Nearly three weeks ago, Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove expressed an interest in personally housing a Ukrainian refugee. No further news about this has since emerged. That could mean ‘personal circumstances’ have prevented it, a possibility he caveated—or it might reflect Gove’s personal experience of the time-swallowing bureaucracy that constitutes his ‘Homes for Ukraine’ refugee sponsorship scheme.
Launched just over two weeks ago, Homes for Ukraine has been widely criticised for its lengthy application process and weeks-long delays. Such delays mean danger for those fleeing, or sheltering with dwindling resources, and increase their already high risk of exploitation—to the extent that some NGOs have dubbed it a ‘human trafficker’s charter’. Shadow Levelling Up and Immigration Ministers Lisa Nandy and Yvette Cooper have been vocal in decrying the process as ‘Kafkaesque’.
Criticism escalated this week after the announcement of the number of Ukrainian refugees granted visas here via the scheme and its counterpart, the family scheme. The figures for the former were, as expected, abysmally low: just 2,700 visas granted out of 28,300 applications made. For reference, the UN estimates the number of people that have fled Ukraine is now over four million, and rising by about 40,000 each day. Women and children make up ninety percent, with children alone about fifty percent, as Ukrainian men between eighteen and sixty have been conscripted.
In all, as of 29 March, only 25,500 visas for the UK have been issued—2,700 under the sponsorship scheme, and 22,800 under the family scheme. That means our intake of refugees lags well behind that of most EU countries (it’s roughly a tenth of the number now in Germany), all of whom have suspended visa requirements to allow a stay of up to three years and rights to work, schooling, and benefits.
The criticism levelled at the slow pace of the UK’s scheme, then, only taps into one part of the problem. There is a question of principle at play here, too: the principle itself of imposing any visa requirements on people fleeing bombs and bullets, half of whom are children.
The Deeper Problem
As a result, charities working directly with refugees have called out the scheme as little more than a ruse to make the UK’s policy appear as generous as the EU’s—in line with public mood—but so riddled with rigmarole and potential danger that it actively prompts fleeing refugees to seek other options. Those other options are usually heading to other countries.
‘[Gove] double padlocked the doors to this country with his visas and sponsors scam, and put refuges in the direct path of criminal traffickers,’ says Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action in Housing (PAIH), a refugee homelessness charity. ‘The system was always designed that way, which is why Gove could say with such conviction that there was no cap on numbers.’
By depending on refugees using social media to find sponsors and accommodation, Qureshi points out, the scheme has so far abandoned vulnerable people to dangerous situations, including ones which see women offered accommodation in return for sex (although the government has now launched a new official ‘matching service’). ‘Ukrainian women, children, and young people are prime targets on social media for criminal people traffickers making business out of sexual and labour exploitation, and Gove put them in their direct path.’
600 Ukrainian families have so far approached PAIH for help finding sponsors and leaving Ukraine or bordering regions. Of those, only one individual has been granted a visa, says Qureshi—and she can’t travel because her family member hasn’t received one. It’s the same story elsewhere: another charity, Love Bristol, reports receiving no visas so far for the seventy applications it helped Ukrainian refugees make two weeks ago.
Arriving, as it did, only after the initial outcry over the tight restrictions of the family scheme, the Homes for Ukraine scheme has in reality served to deflect calls for scrapping visa requirements in line with the EU. What this suggests is that the scheme isn’t just unfortunately and unavoidably ‘slow’—it’s a different but related strand of the government’s standard policy when it comes to refugees, which consists, in simple terms, of restricting numbers as much as possible.
Ideologically, that makes it consistent with the brutal Nationality and Borders Bill currently in the final stages of becoming law, which will criminalise those Ukrainians and all other refugees reaching our shores without visas—and make Britain one of the most refugee-hostile countries in the world. The difference is that instead of the racist dog whistles the Home Office routinely uses to condemn asylum claims it can’t legally reject until processed, Homes for Ukraine adopts the appearance of solidarity with Ukrainians considering fleeing here before abandoning them to the mercy of a route that is too slow, too uncertain, and too perilous to actually be worth pursuing.
If the government really wanted to help Ukrainian refugees, it could waive visa requirements tomorrow. Instead, it is deflecting the public’s desire to help Ukrainians into another route for its anti-refugee agenda. Describing this, Qureshi puts it best: ‘The genuine goodwill of British people is being poured down the drain.’