Afghan refugees protest against plans to move them from London to Yorkshire

Some of the refugees worked alongside British army before Taliban took power in 2021

Afghan refugees have protested against the UK government’s plans to move them 200 miles from London to Yorkshire amid claims that they could challenge the decision in the courts.

Carrying homemade placards saying “Do not disturb our education”, more than 120 people – including teenagers and toddlers – gathered outside Downing Street on Friday.

The Guardian disclosed on Thursday that the Home Office had told 40 families with 150 children who have lived for more than a year in Kensington, west London, that they must leave the capital next week for another hotel in Wetherby, on the outskirts of Leeds.

Some of the refugees, who include a former Afghan general and former British army translators, say they will refuse to go because their children will suffer from being forced to drop out of their schools, having already been traumatised by war and displacement.

The staggered move is due to begin on Tuesday, but some are planning to barricade themselves into their rooms and resist being moved on.

Standing in the sunshine on Whitehall, women in hijabs chanted “No to hotels, yes to homes”. Young children carried placards saying “Stop taking me to another hotel”.

The demonstration attracted the attention of Johnny Mercer, the minister for veterans’ affairs, who was walking past and stopped to ask them about their situation. A supporter of Afghan rights while not a minister, Mercer made parliamentary speeches about the west’s abandonment of people who had worked alongside the British army.

Mercer declined to comment or say whether he would argue from within the government on the refugees’ behalf.

He is not the first minister to have been made aware of their plight. Felicity Buchan, the housing minister and MP for Kensington, went to see the Afghan families at their hotel in December, shortly after they were told they may have to move in February.

One person who was at the meeting claimed Buchan was sympathetic to their pleas to suspend any planned move from the hotel until after the school year had ended.

“She appeared to agree with us and said she would speak to ministers and get back to us. She didn’t get back to us,” the unnamed Afghan man said. Her office was approached for a comment.

The demonstrators, many of whom have managed to find jobs in London, have not given up on taking legal action against the government. Legal sources said it was still possible they could seek a judicial review of the Home Office’s decision, but it would mean moving “very quickly”.

Another group of families evacuated from Afghanistan in 2021 are challenging the Home Office for mismanaging Operation Warm Welcome, the scheme to set up new lives in the UK. In October, the families were moved to an airport hotel in a northern city after spending almost a year living in London, the charity Shelter said.

A 15-year-old Afghan boy, who came on the demonstration with his father, said he was worried that he would have to miss another year of school if he moved to Yorkshire. “No one knows if we have school places,” he said.

In Wetherby, work is under way to cope with an influx of new children. Norma Harrington, a Conservative town councillor and Leeds councillor, said: “Arrangements are being made for schools, while health provisions are being drawn up in Leeds.”

The government aims to move all Afghan families out of hotels by the end of this year, according to briefings given to local councils. An estimated 9,000 Afghans are still living in temporary accommodation in the UK 18 months after being evacuated from Afghanistan under Operation Pitting. Western forces withdrew and the Taliban took power in August 2021.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We will continue to bring down the number of people in bridging hotels, moving people into more sustainable accommodation as quickly as possible.

“Occasionally families may be moved from a hotel scheduled for closure to another hotel. In these instances, families are given appropriate notice of a move and are supported by their local authority every step of the way.”


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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