Juggling watermelons: Afghan refugees are welcomed in the UK by an outdated system of outsourcing
Unit 9, a business estate in Hounslow. The frontline of Britain’s “Operation Warm Welcome”.
This two-story, unassuming building is home to a small charity, Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACCA); now a HQ in West London dedicated to supporting Afghan refugees evacuated from Kabul after the Taliban seized control.
Like charitable organisations across Hounslow and the country, the ACCA has been inundated with offers to help since August 15.
But it cannot cope alone.
The organisation's supplies and capabilities are unable to meet the overwhelming demand for services and advice. Their efforts, whilst noble, are limited – reliant on goodwill, experience and ingenuity, not centralised support.
This is one of the many organisations stepping up to help Afghans, taking on the government’s work – but without the power and resources required.
The New Arab visited the ACCA to learn more about its charismatic owner and understand the system of outsourcing hiding behind “Operation Warm Welcome”.
Charities focus on delivering emergency supplies
Set up 20 years ago, the ACCA is run by a former refugee from Afghanistan, Doctor Nooralhaq Nasimi – a friendly, Godfather-like character who rushes around piles of donations as he greets volunteers, asylum-seekers and media organisations at Unit 9 HQ.
“It’s like holding two watermelons in one hand,” the doctor exclaims. He gestures, extending his hands, exposing his palms and showing that this is not possible – indicating that they are taking on more than they can handle.
Around 500 people were coming every day to the ACCA after the Taliban seized Kabul. They were "anxious, crying," says the doctor, concerned about the safety of their families and friends.
Unfortunately, there is little the charity can do in terms of securing safe passage for vulnerable Afghans still in Afghanistan. What they can do is take people’s details and give them to the powers that be, and, of course, they can raise the issue with the media.
Instead, the ACCA's main focus involves delivering emergency supplies to Afghans in local hotels.
Two weeks ago, the charity delivered clothing, baby buggies, toiletries and other items to more than 200 people, half of them children, living in “bridging hotels”.
A “bridging hotel” is accommodation used by asylum-seekers and refugees who have finished their mandatory 10-days quarantine but have not been offered permanent homes.
There are some thousands of Afghan refugees waiting for permanent accommodation and stuck in “bridging hotels” across Britain.
Refugee Council told The New Arab that families can stay in these places for extended periods of time, without the basic supplies and often far away from where they’ll eventually end up.
Many Afghans are still in hotels, says Doctor Nasimi, and do not know what will happen to them next.
Afghan refugees need long-term support, but will it be available?
In the long term, the charity provides classes to help refugees integrate into British society.
“British values” reads a huge sign that sits on the staircase between the donation-riddled first floor and the charity’s upstairs office. The idea is to give Afghan refugees the necessary skills to thrive in British society, such as English lessons and female empowerment classes.
"The idea is to give Afghan refugees the necessary skills to thrive in British society, such as English lessons and female empowerment classes"
Arriving on the back of a refrigerated lorry in 1991, Doctor Nasimi knows first-hand the value of having a network of people and resources to rely on when you first arrive in a country.
When he speaks to an asylum-seeker at the charity, he makes a comment about Afghans with Masters degrees arriving in the UK and working in food delivery because they don't have basic language skills.
English language classes are included in the "warm welcome" package the Home Office will provide to Afghan refugees arriving in Britain, as well as accommodation and access to key services such as medical care.
“The challenge of integrating such a large number of people at pace and supporting them to rebuild their lives in safety cannot be met by central and local government alone. We are actively working with the private, voluntary and community sectors to harness a whole of society effort to address this challenge,” said the UK government in a statement published September 13.
Surely then, the ACCA is the type of grassroots organisation Victoria Atkins, minister in charge of running “Operation Warm Welcome”, and other government officials are working with to support newly arrived Afghan refugees. Surely?
The Doctor tells me there is no “formal partnership” between the charity, local government or the UK Home Office.
Giving the British Afghan community a voice to shape policy, not just respond to it
"We [Afghans] have no voice," says the doctor when I visited the ACCA.
I ask again, two weeks after my first visit. He repeats: “There has been no resources and no funding from the UK Home Office.”
The New Arab knows that Atkins has tried to get in contact with the ACCA, and other Afghan leaders via a Team meeting.
“Stupid” was the word used to describe this contact, limited to Teams rather than face-to-face contact and visits.
The New Arab contacted the Home Office, they came back from a series of Press Releases.
“For those evacuated here, we are determined to ensure they have the best possible start to life in the UK,” said the public statement.
The Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy scheme (ARAP) was the first UK government scheme launched to help Afghans. It offers support to current and formally empolyed staff who assisted the British army and are deemed at 'serious' risk. Over 8,000 Afghans are eligible to come to the UK under ARAP. This sits separately from the 20,000 Afghans to be resettled in Britain in the next five years under the second UK government scheme: Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS)
The government has promised Afghans arriving under their two schemes – the ARAP scheme and the ARCS scheme – “comprehensive integration support as they start their new lives in the UK".
What this means, in reality, awaits to be seen.
“No one has contacted us,” confirms the doctors, “to see what the needs of the community are.”
Relations between the local council and ACCA are even worse, he says.
They are strained, according to the doctor, because his daughter’s position at Conservative Friends of Afghanistan conflicts with the interest of the Labour-led local council.
“We get nothing from the local council and this makes me sad,” he says. The doctor believes it’s a shame “individual beliefs” are “mixed up with charities”.
When The New Arab contacted the Hounslow council, they responded with: “The Council is coordinating its support for Afghan evacuees by working with our statutory partners and the voluntary sector to ensure we have the right support in place to help these families.”
A statement on their website reads: “At this time, we have more than adequate supplies as a direct result of Hounslow’s generosity and commitment”. The council praised the Islamic Integration Community Centre and the Bedfont Lane Community Centre specifically for their efforts. The ACCA is not mentioned.
"We've become the main point of contact for news, companies, for refugees," says the doctor.
But, councils and government are not listening to "the needs of the people and the needs of the organisation".
So, until authorities start listening and support is centralised and systematised – they'll continue juggling watermelons.
Rosie McCabe is a London-based journalist. She is studying journalism at City, University of London with a focus on humanitarian reporting.
Follow her on Twitter: @RosieMcCabe3