional support networks. Some already have family living in the UK, and this must be recognised when decisions are made under the resettlement programme about where people are placed.
Sadly, I have heard of people facing eviction because they have opened their arms and their homes to family members arriving from Afghanistan. That is because their homes have become overcrowded, in violation of their leases.
For refugees to achieve their potential as UK citizens, they need to be able work, but most are unable to take jobs while their asylum claims are processed. Asylum seekers are given only £39.63 a week to live on and this simply won’t stretch far enough to cover the costs of essentials like food and clothing. Ministers expect charities to step in, but although there have been many inspiring fundraising and collection schemes from community organisations across London, this is not a sustainable solution.
Londoners have gone above and beyond to support and care for those arriving through the resettlement programme, both practically and through the London Refugee Response appeal, set up by the Mayor and London Councils.
The government must now make good on its pledge to help the Afghans who stood side by side with us and those who are most vulnerable rebuild their lives in our country. We cannot allow for them to fall through the gaps of our housing and welfare systems, which have been damaged by over a decade of austerity.
On London is a small but influential website which strives to provide more of the kind of journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive an action-packed weekly newsletter and free entry to online events. Details here.