Afghan refugee in London told to give up doctorate and move to Yorkshire
By Rajeev Syal Home affairs editor,2023-02-05
A Chevening academic will be forced to give up a doctorate, a scholarship and teaching roles under Home Office plans to uproot Afghan refugees from London and move them to hotel rooms in Yorkshire, a university has said.
Suella Braverman, the home secretary, has been asked by a senior university official to intervene after Ahmad, a PhD student in engineering, and his young family were told to relocate 200 miles away to Wetherby near Leeds.
The move would end Ahmad’s ability to complete a thesis expected to become an engineering handbook on how to utilise billions of dollars worth of infrastructure after conflicts, the university said. It would also make him ineligible to receive the Warm Welcome Scholarship from the British Council that he was granted in September.
The family are among hundreds of Afghan refugees who have been told they must relocate while waiting for permanent homes. They include 150 children who will have to leave their London schools in the middle of the academic year and have not yet been offered a guarantee of places in Wetherby.
Ahmad, 32, who completed his MSc at the leading research university last year, despite spending more than a year in a succession of single hotel rooms with his wife and two children under the age of three, said he is having to choose between an academic career or a place to live.
“The Home Office’s decision to move us from one hotel to another, now for the fourth time, has been challenging and caused anxiety and depression. The decision means either giving up on studies or ending up on the streets,” he said.
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The university’s letter, seen by the Guardian, has pointed out that Ahmad must spend at least a day on campus a week and attend in-person tutorials and lectures to qualify for his PhD, which cannot be deferred without breaching the terms of his scholarship.
The senior university official wrote that Ahmad should be placed “a commutable distance” from the university’s campus.
“[Ahmad] is a promising student who, despite all the challenges he faces, achieved a distinction in his master’s course at [the university]. His area of research has the potential to be a significant and important contribution to world stability,” the official wrote.
Ahmad was one of 30 academics in Afghanistan who were granted a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Chevening scholarship in August 2021.
When Kabul fell a few weeks later, it was announced that the scholars would not be able to escape to the UK – a decision the then prime minister Boris Johnson was forced to reverse following a public outcry.
At the time, Ahmad was working with the US government to help construct energy transmission lines, military bases and prisons, making him an obvious target for the Taliban.
After escaping to the UK, the family of four spent 500 nights in various hotels in London living in single rooms, before being moved to a hotel in Kensington.
In the autumn, Home Office staff told the Afghan hotel residents in Kensington that they may have to move out at some point – a decision that was not confirmed in writing until last month.
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Ahmad said he raised concerns that he would have to give up his scholarship and research if forced to move to out of London, but was told by one Home Office official: “You didn’t have to accept your position at the university, when you knew you were in a temporary situation and you knew that your next accommodation could be anywhere.”
Afghan refugees in the Kensington hotel are due to be moved out from Tuesday. Some say they will resist going to Wetherby because of the disruption to their children’s education.
A Home Office spokesperson said it is working with local authorities in advance of the hotel move and there is a legal duty to provide education for refugees.
“While hotels do not provide a long-term solution, they do offer safe, secure and clean accommodation. We will continue to bring down the number of people in bridging hotels, moving people into more sustainable accommodation as quickly as possible.
“Occasionally families may be moved from a hotel scheduled for closure to another hotel. In these instances, families are given appropriate notice of a move and are supported by their local authority every step of the way,” the spokesperson said, in a repeat of a statement issued on Thursday.
Ahmad’s name has been changed, the university’s name withheld and his face obscured because of fears that his family could be targeted in Afghanistan
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