Sponsor a Ukrainian – the scheme that puts the vulnerable at risk whilst thwarting compassion

Ukrainian refugees offered meals, clothes, shelter in Kraków. Photo by Silar

“It’s an abusers’ charter, isn’t it?” said a friend – a woman not particularly attentive to the doings of this government, nor as prejudiced as me against these Conservatives’ policies. Sadly, I think my friend is correct in her assessment of the ‘Sponsor a Ukrainian’ scheme, whereby homeowners here can offer accommodation to Ukrainian refugees.

I was appalled by the announcement of the ‘scheme’. Appalled not because (unlike some people in Britain, who apparently “didn’t vote Brexit to have all these refugees coming in”), I don’t think it’s a good idea in principle, but because I think the ‘scheme’ seems ill-thought through and – this is not intended as a sick joke – a potential minefield for refugees. The government is, once again, passing the buck.

This time it’s shoved the responsibility for providing practical help to refugees on to the British public; if they want to help, individuals here have to find their ‘own’ refugee – via social media, apparently – and make all the necessary arrangements. Given that most of the refugees are women and children, they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse here; many are already traumatised too. There have been vague assertions that potential hosts will be vetted, and that the homes they are offering will be inspected; but to date – as usual – there is no detail. Who will carry out the vetting? Who will inspect the homes? Local councils are already overstretched, and most charities have neither the resources nor, necessarily, the skills. 

However, there are now tens of thousands of kind-hearted individuals in the UK who, via the government website, have expressed an interest in hosting Ukrainian refugees. It is heart-warming to see; but many potential hosts are actually finding it hard to put their kindness into practice.

The evidence to date may be only anecdotal, but it seems the sheer difficulty for hosts of getting in touch with refugees – there being no central point of contact, no guidance, no support, no ‘matching’ – means that they are being deterred.

This is the experience of Elizabeth Smith, a potential host in Devon:

“Like hundreds of thousands of UK householders, I would like to offer sponsorship to refugees from Ukraine under the new government scheme. I’ve signed up to the scheme and have been looking for Ukrainian nationals who wish to come to Britain, so that I can nominate them.

I’m offering the top floor of my Exeter house, added last year, consisting of two bedrooms and a good-sized bathroom. There are beautiful views from the house, plenty of schools and transport links, and most importantly we are an all-female household: perfectly safe for a mother with small children. I have been DBS [Disclosure and Barring Service] checked and can provide documentation and references. Under the circumstances, you would have thought it would be easy to find a mother and children from Ukraine, but it has proved impossible so far.

I’m a member of many Facebook and social media groups and I’ve written messages to innumerable appeals by Ukrainian refugees. I’m not sure why, but every contact comes to nothing. Often you get no reply at all, or if people do reply, then it all fizzles out, or they decide that it’s not a suitable option for them. Only one person has ever apologised and given a reason: they simply said they felt they should go to a country nearer to Ukraine.

Many potential hosts are close to giving up, because nothing seems to work out.

I’m sure many refugees who post on these sites are genuine, and so are most of the potential hosts. In spite of this the whole system is not working, and I see many other people saying the same things as myself. What is really needed is a proper matching system, but it is absolutely clear that the government has no intention of doing this.

I cannot avoid the conclusion that this government, which has always been extremely hostile to immigrants and which took us out of the EU largely because its supporters didn’t like eastern Europeans settling here, is very happy with the current state of affairs. Britain has set up a scheme which is apparently welcoming refugees, but which in practice will be taking very few.

I have been wondering whether counties or cities could set up their own ‘matching’ system. It would be difficult and time-consuming, but surely it would be possible to get DBS checks and home visits for hosts, and to get a Ukrainian-speaking person to vet applicants from Ukraine by telephone, in order to make sure that they are genuine and serious. It would also be possible to set up a system of meeting refugees on arrival, to make sure everything was working well before leaving them with the host family. I’m sure such a system would work far better than the dangerous free-for-all which is happening at the moment. There is no doubt that predatory men are finding their way on to the sites because there are so many young, single women looking for help. I have seen men offering a room to pretty young girls, and it made me feel that no decent man would even go down that route for fear of being misunderstood.

It is vital that something is done urgently to address this problem, before potential hosts give up completely, and before young women and their children are abused or trafficked.”