Welcoming Afghans - Lessons from Operation Warm Welcome

  • Research
  • 15 August 2023

Over the last two years, Britain has welcomed around 25,000 people from Afghanistan. The two year anniversary of the fall of Kabul provides a unique opportunity to reflect on what we have learnt since the Operation Pitting evacuation of Kabul.

Welcoming Afghans Lessons From Operation Warm Welcome (1)

When it comes to designing and delivering better approaches for welcoming future cohorts of refugees, the failures of the last two years give us as much to learn as the successes. Based on a survey of more than one hundred Afghans in hotels across the country and conversations with policy experts and support workers who designed and delivered the scheme, More in Common’s new report ‘Welcoming Afghans’ explores what worked and what has not.

The approach to accommodation has been unacceptable - Many Afghans have spent the last two years living in cramped hotel accommodation unable to properly rebuild their lives. In recent weeks, Afghans families in hotels across the country have been presented with eviction notices and one off, take-it-or-leave-it offers of housing accommodation - they face the continued uncertainty of emergency accommodation and dozens of families have presented as homeless over the last few weeks.

Hotel accommodation was clearly unsuitable as a place to bring up a family, and spending £1 million a day on hotel accommodation is not value for money for taxpayers. More suitable temporary accommodation should be built up with social landlords and clearer expectations should be set on getting refugees into a house of their own as soon as possible. The challenges of refugees finding their own accommodation were highlighted both in our interviews and in the survey. As some Afghans refugees put it to us in our research: 

I searched nearly 6 months for an accommodation for myself and my family, I viewed more than 35 houses and filled nearly 30 application forms for them and almost every one of them got rejected
I tried for more than a year to secure a property in the private rental sector where I wanted to move, but I didn’t have any success. I have a full-time job with a relatively good salary, but I failed to secure a property in the private sector. The government just recently offered me an affordable house near my relatives and friends but it took almost two years

Having put roots down in communities over the last two years, Afghans who have accepted offers of permanent accommodation now face having to upend their lives, pull their kids out of school and find alternative employment, as they can no longer afford to live in the areas they were originally placed. The disarray and expense of the scheme are not what Afghans refugees deserve, nor what the British public are entitled to expect. 

There has also been too much variability in the extent to which local authorities have stepped up and played their role in helping Afghan families. While the best local authorities have led the way in resettlement others have even been ineffective or shirked their responsibility. English language education and support into employment have been far too patchy, with our survey finding that many refugees still lack basic English skills after two years here.  In future, there needs to be much clearer expectation that those poor performing local authorities follow the lead of the very best. 

There are parts of the scheme that have worked well. Thanks to support from government, charities and community groups around 10,000 Afghans now have a home of their own – many have put down roots in communities across the country, are at school or have begun working. Two years ago, the government moved quickly to set up schemes to welcome Afghan refugees in the UK. While the funding for the scheme was slow to come, when it came it was much welcomed. 

The report explores the key lessons from what has worked and what has not over the last two years across five areas: the emergency response, housing and accommodation, leadership design, funding model and integration. 

The biggest opportunity identified for future welcome efforts is to rely on the generosity of the British public. The Homes for Ukraine Scheme has shown the depth of potential for people-led and community-led refugee welcome in the UK. Homes for Ukraine shouldn’t be seen as a one off, but as a blueprint that can be extended to future groups of refugees seeking sanctuary. 

More in Common’s research finds that almost three quarters of those Homes for Ukraine hosts would be willing to support Afghan families - including the next wave of Afghan arrivals.  What’s more we know community-led schemes command greater public confidence, empowering local residents rather than central Government and creating a faster path for integration. 

The legacy of the last two years need not be defined by policy and planning failures that have let down Afghan families, and not lived up to the expectations and values of the British public. But it’s possible to get Operation Warm Welcome back on track for those Afghans already in the UK, but also to learn from our failures and successes so we can better support and welcome those next cohort of Afghans to arrive and future groups who need our help . Do that and we have a chance of refugee welcome that can work for refugees and work for Britain.

More in Common is grateful to the partnership and collaboration of USPUK without which this research, amplifying the voices and experiences of Afghan refugees would not be possible. In particular, we thank Maddie Anstruther and Anil Qaemsi for their collaboration on both the research design and delivery. Coordinating research fieldwork with a cohort of Afghans families who can be distrusting of surveys, officialdom and how they might be used, alongside the logistical challenges of surveys in multiple languages and in multiple locations requires much skill, creativity and entrepreneurialism for which we are most grateful. 

This is the first of two reports by More in Common and USPUK on Welcoming Afghans. The second report, sharing the results of an original survey of Afghans currently living in hotels, can be found here