Afghan refugees in UK quarantine hotels treated like ‘prisoners’


Afghans evacuated to the UK feel like prisoners after being left trapped in quarantine conditions longer than necessary, several of them have told the Guardian, prompting concern about their human rights and wellbeing.

Thousands of officials and military personnel who helped Nato forces were flown out of Kabul after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan at the end of August. They have had to isolate for 10 days in a hotel on arrival because Afghanistan is on the travel “red list”.

But some said that they had received no news about the “bridging accommodation” they had been promised as part of the government’s resettlement scheme, and were stuck with barely any ability to get fresh air, no news about when they would be able to leave – all while their mental health had deteriorated.

Hasib Nooralam, a former director at the attorney general’s office in Afghanistan, has been stuck in the Park Plaza hotel near Waterloo in London for 20 days. “We are prisoners inside here, but even prisoners are allowed to go outside for an hour or two a day,” he said. “In 24 hours, we’re allowed out for just 15 minutes. There are a lot of children inside this hotel too. People are fed up and crying.”

He said no information from the Home Office had been provided, and when he asked the hotel if he was allowed to go shopping or for walks he was told it was not permitted. “Nobody knows what is happening. Maybe they’ll keep us here for a month, maybe two months, who knows?”

A second evacuee from Afghanistan stuck in the hotel for 20 days, who asked to remain anonymous, said many were at breaking point. “I can’t explain it,” they said. “The anxiety is there is nobody to ask what is happening next. I asked for a phone number for somebody to contact at the Home Office but they wouldn’t give it to me. The system is broken.

“We can’t even open the windows for fresh air … There are children, many people who can’t speak English, they can’t make any complaint. There’s nobody to hear their voice.”

Another who had spent 17 days in a hotel with his pregnant wife and children near Heathrow said they knew of others who served as police officers in Afghanistan who had been there longer. “Our mental situation is not good at all,” he said.

An Afghan interpreter who worked for the British army for several years said the Swindon hotel where he, his wife and two young children were being kept was like being in prison.

Despite finishing quarantine four days ago, he said they had to book with the hotel front desk whenever they wanted to go for a walk, waiting hours for a security team to escort them to the car park and then only given 20 minutes – before being led back to their room and not allowed out again until the next day.

“No one can tell us about how long are we going to stay here or what will happen afterwards,” he said. “There is no phone number that we can ring to ask the authorities and when you message the email address for Arap [the Afghan relocations and assistance policy] they will not respond for weeks.”

Dr Andrew Kidd OBE, who managed the UK Aid programme in Afghanistan for three years and is one of 60 former civil servants who worked in the country lobbying the government to do more to help the refugees, said: “It can’t be right that some our of Afghan colleagues who served the UK with professionalism and dedication remain held with their families in quarantine hotels days after the end of quarantine.

“It raises questions about their human rights and is affecting their mental wellbeing. This doesn’t feel like the warm welcome that the home secretary, Priti Patel, promised through her ‘operation warm welcome’.”

Carolyn Webster, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate who is now an independent Bridgend councillor, has been organising collections for Afghans stuck in British hotels after quarantine, and trying to raise their plight with the UK government.

She said the extra days people are staying locked up for “doesn’t sound like much but it is – especially when they’re not being communicated with”.

“They understand the importance of quarantine – they get it, they’re happy to do it. But it’s the lack of communication. If they’re no longer isolating, let them out. Every family I have engaged with want to be properly integrated into Britain, to learn about our cultures so they can participate in our culture. But they’re not being given that opportunity.”

Last week, Afghans staying in the quarantine hotels were told they would be allowed to remain there free of charge “until onward accommodation is arranged for you with the Home Office”.

“This will be another hotel, whilst efforts are made to identify permanent accommodation,” a letter sent to them and seen by the Guardian said. “However, if you choose to stay in our quarantine facilities, I must ask that you continue to observe Covid secure measures. This is for your safety to avoid the spread of infection.”

The government was contacted for comment. On Monday, the Home Office announced that local authorities would get £20m to support the resettlement of those evacuated from Afghanistan, though it admitted only around 100 councils had offered to house them. “We would urge every council across the country to contribute to this national effort,” the department said.