Slow start of UK program for Ukrainian refugees frustrates volunteers

Tina Deinekhovska’s experience of arriving in the UK via the government’s program that welcomes Ukrainian refugees when sponsored by a UK host was probably as seamless as one can imagine.

After fleeing the northern suburbs of Kyiv with her two children a week after the Russian invasion on February 24, she reached Warsaw, where a contact of a film director put her up. A British friend, who met Deinekhovska through her work as a translator, then offered to help her travel to Britain.

They submitted an application to the Homes for Ukraine program on March 18, the day it was launched. Visas were approved within five days and she ended up in the safety of her friend’s London home with her 11-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son last Saturday.

“We’ve been so fortunate to have so much help from people along the way,” Deinkhovska said.

So far, however, such stories are the exception. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are waiting to travel to Britain under the same scheme, and the government’s response to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II is now drawing anger.

“It’s a great shame that the British public is being so generous, but the government isn’t helping us to help,” said Rend Platings, a British-Iraqi resident of Cambridge who went on a hunger strike on Friday to protest the speed with who processed her own friend Kristina Corniuk’s application.

Rend Platings with a photo of her friend Kristina Corniuk © Joe Giddens/PA

The government launched the initiative after widespread criticism of its initially limited response to the large number of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, forced into exile after the Russian invasion. While EU members tore down borders, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government initially only allowed Ukrainians with family members based there to enter the UK.

The Homes for Ukraine initiative expanded on this by encouraging the British public, charities and other organizations to seek out and identify Ukrainians fleeing the conflict and to offer them voluntary housing for at least six months. It is offering £350 a month in return and £10,500 to local authorities for each refugee who provides a home in their area under the scheme.

The response has been overwhelming, with over 200,000 registrations from individuals and organizations in the UK. But as of Friday, entry had only been approved for 4,700 out of 32,200 Ukrainian applicants.

“We are examining every part of the process to speed it up,” Refugee Secretary Lord Richard Harrington told a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday.

The slow start is partly a reflection of tensions between the urgent needs of those fleeing the conflict and the controls that British authorities are conducting to try to keep the system safe.

But the scheme has also been attacked on this front. Robina Qureshi, a Glasgow-based human rights activist with decades of experience introducing refugees to volunteer hosts through her NGO Room for Refugees, said sex traffickers immediately targeted the government program and posed online as big-hearted British families.

She cited the case of 14-year-old Anastasia, who thought she would end up in such a family, but whom Qureshi rescued from a human trafficker at the Polish border. Among other troubling examples she cited was that of a man claiming to be a wealthy doctor who signed up with Homes for Ukraine and offered a young woman housing in exchange for sex via Facebook.

“Traffickers turn to social media to get information about their victims, and this program has brought tens of thousands of refugees and ‘sponsors’ to the same social media as well,” she said.

At the parliamentary hearing, Catherine Frances, director general of the Department for Leveling, Housing and Communities, acknowledged the risks. However, she said “several safeguards” would be put in place. All potential hosts will be subject to criminal investigations, and sponsor homes will also be inspected.

But the delays caused by bureaucracy also fuel anger. Platings, who painted her house the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag in solidarity, said she pushed through the candidacy for her boyfriend Corniuc on the day the program launched. Apart from a receipt, they haven’t heard anything since then.

Rend Platings and her husband Michael outside their Cambridge home which they have painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag © Joe Giddens/PA

“I will pull all the strings for my boyfriend, but the reason I’m on hunger strike is that not everyone can pull those strings. The government should address these requests in a timely manner. I see no evidence that they are and as a result many people are in dangerous limbo.”

Harrington recognized the challenges facing the program but said the goal is to reduce the backlog by increasing the processing of 15,000 visas per week, both for those coming under Homes for Ukraine and for those coming under Homes for Ukraine with UK-based families. With this in mind, the number of clerks has been increased and the process simplified.

The government has also enlisted the help of charities like Reset Communities and Refugees with experience in community sponsorship to assist in the matching process.

Meanwhile, volunteer hosts across the UK are making preparations. Deborah Brown, an NHS psychiatrist in north London, said she was converting a room in her terraced house for a single Ukrainian woman.

Deborah Brown: “I suppose my Jewish background made me realize how important it is to be kind to strangers.” © Charlie Bibby/FT

She had started a WhatsApp group with 36 other volunteers in her neighborhood so that when her guests arrived there would be a ready community to help them settle in. That’s something about the program, she said, that has real advantages over the typical refugee experience.

She had been inspired, in part, by her roots to help. Her ancestors fled pogroms in Lithuania and Russia at the turn of the century.

“I suppose my Jewish background made me realize the importance of stranger kindness,” she said. “I hope,” she added, “that the government, seeing the public’s appetite to welcome Ukrainians, will change its attitude towards refugees in general.” Slow start of UK program for Ukrainian refugees frustrates volunteers

Adam Bradshaw

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