‘A Safeguarding Disaster Waiting to Happen’Holes in the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ Scheme are Putting Refugees in Danger
Sian Norris reports on safeguarding fears and delays in the Homes for Ukraine scheme that are putting vulnerable lives at risk
Campaigners continue to warn about massive gaps in the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, launched by the Government to allow volunteers to sponsor a Ukrainian family to live in their home for at least six months.
The scheme has been heavily criticised for safeguarding failures that leave women and children vulnerable to predatory men and to traffickers.
“This failing scheme is a safeguarding disaster waiting to happen,” Sile Reynolds, head of asylum advocacy at Freedom from Torture, told Byline Times. “The absence of safety checks to ensure that refugees are protected will put women and children at real risk of trafficking and abuse and we are already seeing reports of individuals attempting to use the scheme to prey on the vulnerable.”
Other concerns include that kind-hearted people signing up to sponsor a Ukrainian individual or family do not fully appreciate the role that they are taking on, which could lead to matches failing.
Meanwhile, those who have signed up to become hosts have voiced their frustration at the delays and lack of support from both the Home Office and local authorities – while acknowledging that the latter are doing their best in a pressured situation.
As of 13 April, the Home Office reported that 3,200 people had arrived in the UK on the sponsorship scheme.
The primary concern for human rights campaigners is that the Homes for Ukraine scheme has the potential to lead to safeguarding failures that could result in women and children being sexually exploited or trafficked.
Elle – who is working with grassroots efforts to support vulnerable Ukrainian refugees such as LGBTIQ people and people of colour – told Byline Times that such fears were rooted in experience.
She shared a screenshot of a conversation she had with a friend who was helping two women come to the UK from a safe third country on the scheme. In it, Elle’s friend describes how the women had been matched with a host in England. The man in his 70s initially said that he would offer his house for them to live in, “but he had other ideas”. He was looking for “sexual adventures” with both of the women.
When the women decided not to come to the UK, as a result of this predatory behaviour, he told them “you should be ashamed that you treat others like Putin is treating Ukrainians” – equating refusing sex for shelter with war crimes.
There have already been reports of Ukrainian women being preyed on by men offering a room in exchange for sex – as reported in The Times and the Daily Record. The United Nations refugee agency has now explicitly called on the UK Government to take measures to ensure that lone Ukrainian women are not matched with single men.
“I’ve heard of women matching with men on dating sites,” Elle said. “Within minutes they would get dozens of messages from single men, and on Facebook and Twitter it’s the same.”
In response to the fears, the Government has backed a matching service run by the charity Reset. But this came weeks after the scheme was first launched.
Elle believes that racialised and gendered stereotypes about Ukrainian women play a role in the way some men are approaching the scheme as an opportunity for sex or a girlfriend. “There are all these various sexist stereotypes,” she said.
On Reddit, one man even posited that the migration of Ukrainian women from the war could be the solution to a so-called “dating crisis”. Thankfully, Reddit users on the thread expressed their distaste for the suggestion.
Elle told Byline Times that she has heard from colleagues working in border towns in Poland that cars with UK registration plates have driven to train stations with men offering women a home in the UK. Charities have warned that “pimps” are travelling to the region to take advantage of the crisis.
Campaigners are also worried that the scheme relies on hosts telling their local authority about their guests’ arrival. But, as an asylum rights expert told Byline Times, a host could easily lie and say that their guest never turned up. This is a major vulnerability in the scheme that can be exploited by traffickers.
A spokesperson for one local authority, Bristol City Council, told Byline Times: “As this is a Government-led scheme, Bristol City Council is not informed of the arrival of families and therefore we are encouraging hosts to contact us and confirm that their connected families have reached our city.”
While local authorities are working on identifying safeguarding red flags after a sponsor signs up to the scheme – such as checking that the person is not on the Sex Offenders Register and that their home doesn’t have safety issues – campaigners are reporting that often safeguarding issues are raised after a visa has been approved and the local authority cannot then veto the decision.
‘Unbelievable Incompetence or a Cynical Betrayal’: Jane and Nadia’s Journey Through the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ Scheme
Delays and Uncertainty
When the Homes for Ukraine scheme was first launched, thousands of British people signed up to open their homes to vulnerable refugees. But, as the Home Office figures show, few visas have been issued and even fewer families have arrived.
One host told Byline Times that she had planned to welcome a Ukrainian woman and her two sons on 1 April, but they are still waiting for the visa. Her story is repeated by many sponsors on various Facebook pages, through which Ukrainian refugees can match with hosts. She said that she is constantly worried about the family’s safety.
When asked what support she had received from the Government to prepare for the family’s arrival, she said: “Nothing, just an email from the Home Office when I signed up to the mailing list. But nothing since.”
Bristol City Council told Byline Times that “while we wait to welcome more families to Bristol, we will continue to make the preparations needed to ensure that when they do arrive, they have the support they need to rest, recover and rebuild”.
However, the spokesperson also pointed out “the Government has not provided funding, data or guidance to the local authority regarding people arriving on a Ukrainian family visa”.
“By failing to provide adequate support and dumping responsibility on local authorities, the Government is betraying the compassion shown by the thousands across the UK who signed up to host Ukrainian refugees, who may be totally unaware about the level of support they will require,” Freedom from Torture’s Sile Reynolds told Byline Times.
“Given growing reports of torture and sexual violence against Ukrainian civilians, some refugees may also need specialist trauma support, but hosts may not know how to connect with organisations like Freedom from Torture that provide such specialist care.”
In an email seen by Byline Times from the host’s local authority inviting her to a DBS check and information event, she was told “please be assured that you being granted a visa is not connected to the council visiting you so any delay in the Government granting the visa not related to being visited by the local council”.
“We were told about the DBS check and information event only a few days in advance,” she said. “Luckily I had all the paperwork and could attend, but what if I couldn’t?”
The scheme has shown the willingness of the British public to show compassion and kindness towards vulnerable refugees – something affirmed by a spokesperson from Bristol City Council who said: “We anticipate the city will come forward with a multitude of opportunities, as the city did for Afghans who fled their country in August 2021.”
But campaigners are worried that sponsors will not fully understand what they are signing up for and may not be equipped to cope with the complex needs of traumatised refugees. As well as emotional support, people arriving in the UK from Ukraine need legal advice, guidance to get their children into schools, and practical assistance on registering their status.
“This all comes amid an unprecedented assault on the asylum system in this country, including plans within the Nationality and Borders Bill which would actually criminalise Ukrainian and other refugees who seek safety in the UK without a visa,” Reynolds added.
“If the Government were serious about helping those fleeing the conflict, it would stop tinkering with visa schemes and work to build a fairer, more compassionate asylum system that provides vulnerable people with the support they need.”