Enver Solomon is Chief Exective of the Refugee Council.
The villagers of North Moreton, near Didcot in Oxfordshire are frustrated and angry. Moved by the horrors of the conflict in Ukraine the residents are eager to welcome refugees to their village.
But delays waiting for the visa applications required under the Homes for Ukraine scheme have left them annoyed and more than disappointed.
One of the residents, Polly Vacher, told the BBC: ‘It’s a disgrace, I’m ashamed to be British for the first time in my 78 years’.
She’s not the only person across the country to feel that way. National and local newspapers and broadcasters have been contacted by numerous Britons angry and anguished by the fact that they want to welcome Ukrainians into their homes but delays and bureaucracy are standing in their way.
Soon after Michael Gove launched the scheme last month tens of thousands of people immediately stepped forward offering to throw open their homes to welcome Ukrainians, mainly women and children whose lives have been shattered by the war.
To date some 200,000 want to host Ukrainians and many more are wanting to provide help to them.
It’s an ambitious and bold programme that could see the nation provide sanctuary to refugees on an unprecedented scale. And the Government should be congratulated for making it uncapped. But nearly a month after it was launched things don’t appear to be going so smoothly.
For the scheme to be a success there are four key elements (the four S’s) required: speed, safety, support and sustainability.
Firstly speed is obviously important. Four and a half million people have fled Ukraine, the largest movement of refugees in Europe for a generation.
The neighbouring countries – Poland, Romania, Hungary are Moldova – are having to cope with a massive influx of people. Women and children are having to fend for themselves with stories of them sleeping rough desperate to find a home and start to find a way to put their lives back together.
A humanitarian crisis of this scale demands a quick response. We should be providing a rapid safe passage to the UK for those who want to come here. The EU has waived visas and countries such as Ireland, France and Spain have already welcomed tens of thousands of refugees.
Less than 2,000 have arrived in the UK on the Homes for Ukraine scheme. The Government should waive visas as an immediate short term measure and look to introduced a simplified emergency humanitarian visa process.
Instead it is insisting on a complex and extremely bureaucratic visa application process. Such managed migration systems are intended to regulate and control the flow of people into countries during normal stable times. They aren’t designed to be used in response to a refugee crisis on the scale that Europe is facing.
Not surprisingly, the system is failing. There are long delays, battles with complex paperwork requirements and a slow response from a visa system that isn’t able to respond at pace or with urgency.
Ensuring safety to vulnerable women and children traumatised by having to flee their homeland is, of course, paramount. The Government knows this and has put in place checks that require anybody who wants to sponsor a Ukrainian to be subject to not only a Police National Computer check but also a DBS application, which is required for anybody working with children or vulnerable adults.
These checks can never be foolproof and hosts could welcome Ukrainians into their homes before they are completed. So risks, will inevitably remain. But important steps are in place.
The challenge, however, is a matching process that has bloomed entirely as a DIY format and is inevitably at risk of being exploited by those who seek to harm, exploit, and prey upon vulnerable Ukrainian women and children. A Times newspaper investigation has already exposed men making sexual advances online.
The Government knows this is a serious risk and is now seeking to put in place some kind of accreditation system for matching sites so people can be directed to those it is formally sanctioning. It’s unclear, though, if this will be too little too late. Hopefully it won’t.
Support to refugees and hosts is also vital. People arriving will be disorientated, without cash or a bank account – all the basics we take for granted in our daily lives. Enabling them to quickly settle and get the requisite documentation they need to function is no easy task.
Councils have been provided with funding so they can put in place what is being called wrap around support. It’s vital this is actually provided as supporting refugees to settle and rebuild their lives is so important for their well being and their overall mental health.
It requires input from agencies who have a track record in this work and can’t be left to hosts, however, committed they are.
Sponsoring a refugee can be a rewarding experience and a huge commitment. While it’s heart warming that so many people have signed up to help those from Ukraine, we should be realistic about the challenges involved on both sides in making this arrangement a success.
The relationship between a host and a refugee comes with risks and responsibilities. Inevitably, things may not always work out. That’s why it’s so important that hosts and refugees are provided with the right training and specialist support to make a success of this potentially challenging on-going relationship.
Professionals need to be on hand to provide them with the advice and help needed, including therapy, access to services, and support with integration – and to step in on the occasions when this arrangement doesn’t work out.
Avoiding sponsorship breakdowns is obviously important to the sustainability of the scheme, but equally important is putting in place a route for people to move into independence with their own home and job. The DWP has a critical role to play in ensuring a quick and seamless move onto universal credit and assistance with employment advice.
Regional housing taskforces, made up of the key agencies, should also be formed to ensure accommodation barriers are addressed that already exist due to the pressured housing stock.
Britain could and should be welcoming refugees at a scale and pace not seen before. The public seem to be ready to do this. But the biggest failing at present is the barrier created by the visa programme.
Paperwork is being put before people. Control above compassion. And bureaucracy ahead of agility.
The Government needs to recognise this and change the system. At the same time it must continue to work with councils, other agencies and civil society to form a well resourced partnership that makes the Homes for Ukraine programme a real success.
If it fails the anger and frustration of the residents of North Moreton will only get worse, and the Government is likely to lose support.