At Asylum Welcome, we welcome this development in the UK’s response to Ukrainian refugees and stand ready to coordinate our response to support the scheme. We are buoyed by the incredible reception the scheme has had with the British public, with over 88,000 people signing up to house and support Ukrainian refugees in the first 24 hours of the scheme.

However, we have some hesitations with respect to the readiness and scope of the scheme to protect the needs and safety of individuals, particularly those with additional vulnerabilities, displaced by the conflict in Ukraine. The government must now act fast to address the gaps and limitations.

We recognise the importance of establishing a formal route for Ukrainians and expanding the previous limited provision of the Family Scheme. In particular, the Homes for Ukraine scheme has several points of strength, including; no cap on the number of refugees who can arrive, the provision of up to three years leave to remain, the right to work, and access to public funds, all of which will enable self-sufficiency for refugees beyond the generosity of hosts. Alongside this, the ability for individuals to sponsor refugees they know and/or act as a general sponsor builds upon the momentum of pro-Ukrainian sentiment at this time and will facilitate a welcoming and supportive atmosphere for those arriving.

Yet there are also several gaps in this response – both practical, in terms of implementation, and conceptual, in terms of providing effective support to all people in need. In particular, there is a need to speed up the application and arrivals process, while maintaining crucial safeguarding checks, as well as the practical allocation and coordination of specific, targeted and appropriate resourcing for refugee support, pre- and post-settlement.

As a result, the Homes for Ukraine scheme must form one part of a wider and co-ordinated response to the crisis.

Key Practical Limitations

Safeguarding – We are concerned about the safeguarding measures put in place to protect the safety of hosted refugees. In the Commons, Michael Gove outlined that hosts would first be subject to ‘light touch’ criminal background checks, would then be matched and resettled, and would later undergo a safeguarding check by their relevant local authority. We are concerned that the initial light touch may leave refugees at risk of unsafe placements and potential exploitation. We are concerned about contingency plans if relationships break down between hosts and guests, leaving refugees in a serious and difficult position.

Matching – There has been a huge outpouring of support from the British public, with over 122,000 people interested in hosting Ukrainian refugees. However, there remains significant confusion over the matching process and the practical details of the scheme.

Post-settlement support and short-termism – it is crucial that individuals who are resettled are supported not just by their hosts but by the wider community, specialist and governmental intuitions. It is key that there is post-placement follow-up and immigration/asylum advice to ensure refugees are able to rebuild their lives, including moving out of the temporary hosting situation, in order to avoid any negative outcomes from the scheme.

Key Conceptual Limitations

1. Visa requirements – the scheme still requires refugees to apply for a visa to qualify for the programme and to be put on the online system. This is a significant barrier for many individuals fleeing Ukraine, who may not be able to access the correct documentation or navigate the visa system.

2. Reunification – It is crucial that families stay together at this time, and that refugees have the right to reunification; it is unclear whether this will be the case.

3. Non-Ukrainians working and studying in Ukraine have been overlooked thus far in the response of the UK and, to a large extent, Europe. They are facing increasingly violent situations on the Ukrainian and Polish borders. Not all can get back to their home country. The UK’s provisions for non-Ukrainians affected by the conflict should be commensurate with provisions for Ukrainians. When questioned if this scheme could be rolled out to refugees from other countries the Secretary of State said that this wasn’t necessarily ruled out, but that plans to include other nationalities are not yet available.

4. Hosts cannot take on full responsibility – while hosts will be critical to ensuring resettled Ukrainians are integrated into society, this is a large burden to place on individuals. What scope of support will communities and councils receive? People will need assistance applying for benefits, language classes, enrolling kids for school, accessing health and trauma care etc. There needs to be a coordinated nation-wide effort to provide this, including training local support workers in the unique needs of refugees.

Relationship with the Borders Bill

In the words of Refugee Action’s Louise Calvey:

“Instead of developing a fully funded and comprehensive refugee resettlement scheme, the government is leaving the British public to pick up the pieces of a refugee protection system it has been tearing apart.”

As a result, and in line with our partners at Together with Refugees and the Refugee Council, we at Asylum Welcome are calling for MPs, local decision-makers, and the public to address  the limitations above by matching  the Homes for Ukraine scheme with a wider response for affected Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians. It cannot be our only and the main response. In particular we would like to see the expansion of the scheme to non-Ukrainian individuals displaced from the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a means to fill this critical and overlooked gap.  We continue to advocate for the removal of any visa requirement for individuals displaced from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and to uphold the basic right for anyone to claim asylum in the UK beyond the government’s ‘bespoke’ schemes.

We hope that this scheme, critical as it is in offering refuge to individuals displaced by the Ukraine conflict, will not distract from the proposed changes to asylum law set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would severely undermine the UK’s refugee and asylum systems and any future response to international refugee crises.

We call on the government to retain and protect their international commitments to refugees, asylum seekers, and human rights by ensuring the amendments made in the House of Lords to the Nationality and Borders Bill are retained in the House of Commons.  We would also call on the UK government to offer the same scheme to any Russian refugees who stands against the Russian governments brutalities and for peace.

If passed into law without the amendments made in the House of Lords, refugees arriving in the UK from Ukraine and other countries, including Syria and Afghanistan, by means other than pre-agreed routes could be criminalised, held in (potentially off-shore) reception centres or sent back to where they travelled from. As Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell highlights, it is indeed true that the “infrastructure” of the UK’s refugee and asylum system is “all wrong” and the Nationality and Borders bill does nothing to fix it.

We must protect the rights of all refugees arriving in the UK in search of sanctuary and safety. Sign the Oxfordshire-based petition here, and find out what more you can do here.