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Tuesday, Dec 07, 2021

‘Chaotic’ UK response criticised as Afghan babies wait for milk and donations turned away

‘Chaotic’ UK response criticised as Afghan babies wait for milk and donations turned away

Volunteers ‘operating blind’ about refugees’ needs, while hotels left with no staff to distribute aid
The government’s response towards families evacuated from Afghanistan to Britain has been “chaotic and uncoordinated”, hampering volunteers’ efforts to help, charities have said.

One hotel where 50 babies were in quarantine with their families after fleeing the Taliban had no formula milk, they said. In other hotels, supplies of clothes, toiletries and nappies donated by the public were turned away by managers who had no staff to distribute them.

There have already been reports of Afghan families resorting to shoplifting nappies and other essentials because of a lack of government support.

The charities and voluntary organisations are part of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCSEP), which was asked by the Home Office to coordinate help for those evacuated from Kabul.

More than 10,000 Afghans, including thousands of children, were in quarantine hotels after the largest evacuation in living memory, the government said last week. They are now being moved into at least 70 “bridging hotels” or other accommodation, according to VCSEP.

Laurence Smith, founder of the Lewisham Donation Hub, said they had been working “around the clock” as part of the nationwide response, delivering supplies to hotels around Heathrow and Luton airports and in London over the past 10 days. He said: “There’s no logistics, no information sharing, that’s evident. It’s chaotic. People in hotels are experiencing real need but hotel managers are saying: ‘We’ve got aid but we have no one to sort it and get it to the rooms.’”

Smith’s volunteer organisation, operating from office space donated by Lewisham council, has been working “blind”, he said, without access to official lists of quarantine or bridging hotels, the numbers of families inside, or anyone’s gender or age. Many Afghans had to leave behind everything they owned, including clothing.

Last weekend, Smith received an emergency request from Re:Act, a disaster-response charity, to deliver formula milk to a hotel housing 50 babies. He was able to find enough milk for half that number and had it delivered the same evening.

“There should be a coordinated response from the government, logging people when they come in, to say ‘there are so many under-twos, we need to buy formula milk’,” said Smith. “We’ve failed Afghans in their own country and to fail them again is shameful.

“We are operating blind and once people move from quarantine hotels, we will be blind again.”

The hub and its 34 volunteers have provided supplies for babies and children. Sophie Livingstone, head of Little Village, which is providing nappies and clothing to children under five quarantined in London hotels, said: “The response from charities and volunteers on the ground has been incredible, but in our experience, the coordination of the response from government has been nonexistent.”

Robyn Knox, interim director of VCSEP, said: “It is a very chaotic situation. We are trying to work with the Home Office process to try to address that, to ensure that the Lewisham Donation Hub and others who are able to step into the gap have accurate information about needs.

“The plan – about how the process should work and how different organisations can plug into that plan – hasn’t been clear.”

The response, Knox said, was being “hamstrung” by a “very limited understanding” of needs inside hotels. She called for a better plan for the bridging hotels.

Molly Mactaggart, of Re:Act, said: “It’s a complicated picture and it’s changing. There are a lot of things to consider. There are a lot of people who don’t speak the language. People are moving from quarantine hotels into bridging hotels. It’s hard, but everyone is doing their best.”

Mariam Lolavar, a Greenwich councillor, has been volunteering at a hotel in the borough. “A form went round rooms,” she said, “but sanitary products and baby milk were not on it. Women were too embarrassed to ask a male translator. We had distressed mothers saying their milk had dried up, saying, ‘I need to feed my children.’ We had to stockpile formula.”

In a series of tweets on Sunday, Lolavar said: “Just home from dropping culturally appropriate food for a pregnant Afghan woman in a local hotel, who hasn’t eaten properly in 4 days … Priti Patel, why am I doing your job for you? I am exhausted, our volunteers are exhausted, Royal Borough of Greenwich staff are exhausted. All because we are filling the gaps in your utterly shambolic and shoddy offer to those you made a promise to provide for in this country.”

Karim Sharin, of the Afghan Association of London, said: “We are getting requests for nappies and toiletries. People don’t know their immigration status. The lack of information and the lack of clarity for these people is so concerning.”

A Home Office spokesperson said the government was working “urgently” to ensure thousands of Afghans evacuated to Britain in exceptional circumstances received the support they needed to rebuild their lives, find work, pursue education and integrate into local communities. The spokesperson said: “Every day we work closely with local authorities and charities across the UK to ensure suitable accommodation and support is in place for those seeking asylum or resettlement in the UK.”

“We owe a great deal to those who worked alongside British forces and the UK government over the past two decades. The UK will step up and do right by those who have done right by us.”

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