By Susie Ballentyne
Over the past weeks and months, countless journeys have taken take place across Afghanistan. As the Taliban pushed north towards the capital in August 2021, hundreds of thousands of Afghans, fearing for their lives and those of their families, fled from the provinces towards Kabul and out to neighbouring countries. The speed and chaos that defined the rapid Western withdrawal made these journeys even more hazardous. As UK and US forces took their final flights out of Kabul airport, hundreds that were promised safe passage were left behind. Many now face making another journey through Afghanistan towards its borders, part of a historical exodus over twenty years that has already led to 3.5 million Afghans internally displaced and 2.2 million seeking sanctuary in neighbouring countries.
As we watch Afghans arriving in Heathrow it’s easy to conclude that their journey is over. Life under Taliban rule or in neighbouring refugee camps is an insufferable existence, and they are certainly fortunate to have made it out of Afghanistan. But their journey, and their suffering is far from over. Arrival to the shores of the UK only marks the end of the first journey. Being granted asylum and settling into a new life is another journey all together, and one which the research suggests is just as challenging.
Psychological problems associated with refugee life can be just as debilitating as the traumatic experiences of conflict or persecution. Whilst life under Taliban rule and the demands of seeking sanctuary are often deeply distressing, the UNHCR assess that most refugees do not develop mental health problems, such as PTSD, as a result of these experiences. Rather, studies find that it is the day-to-day struggles refugees face, what are often termed ‘post-migration’ or ‘secondary stressors’ that present the most significant problems, and can go on to cause displacement trauma. Factors such as lack of employment, perceived discrimination, poverty and legal uncertainties have consistently been found to be powerful predictors of distress.
As the UK government welcomes the first of the 20,000 refugees it has promised to resettle over the next five years, it has launched ‘Operation Warm Welcome’ designed to help mitigate these stressors and enable Afghans to re-build their lives. As part of the New Plan for Immigration it promises to provide additional funds and access to school places, medical care, education and accommodation to help enable integration to those granted indefinite leave to remain. These efforts are to be applauded, but re-building lives is complicated and goes beyond the provision of basic services. Being forced to transition from one country and culture to another has a significant social psychological impact, and interventions to support refugees must take these into account if the UK is to provide the stability and success of a new life it has committed to deliver.
As part of my doctoral research with John Drury at the University of Sussex, we’ve been exploring early refugee experiences and have focused on the role of social identity. Social identity is that aspect of who we are as defined by the groups we belong to. Nationality, gender, religion, community, and common experiences can all create social identities which we value to a greater or lesser extent, shaping the way we see ourselves, and influencing our decisions and actions. Social identity is particularly important in refugee life because those fleeing conflict and persecution not only have to adjust to the loss of home, loved ones and possessions, but also must cope with a lost, changed or threatened identity, as well as the loss of meaningful relationships through which new identities are formed.
Over recent years, research has shown how important social identities are to our physical and mental health, helping us meet the need to belong, to feel positive about ourselves, to have purpose and meaning. By belonging to meaningful groups, we can also access resources we might otherwise struggle to harness, such as particular goods, skills or knowledge. Social identities also operate as a buffer against stress and adversity, helping to build resilience; all things that are fundamental to refugees fleeing conflict and arriving in new countries.
But social identities can also be a ‘curse’ as well as a cure, used against others in order undermine or deny certain rights or privileges. History is sadly defined by inter-group conflict, whereby social identity is used by one group against another as a means of control Being a woman in Afghanistan who is no longer able to work or actively participate in social life is one lamentable example. But the dark side of social identity doesn’t stop at the borders of conflict and persecution. The role of social identity post-migration is just as significant.
Whilst efforts to provide jobs, language support and medical access are extremely important as refugees are welcomed to the UK, those new arrivals are also beginning a journey in which their identities are again at stake. Being unable to live, connect and belong as they had before undermines their physical and psychological wellbeing, which jeopardizes their chances of a ‘stable’ and ‘successful’ integration into British life. The challenge for those arriving from Afghanistan is to balance who they were and are, whilst also becoming someone else: a new version of themselves, one which is shaped and defined by British processes, culture, belief and language.
Our research shows that on arrival in a new country, this seismic change for refugees creates pathways which can be both cure and curse. When given the opportunity to connect to similar others from their home country, given a chance to find meaningful work and engage with others through language and shared activities, there is scope for finding ways to adapt and settle. Refugees have an opportunity to build a new sense of who they are on the foundations of who they were, and this confers benefits to both them and to their host country. But for those unable to connect, those perhaps constrained by process or prejudice, there is a real risk that they become frozen, neither being what they once were nor what they could be. Without the means to identify (for example, by being held back from access or opportunity to engage in wider social relationships), practice important cultural and social traditions, or connect to those they have been separated from, they have nowhere to belong, and no means to adapt to a new life.
So, what should a ‘warm welcome’ look like and how can we support the next journey Afghan refugees will make in the UK? There is no doubt that access to basic provisions of education, health and work are all essential starting points. Without these opportunities it is impossible to connect to others and forge a shared identity that powers its ability to provide a social cure which supports wellbeing and resilience. But as a host country, the UK also needs to ensure that space is given to Afghans to be both what they once were and who they may become, to take part in civic life, to participate in events, to share traditions in order that we come to know and find meaning in each other’s worlds.
A warm welcome is about compassionate connection, one that provides the social scaffolding that allows refugees to live and adjust their own identities to British life at a pace and manner that is meaningful to them. By being given opportunity to work, to be reunited with family members, to learn a new language and culture whilst also being able to celebrate their own, we can help refugees embark on their next journey with a sense of agency and belonging. For those Afghans who have come to the UK, this is far from the end of their journey. A warm welcome marks the start of the next, and one in which we must be mindful of the way in which we respond to and support their arrival.