Almost two years after he fled to the UK from Kabul following an attempt on his life by the Taliban, Mohammad Seddeqi, 32, a former World Bank and UK Department for International Development contract worker, is sleeping on the streets outside Victoria station in London.
He was evicted from a Home Office-funded hotel at the start of May and has been unable to find alternative accommodation. Despite being highly educated and fluent in English, he says he has found the process of building a new life in the UK extremely challenging, and is dismayed by the lack of available support.
When the weather is good he sleeps between two stone columns on Buckingham Palace Road; when it is raining or cold he moves to a corner of Victoria coach station that is open through the night. During the day he has been using the free wifi and plug sockets in the train station cafes to charge his phone, so he can continue to try to find housing and complete an online application to start a law degree this autumn.
Seddeqi’s experiences are at the extreme end of a spectrum of difficulties experienced by thousands of Afghan refugees who fled to the UK after the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. The government says around 9,000 Afghans have been settled into permanent homes, but another 8,000 remain in hotels because local authorities have been unable to find long-term alternative accommodation. Some have recently been told they face eviction, as the Home Office seeks to reduce the amount it is spending on housing refugees and asylum seekers in hotels.
“It’s very noisy during the night,” Seddeqi says. “There are a lot of drunk people, and people taking drugs. Sometimes I worry that something will happen while I’m asleep – that I will be robbed or attacked.
Seddeqi was not part of the official evacuation scheme and came to Britain on a small boat, arriving in Dover on 10 August 2021, a few days before the Taliban took power. He had decided to flee Afghanistan after his car was shot at as he drove home from work.
He was held in an immigration processing centre on the south coast before being sent to a hotel in the London borough of Westminster. His asylum claim was approved and he was granted refugee status last October. Since then he has been trying to find work and independent accommodation, and to apply for university, but he says has struggled.
Although Westminster council has a duty to offer help over a 56-day period, Seddeqi says officials were slow to assign him a caseworker, misdirected him to a letting organisation that only works with older people, and closed his file after the period lapsed, classifying him as a non-priority case and offering only some guidance about renting privately.
He has travelled around London looking for a room to rent. “To rent somewhere to live you need a guarantor, you need to pay two or three months’ rent. Most landlords are not willing to rent to people receiving housing benefit, and the rents are impossible,” he says.
“It wasn’t my choice to be brought to central London by the Home Office. I don’t expect to find somewhere to live by Buckingham Palace or Harrods but it doesn’t feel fair to leave me on the streets.”
He says that when he explained to the officials at the Westminster housing department that he was sleeping on the streets, he says they told him: “Yes, there are a lot of people like you in the same situation. It’s normal.”
Because he came independently, he is entitled to less support than those brought here on the official schemes. The Refugee Council has highlighted the widespread problem of asylum seekers becoming homeless once their refugee status is approved, and the Home Office is no longer responsible for housing them.
A report by the charity said: “One of the first documents that new refugees receive is an eviction notice. Once they acquire refugee status they are given just 28 days to find a new home and an alternative source of income. The difficulties they face within this process mean that large numbers end up homeless.”
With the help of jobcentre staff, Seddeqi has had an interview for a job in procurement, the sector he worked in in Afghanistan, but has yet to be hired. “I’ve got 12 years’ experience in logistics and supply chain management. I was working on UN and USAid-funded projects in Afghanistan, on DfID.” He says he was distraught to have to leave his wife and two young sons, but was determined to rebuild a life in the UK; some of that optimism has recently ebbed away. “You feel very lost. Sometimes it feels like the end of life.”
He asked for photographs to be taken without revealing his face. “I’d like to have my picture in a British newspaper when I become a barrister or work in politics, not because I’m sleeping in the coach station,” he says.
A Westminster council spokesperson said: “While we try to support as many people as possible, the supply of available homes is extremely limited and Mr Seddeqi is not eligible for housing from the council under the current criteria. We have and will continue to provide Mr Seddeqi with advice and support.”