I spent the weekend talking to my family about Ukraine. We have made the decision to sign up for the Government’s new Homes for Ukraine scheme and offer to host someone fleeing from the war. It is possible she may be one of the potters or textile artists I know through Instagram. I have a longstanding interest in both these subjects and have a kiln and a wheel I want to share with someone who has been forced to flee.
We have decided to offer our support for three reasons. The first is personal – we have family links to the region. We have visited Ukraine and my children’s great-grandfather was born in Chernobyl in 1893. In addition to the British-Ukrainian community, there may be another two million people like us have family or personal links to the region, including many in the Jewish community, the descendants of Poles who arrived in the UK in the 1940s, as well as more recent arrivals from Poland and the Baltic states. Many of us now want to open up our home to refugees. The goodwill of British Poles, in particular, has been extraordinary.
Second, like most people in the UK, we stand with Ukraine and want to support refugees fleeing from the war. The most recent opinion polls show that 75% support introducing a scheme to resettle some Ukrainian refugees in the UK. Some 26% of people said that they would maybe and 9% saying they would definitely offer to take Ukrainian refugees into their own home if requested.
Thirdly, I was previously involved in the Syrian community sponsorship scheme in the part of south London where we live. This experience made me want to get involved again.
Nearly 700 Syrian refugees have come to the UK through community sponsorship, where groups of friends or members of a faith group have sponsored a family and helped them to resettle into their new homes. It was a time-consuming and onerous process, involving fundraising, finding rental accommodation, DBS (criminal record) vetting, organising a rota of volunteers to welcome the family and offer English language conversation, getting council permission and filling-in a lengthy Home Office form before getting approval to receive a family. We had help with this process from Sponsor Refugees and other London groups who had taken part in the scheme.
It is welcome that the Homes for Ukraine scheme will be more ‘light-touch’ than the Syrian community sponsorship scheme. An easier process will mean more people will come forward to help, as individuals or groups of friends, businesses or faith communities. Refugees will receive three years’ leave to remain and be allowed to work in the UK. Hosts will require DBS checks and have to guarantee rent-free accommodation for a minimum of six months. They will be matched with refugees or they can nominate a named individual or a family to accommodate and will receive a payment for £350. Councils will also receive extra funding for Ukrainian refugees.
But it will take more than offering a spare room to make Homes for Ukraine a successful resettlement scheme. Integration is a key to its success. They should be welcomed and shown around the neighbourhood. While some Ukrainians will speak English, others will not and volunteers will be needed to help them to learn and practice their conversation skills. Homes for Ukraine must also involve volunteers who may not be able to offer accommodation, but want to help in other ways: for example by organising social activities and language practice.
Volunteers could also have a role to play in expanding the circle of support for Ukrainian refugees, encouraging others to volunteer or to offer accommodation.
There need to be safeguards to prevent the new arrivals from exploitation. And it is essential to involve refugee organisations in the programme: the Refugee Council, Refugee Action and the British Red Cross were involved in previous evacuation and resettlement schemes. They have much experience of offering resettlement advice and specialist support for vulnerable groups of people. Ukrainians, too, may have to apply for asylum in the UK, particularly if the crisis overwhelms eastern European countries or if refugees cannot find a sponsor. The Homes for Ukraine and Family Visa schemes must sit alongside our international commitments to refugee protection– but should not divert staff and resources from a creaking asylum system or from supporting Afghans who were evacuated to the UK in 2021 but left languishing in hotels.
In many ways, the last fortnight has shown the Home Office at its worst, but the British public at its best. Many millions of people have donated to humanitarian appeals and millions of people now want to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Offering our support for Homes for Ukraine is much more than helping just one group – it is a chance to show the Government that British society cares about all refugees.
Jill Rutter is an Associate Fellow of British Future.