This week, the government launched their ‘Homes for Ukraine scheme’ that allows UK individuals, charities and businesses to record their interest supporting Ukrainian’s fleeing the war. More than 138,000 people registered within the first few days in a move that’s been celebrated by many as showcasing incredible community spirit at this desperate time.
Of course, it’s incredible that so many people want to open their home to refugees, that cannot be argued with. But the thing is, they shouldn’t have to – and they wouldn’t have to if the British government actually kept up their global commitments to refugees.
Allow me to explain. Last summer, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan resulted in an urgent evacuation of 12,000 refugees from Kabul to the UK. The families were promised new lives here, and again it was an incredible display of what humanitarian good Britain can do if the government chooses to. But within days of the evacuation, problems started to crop up – there was nowhere to house the refugees permanently. Temporary accommodation was set up and seven months later, thousands still remain living in hotels.
The Afghan evacuation highlighted a major government failure, because make no mistake – housing should exist for those refugees. Just as it should for Ukrainian refugees now. Why doesn’t it? Well, when we spoke to Refugee Action in December last year, they explained that the government used the pandemic to dodge their humanitarian commitments to refugees.
There should be 5,000 homes sitting there ready but the government dragged their heels.
‘Up until the pandemic, the UK was resettling 5,000 Syrian refugees every year and then obviously, we had to stop flights,’ recalls Louise Calvey, head of services and safeguarding at Refugee Action. ‘But the government was very, very slow to reopen those flights again. In fact, they didn't notably open those flights at any sort of scale or pace until the Afghan evacuation [last summer].
'So essentially what happened is the government had built a pipeline of homes for 5,000 refugees every year, but they neglected that pipeline in the pandemic and they pretty much switched it off. So there would have been 5,000 homes sitting there ready [for the Afghan refugees last year] but they’re not because the Home Office really, really dragged their heels on their commitment to refugee resettlement.’
Of course, the pandemic was new territory for us all and it’s understandable that construction would slow on refugee housing at such a chaotic time – but, according to Louise, the government was still refusing to rescue fleeing refugees, while allowing the public to fly to the same destinations they were waiting in. These are countries that refugees had fled to as they awaited a UK evacuation (usually countries neighbouring those people were fleeing from).
‘To some extent, the government hid behind the pandemic on that because we saw at points in the pandemic, people were allowed to go on holiday, to Turkey or to Egypt, without any restrictions but we weren't allowed to take refugees that were being hosted in Turkey or Egypt at that time,’ Louise says.
‘We were saying to the government, this is not good enough, there are people that we could be helping but you won't allow us to help those people because of the pandemic yet you can go on holiday there. Now, had we not switched off refugee resettlement and kept the wheels spinning, there’s thousands of refugees in contingency hotels that could be in their home now.’
We should actually be embarrassed that women are being forced to stay with strangers not even subject to DBS checks.
It's no surprise then that the government are forced to rely on the British public opening their homes. The homes refugees should have simply aren’t there, and there are already thousands of Afghan refugees in the accommodation meant to house some temporarily. There is nowhere else to go except the British public's homes. And yet, this whole effort – the Homes for Ukraine scheme – is being sold to us as a momentous exercise in British pride.
In actuality, we should be embarrassed that it’s come to this. That women and children are being forced to stay with strangers who are not even being subject to the most basic DBS checks before arrival. Because, while it’s lovely to believe the people registering for this scheme are well-meaning, many have raised safety concerns about that too.
This week, the Local Government Association warned that some accommodation would not meet safety expectations and that councils faced a ‘very tight timeframe to make appropriate safety checks’. Refugees minister, Lord Harrington of Watford, also told Parliament that he could not guarantee all homes would be assessed before refugees began arriving.
‘I'm assured the electronic checks that can be done really quickly take place,’ he told the Commons Home Affairs Committee. ‘Then the local authorities will be responsible for the full DBS checks and they will inspect properties and inspect the situations. Next week I’m expecting thousands of people to come but it will be their responsibility and, particularly where there’s a possibility of vulnerability with children, this sort of thing, that would take priority…but if we started saying we’re going to pre-view it, it’s just not possible.’
Lauren Agnew, human trafficking policy expert at Christian Action, Research and Education, told The Guardian that while the scheme is 'well motivated' it could quickly lead to exploitation.
'With large numbers of applications needing to be processed quickly, red flags could be missed in the vetting of potential hosts,' she said. 'Recent statistics from the National Crime Agency estimate there are at least 6,000-8,000 modern slavery offenders in the UK. We can be certain that some of this number will be seeing the Homes for Ukraine scheme as an opportunity to turn a profit.'
Under the scheme, UK householders paid £350 a month if they take in named individuals for a minimum of six months. And we're already seeing crass jokes about it online - men posting pictures of beautiful Ukrainian women with the captions 'I'll take in a refugee!!!'.
While the government have defended their approach and promised safeguarding in the long term, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove admitted this week that the initial vetting will be 'light'.
'We want to minimise bureaucracy and make the process as straightforward as possible while doing everything we can to ensure the safety of all involved,' he said. 'Sponsors will therefore be required to undergo necessary vetting checks, and we are also streamlining processes to security-assess the status of Ukrainians who will be arriving in the United Kingdom. Anyone who acts as a sponsor will face light-touch vetting checks initially, and subsequently will be visited by those from local government who … are experts in safeguarding.'
With what we know about the government's neglect of refugee housing and now these safety concerns, we must ask: is the Homes for Ukraine scheme a cause for celebration or is it an indication of yet another government failure?