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From Kabul to Crawley: using collaboration to understand Afghan resettlement across England

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 July 2024

Afghanistan flag on a vintage suitcase.

Afghanistan flag on a vintage suitcase. Credit: Sezerozger / Adobe Stock.

Caroline Oliver, with Mustafa Raheal, Mursal Rasa; María López, Louise Ryan, London Metropolitan University; and Janroj Keles, Middlesex University.

The national conversation around immigration often gets caught up in slogans, but sat behind this are complex realities of displacement and resettlement. Our research aims to capture the intricate stories beyond the headlines, focusing on Afghan resettled populations in England. This necessitates a collaborative approach, using novel methods.

The project

Since January 2024, a UCL team and a wider team of researchers have been examining the new bespoke humanitarian resettlement schemes for groups fleeing emergency situations in Afghanistan: the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). This research began at a crucial moment, when Afghans evacuated to the UK from Kabul in the Summer of 2021 were being moved on from emergency bridging hotels to local housing.

We write now as we begin to survey these families about how they are adapting to new housing, workplaces, schools, and social settings in a diverse range of English towns and cities. Asking recently resettled individuals to participate in a survey is not straightforward at a time when there is high suspicion around immigration. Building trust is proving vital for the success of our project, rooted in a co-creative approach.

Building trust through personal connections

“Having experienced the resettlement process firsthand, I can relate to the challenges our participants face. This helps me frame our questions in a way that resonates with them.” (Mustafa, UCL researcher)

Key to our approach has been recruiting Afghan researchers like Mursal Rasa and Mohammed Mustafa Raheal. Both Mursal and Mustafa have resettled in the UK, living in different regions outside London. They bring invaluable insights into the research process.

Mustafa arrived in the UK through the Chevening postgraduate scholarship the same year Afghanistan faced significant upheaval. Later, he resettled under the ACRS. His transition from international student to resettled person has given him a unique perspective on the challenges resettled Afghans face, such as language barriers and navigating new systems. Fluent in English, Dari, and Pashto, he has supported fellow Afghans voluntarily through various processes. These experiences have been instrumental in refining the research and survey questions, providing valuable insights into cultural perspectives that reflect the lived experiences of resettled Afghans.

Mursal Rasa is a former journalist from Afghanistan who has collaborated with recognized media organizations such as The Guardian, as well as working as a consultant for the UK Ministry of Defence to support newly arrived Afghans. In addition to being evacuated herself, she reported for The Guardian on the initial day of the Taliban takeover and the evacuation process from Kabul airport in 2021. Her involvement particularly ensures that women’s perspectives on security and access to work and education are represented.

Collaborative efforts on the ground

“Having Afghan staff members helps bridge the cultural gap and build trust with the resettled families. They see the benefits of research that directly works with families in the region.” (Sarah, a community organizer)

Our collaboration also extends to local council resettlement teams, community organisations, and regional strategic migration partnerships. Caseworkers and those contracted by councils in service-delivery roles are known to the families we are surveying, and they have detailed understanding of the resettlement process and the specificities of local contexts. Many employ Afghans to assist with their own delivery of services for these groups.

Working in tandem with local teams has also enabled us to recruit and employ a growing group of Afghan peer researchers, trusted by the families we aim to hear from, to help us conduct the survey. These people have first-hand experience of resettlement, followed by experiences of being affected by decades of invasions, wars, intra-ethnic conflicts, and displacement. We provide in-depth training, sometimes entirely in Dari for some women, connecting them with our team, each other, and local council resettlement teams.

Insights thus far

“It’s disheartening to see skilled professionals struggling, but our research is a vehicle for them to articulate their experiences in England and helps us understand the broader impact of resettlement.” (Mursal, UCL researcher)

Our recruitment of the fieldworkers has in itself been eye-opening, as during this process many have shared their own sobering insights into experiences of downward mobility, common following displacement. Many held senior roles in governments and wider public and private sectors in Afghanistan, but now work in England as part of the gig economy, in security or hospitality, on zero-hours contracts, despite possessing skills well above those required for their current jobs.

Impacts of this approach for research

“It’s more like doing quantitative research qualitatively.” (Louise, co-investigator, London Metropolitan University)

Working in this collaborative manner is essential for managing the complexity of charting a population in flux. Some newcomers are still arriving weekly through the schemes, particularly as Pakistan deports Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan, placing many in danger, while others are still waiting in limbo. In these circumstances, newly resettled Afghans would be unlikely to simply fill in surveys without support, encouragement, and engagement to explain the benefits.

Ultimately, this changes the way in which we conduct survey research. It is very time-consuming; requiring regular check in-meetings with local teams, and adjustments as peer researchers work around other employment and family commitments. This includes, already, adjustments as some move on to better jobs – something that of course we wish to see!

As our mixed-methods project develops, we will couple our survey with participatory methods such as Photovoice and walking interviews. Together, we hope this will capture well the nuances of migration experiences far beyond simplistic slogans, providing a deeper understanding of Afghan resettlement across England.

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