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Refugees from Afghanistan wait to be processed after arriving on an evacuation flight at Heathrow Airport, London, on August 26, 2021. © 2021 Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images

(London) – The uncertainty and crowding in temporary housing is causing growing tensions for Afghan evacuees in the United Kingdom, especially women.

Eight months after emergency evacuations from Afghanistan, many Afghan evacuees to the UK are still in temporary housing, usually hotel rooms. Human Rights Watch interviewed five women who have lived in three temporary housing locations in London since late August 2021. They described a heightened risk of domestic violence, surveillance, and constraints on their freedom of movement in temporary housing populated entirely by Afghan refugees.

“The Afghan women interviewed were all grateful for being evacuated,” said Sahar Fetrat, assistant women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But they have dealt with a huge amount of trauma before and during their flight from Afghanistan, and now they are dealing with conditions that are affecting their mental health and keeping them from integrating into the community.”

Human Rights Watch wrote to the home secretary, the minister for refugees, and other relevant UK authorities in April 2022 to raise our concerns and inquire about the government’s plans to remedy the problems. At the time of publication, the government has not responded.

The UK evacuated about 18,000 people including more than 6,000 British nationals after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August and housed them in temporary accommodations while seeking more permanent housing for them. The Guardian reported that about 12,000 people remain in temporary housing, with many families living in one room.

The UK Home Office should step up the pace of providing more long-term housing and support services for Afghan refugees, Human Rights Watch said.

“A hotel room is always a hotel room; it’s never home,” one woman said. Another expressed frustration with the slow housing process, saying, “A hotel in London is brilliant for a short time, not for seven months. We have lost a sense of routine, personal space, home, and freedom to manage our lives independently.”

The women told Human Rights Watch that due to lack of personal space in their temporary accommodations, feelings of distress and pressure from the evacuated community members in the housing, and aggression and domestic violence against women have increased. “A woman was battered by her husband in our hotel, when she tried to report it, the community in the hotel stopped her by intimidating her over the consequences,” one woman said.

Another woman said that “Several times, I have heard a couple fighting next door. The husband shouts and leaves, slamming the door, and the wife cries loudly. She has spent seven months in a hotel room and hasn’t seen anything but the hotel premises.”

Traditional gender roles, and lack of money and social support mean that many of the women say they feel trapped in their rooms. “For married women like me, we must stay in hotel rooms looking after our children and watching our husbands going out freely and making friends outside,” one woman said. She said she would like to attend a language course but has no one to look after her children.

Another woman said, “For most married women, there is no activity, and most husbands don’t let their wives to go out; these women are going crazy.” In Afghanistan some of these women would also have had limited freedom of movement but would have had more privacy and their own space.

Evacuees receive a monthly benefit from the UK Home Office of £250 to £280. But the women interviewed said that many men take all the stipends for the family. “Women are given bank cards, but the husband keeps the pin codes,” one woman said. “Most of these women are uneducated or unfamiliar with such systems, and they have no control over their own money.” 

The women said that Afghans from different parts of the country are thrown together in temporary housing, even though they are from varied ethnic and linguistic groups and multiple religions and have widely varying views on social norms. The consequence, they said, is often pressure on the women to conform to norms they would have resisted even in Afghanistan, at a time when they had hoped to be integrating into their new UK communities.

Women from less traditional backgrounds face microaggressions and sexist comments from some men. “One day I went running in my sports outfit,” one woman said. “When I returned to the hotel, a man standing in the hotel lobby checked me out from head to toe and said, ‘I see you have integrated too soon, haven’t you?’”

She said that young single women face even harsher judgments: “The environment is getting more toxic and intolerable day by day. Once, somebody directly said that I am a prostitute and I promote prostitution among women. Men tell their wives to avoid talking to women like me.” She said this also cuts the wives off from female friends who could help them learn about UK culture and life.  

Four of the women interviewed said they had been evacuated because they had worked outside the home, in some cases in prominent jobs. The fifth woman works in the home and was evacuated due to her husband’s role in the previous government.

“I am very grateful to the UK government,” one of the women said. “But the sense of constantly being watched for every action I take, everywhere I go out and every time I come back, getting judged for not wearing a hijab is restricting me as a person. It is tiresome.”

Another woman said, “While I feel fortunate to be evacuated, I cannot deny how shocking the evacuations process was. We were robbed of our home and the future we had imagined for ourselves, and in the hotel, I constantly feel judged for my choice of clothing, not only by the Afghan community but hotel’s staff too.” She said many of the Afghans in the hotel treat her with disapproval because she does not fit traditional expectations of Afghan women. “We were dumped in hotels together without any plans by the officials to get our housing sorted in any near future.”   

The women interviewed described severe mental health consequences from their experiences in Afghanistan and the continuing tensions they face. One said that the Home Office has offered some mental health support but that “Our people need to be educated on the importance of counseling and therapy first. I see a lack of proper effort and communication from both sides, especially from the officials’ side.” 

The Home Office, with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities working closely with local authorities, should urgently expedite moving evacuees into permanent housing that meets standards for housing conditions and space, taking the whole family's needs and preferences into account, Human Rights Watch said. Officials should ensure that accommodations are in a location where residents have access to community resources including parks, playgrounds, children’s centers, health facilities, and social services.

While families remain in temporary housing, the needs and preference of women should be taken into account with special attention to concerns that single women or women-headed households may face. The government should have clear and effective policies to deal with domestic violence in temporary housing, including posted and outreach materials in Afghan languages. Staff in these facilities should be trained to recognize and respond to gender-based violence, should be made aware of and sensitive to the residents’ diverse backgrounds, and should treat all residents with respect.

The government should provide regular outreach to people in both temporary and permanent housing by culturally and linguistically competent social service workers and link people with services for people experiencing domestic or gender-based violence as needed.

The authorities should also make sure that women have access to their own funds and advise male family members that they cannot take female family members’ benefits. The authorities should provide childcare so that women can attend language classes, including for women still in temporary housing. The authorities should also provide better access to mental health support and information to evacuees about its importance.

“The women I spoke with are resilient and eager to move ahead in beginning new lives in the UK,” Fetrat said. “But they feel stuck right now, in environments that are often dangerous for women. They need more support from the UK government to rebuild their and their families’ lives.”

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