Hotel rooms occupied by Afghan interpreters and soldiers who served with the British army are being cleared to house people who came across the Channel in small boats, the Guardian has learned.
Suella Braverman, the home secretary, has sent letters threatening to remove Afghans from hotels across the UK next month. But the Guardian has been told that many of those rooms will still be paid for by the UK taxpayer and are part of a 5,000-bed “buffer” for any surge in the number of people arriving by small boats this summer and autumn.
Ministers are preparing for a rise in the number of people crossing the Channel after about 13,000 people, most of whom are expected to successfully apply for asylum, entered the UK earlier this year. Senior Home Office officials told MPs last week the department was paying for thousands of empty hotel beds reserved for people seeking asylum to avoid a repeat of dangerous overcrowding at the Manston processing center last year.
About 8,000 Afghans invited to the UK under Operation Pitting were sent letters in Braverman’s name in May warning that they must move out of bridging accommodation.
In at least three hotels where Afghans have been asked to leave – in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, and in Chelmsford and Colchester in Essex – the government is planning to use the accommodation to house people who have traveled to the UK in small boats.
Afghan residents in all three hotels said they were given eviction notices for next month. But all say that at least part of their hotels have been reserved by the Home Office for other new arrivals in small boats.
The Afghan representative said the development pits Afghan refugees against each other.
Peymana Assad, a Labor councillor of Afghan origin who worked closely with people evacuated under Operation Pitting, said: “Afghans are now at risk of homelessness come the eviction date and, what is worse, is that those coming on the small boats are eligible Afghan refugees or already have Arap [Afghan relocations and assistance policy] acceptance letters.
“The government’s continued refusal to provide safe routes for asylum for Afghans like they did for Ukraine is what is driving vulnerable Afghans on to boats. What they are doing is effectively pitting Afghan refugees against Afghan refugees.”
Shabnam Nasimi, the director of the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan who was a policy adviser to ministers after Operation Pitting, said: “It is unfair and cruel that they are being asked to go to the back of the queue behind a cohort of people who come here in boats across the Channel.
“It is clear that the government is trying to find a way to deal with the small boat crisis. But this response is wrong and adds to the misconception that people who were invited here from Afghanistan are here illegally.”
The government says that more than 24,000 people have arrived in the UK from Afghanistan as of December 2022, including British nationals. Of these, more than 21,000 have been resettled under Afghan refugee schemes.
Most came as part of Operation Pitting, the British military operation starting in August 2021 to evacuate British nationals and Afghans from Kabul.
That month, Boris Johnson launched Operation Warm Welcome, the government’s Afghan resettlement program so that people who had worked and sometimes fought alongside British soldiers could “rebuild their lives, find work, pursue education and integrate into their local communities”.
Councils are warning that dozens of Afghan families could be left homeless in August amid a growing housing crisis.
Asked why hotels were being vacated by Afghans to be then used to cope with a Manston overflow, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Hotels are not, and were never designed to be, long-term accommodations for Afghans resettled in the UK and it is not in their best interest to be living in hotel accommodation for months or years on end.
“That is why we have announced a plan, backed by £285m of new funding, to speed up the resettlement of Afghan nationals into long-term homes. Extensive government support is available and we will continue to do all we can to help Afghan families as they rebuild their lives here.”