Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fly outside Downing Street as hundreds protest the invasion by Russia. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue
Thousands of UK households have signed up to a scheme to welcome Ukraine refugees into their homes.
The government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme offers people £350 a month to open their homes to people fleeing the war. Almost 90,000 people have signed up within the first day of the scheme.
About 4,000 visas have been issued to Ukrainians with “tens of thousands” more expected to be provided, according to levelling up secretary Michael Gove.
He described the scheme as a “national effort” on behalf of those in desperate need – but campaigners have questioned whether it goes far enough to support those fleeing war.
The Home Office’s slow response to Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis had been widely criticised. Last week it was revealed that just 50 UK visas had been granted since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, equating to one for every 28,000 people granted sanctuary by the EU at the same time.
More than 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine.
Labour insists that unanswered questions remain, and has accused the government of “dragging its feet” over the Ukrainian refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey called for home secretary Priti Patel to be sacked, calling her response to the crisis “utterly shameful”.
What is the Homes for Ukraine scheme?
The Homes for Ukraine programme allows individuals, charities, community groups and businesses across the UK to offer a room or home rent-free to Ukrainians escaping the war – regardless of whether they have ties to the country – for at least six months.
It’s thought that by the end of its first week, the first refugees using the new route will arrive in the UK, and be matched with people offering spaces in their homes.
Once refugees arrive they will be allowed to stay in the UK “for at least three years”, with access to the NHS, public services, and their children will be able to attend local schools.
Local authorities will also receive £10,500 in extra funding per refugee for support services – with more for children of school age.
You can express your interest in helping on the Homes for Ukraine website, ahead of Phase One of the scheme opening for applications on Friday.
It’s possible to register your interest either as an individual or organisation, and you’ll be asked to offer accommodation for at least six months, in exchange for £350 per month.
Those who have a named Ukrainian they wish to sponsor should contact them directly and prepare to fill in a visa application, with the application launching on Friday March 18.
The website for registering interest in the scheme crashed for a short while because of the numbers offering homes.
Health secretary Sajid Javid told BBC Breakfast there would be “no cap” on the number of people who can be supported through the scheme.
“I’m pleased that we’re doing this because as a country we have a very proud record of offering sanctuary to people from wars and from conflicts,” he added.
Levelling up secretary Gove said: “The courage shown by the Ukrainian people in the face of devastation caused by the invasion of their great country is nothing short of remarkable.
“The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of helping others in their hour of need and our new Homes for Ukraine scheme offers a lifeline to those who have been forced to flee.
“I’m asking people across our country who can provide a home for Ukrainians to consider being sponsors.”
Applications to host refugees will be made online and both hosts, and refugees, will be vetted.
Sponsors will then be kept updated on the scheme.
Are there any issues with the scheme?
Cllr James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents 350 councils across England and Wales, said: “The humanitarian crisis caused by the Ukraine invasion is heart-breaking. Councils are ready to help new arrivals from Ukraine settle in the UK and to support communities who wish to offer assistance to those fleeing the devastating conflict.”
However, the Refugee Council has raised concerns about the level of support the scheme would provide for those traumatised by war.
Similarly, Refugee Action believe the scheme is a “massive downgrade from the UK’s previous support for refugees” and may even put them at risk.
Chief executive Tim Naor Hilton said: “After weeks of dither and delay the government’s plan to protect people fleeing the war in Ukraine fails to match the need of the moment and the compassion of the public.
“Community sponsorship is an important part of any refugee protection system and a wonderful way for people to show their support – but it can only ever be a drop in the ocean of what is needed. With current community sponsorship schemes resettling 150 people a year, it is challenging to scale up and takes too much time to be the main response to the displacement of more than 2.5 million people.
“We understand that Ukrainians arriving through this scheme will not be given refugee status, which falls far short of the protection guarantee they should expect. It will also limit their access to benefits which could leave them without support they would desperately need if they have difficulties with their sponsor.”
He added: “Requiring people to choose who they sponsor makes it likely that marginalised people or those with the most acute needs will be left without a route to safety.”
Previously, the UK Resettlement Scheme has worked by giving people full refugee status on arrival, and five years of caseworker support and access to healthcare, housing, education, school, higher education and benefits – but it is not being revived to help Ukrainian refugees.
The government’s Nationality & Borders Bill is currently being pushed through parliament, and will criminalise Ukrainians and others who arrive in the UK without prior authorisation, with those arriving through anything other than resettlement set to receive a lesser form of protection.
Refugee Action is calling on the government to agree an amendment in the Nationality & Borders Bill when it returns to the Commons in the coming weeks, that will commit the UK to resettling at least 10,000 refugees a year from around the world.
Freedom from Torture – an organisation which provides support to refugees and asylum seekers who have survived torture – also believes the Homes for Ukraine scheme does nothing to tackle the mountain of red tap which refugees will continue to face when seeking sanctuary on our shores.