A year since the UK government launched the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, Kathryn Cassidy looks back on how the scheme has worked, concluding we still know relatively little about how the experiences of Ukrainian refugees in the UK compare to those in other countries in the EU.
One year since the announcement of the government’s Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, 154,700 visas have been issued and 117,100 of these visa holders have arrived in the UK. It has proved to be the largest of the three visa schemes offered by the UK government, the others being the Ukraine Family Scheme and the Ukraine Extension Scheme. The scheme includes the individual hosting option, known as ‘Homes for Ukraine’, as well as the Scottish and Welsh governments’ super sponsor programmes, which are currently paused.
Built upon the approach developed through the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) (2014-2021), the scheme marked a continuation of policies that devolve responsibility for the welcome and integration of refugees to local authorities, voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations, and communities. This has been a feature of the UK government’s approach for more than three decades.
Unlike people from elsewhere in the world seeking asylum (or even Romanian and Bulgarian nationals coming for work during the period of transitional controls, which restricted access to employment and social security) the scheme gave refugees from Ukraine rights to access education, employment, health care and social security.
‘Homes for Ukraine’ also made individual UK residents responsible for supporting refugees to come to the UK through the practice of hosting them in their homes or properties. Prior to this, some voluntary and community sector organisations had run individual hosting schemes for migrants, taking responsibility for the vetting of potential hosts and matching them with those in need of homes.
The approach of the Scottish and Welsh governments differed from that of Westminster as they took responsibility for finding accommodation for refugees through their super sponsor schemes. This decision continued the trend of city and devolved administrations operating policies to welcome refugees that have been in contrast to – or in this case extending beyond – Westminster.
Central government’s role was effectively limited to: the granting of the visas (for which the Home Office launched an online process); providing a portal for potential hosts to match with refugees from Ukraine; and compensating hosts with what they described as ‘thank you’ payments of £350 per month.
This has enabled the current government to characterise the scheme as one that responds to the public’s demands to support people fleeing conflict in Ukraine, whilst continuing with border and immigration policies that negatively impact on those from elsewhere in the world seeking asylum in the UK. Just last week the government announced its Illegal Migration Bill, which denies those arriving in the UK unlawfully the right to claim asylum and threatens them with removal to either their home country or a third country, such as Rwanda.
Safeguarding concerns were raised in the initial weeks and months of the scheme. Whilst criminal records checks were carried out on hosts by national government, more detailed Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks and inspections of accommodation were the responsibility of local authorities, who reported being overwhelmed and not having enough resources to deal with these demands.
The UNHCR criticised the scheme, stating a need for adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation, as well as adequate support for sponsors. These weaknesses have resulted in the breakdown of individual hosting arrangements leading to homelessness.
There was also a mismatch in terms of the Home Office’s granting of three years’ leave to remain and the requirement that hosting lasted ‘at least six months’. Consequently, more than 4,000 Ukrainian households have received homelessness support.
The situation highlights structural issues in the UK housing sector stemming from policy-making under successive UK administrations since the 1980s – in particular, the divestment of state-owned housing.
Local authorities were tasked with re-housing homeless Ukrainians with VCS organisations supporting them with re-matching to another host. There were reports of sub-standard accommodation provided by local authorities, with some admitting that their limited supply of accommodation was insufficient to support all those presenting as homeless.
This led to a further displacement of some refugees, which has been a feature of the UK’s asylum system since 1999 when the Labour administration introduced a policy that forced asylum seekers without the funds to support themselves to be displaced into housing in a number of dispersal areas (where local authorities have agreed to accept asylum seekers, predominantly in parts of large northern cities and post-industrial areas where low-cost housing is in ready supply) on a no-choice basis.
The government made amendments to existing legislation that further displaced homeless refugees from Ukraine. The six-week limit homeless families can spend in bed and breakfast (B&B) accommodation was scrapped for refugee families entering the UK and local officials were also permitted to move refugees to B&Bs within 100 miles of their previous location.
Refugees have also reported difficulties in entering the private rental market. Many are unable to pay large deposits and their mobility prevents them from having a job history or willing guarantor. VCS organisations and even individuals have reportedly been intervening to support refugees into private rental accommodation.
The structure of the UK rental market places power in the hands of landlords and undermines any rights tenants may be afforded under law. In addition, the 2014 Immigration Act also introduced a ‘right to rent’ scheme that obliged landlords to carry out immigration checks on their prospective tenants. This legislation was found to have a discriminatory impact, making landlords less likely to rent their properties to people from minority groups.
‘Homes for Ukraine’ has been a key component of the welcoming response to refugees from Ukraine. Policy-making has removed barriers to travel to and access public services in the UK for refugees. Twelve months later, it is clear that the legacy of policies intended to deter would-be migrants have intersected with structural challenges in the UK housing sector to make it difficult for refugees to feel settled and ‘at home’.
A year on, however, we still know relatively little about how the experiences of refugees, hosts and the VCS organisations supporting them in the UK compare to those in other countries in the EU.
By Professor Kathryn Cassidy, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.
Kathryn’s UK in a Changing Europe fellowship project analyses responses to the displacement of people from Ukraine across government, civil society and communities in the UK, Poland and Romania.