So Far So Weak: Assessing UK’s Response to Ukraine Refugee Crisis

Ukraine Refugee
Ukraine Refugee

Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24, the British government has launched different visas for fleeing Ukrainian refugees to enter the UK. However, all these routes have criticized bureaucratic delays and technical difficulties. The latest is the community sponsorship pathway called the Home for Ukraine scheme launched to bring over Ukrainians without family ties in the UK.

The scheme will allow UK homeowners to provide accommodation in their homes to people fleeing the war. Since the application was opened on March 18, over 150,000 UK residents have expressed interest. But the process has been slow and frustrating and could make some families give up on hosting the refugees. While announcing the route on March 14, the housing and community secretary Michael Gove had speculated that refugees expected under the scheme could reach hundreds of thousands.

But the reality so far has been different. Many refugees and prospective hosts grapple with technical difficulties and unworkable bureaucracy in getting a visa. The lack of clarity about the application process also subjects refugees to desperation and unsafe method as they search for potential sponsors on social media.

Robina Qureshi, who is the head of a charity organisation, Positive Action in Housing, accused the UK government of giving people false hope, reacting to how frustrating the process has been.

“The government made a fanfare of its Homes for Ukraine community sponsorship programme. Michael Gove told parliament on March 14 that there was no limit on the numbers coming in. Yet none of the families we are supporting have yet got a visa to travel under the community sponsorship scheme and are still waiting,” said Qureshi.

A YouGov survey taken across Europe showed that the UK scored low on its charity effort towards the crisis. Comparing 4 European countries – the UK, France, Italy, and Germany – findings show that Britain had issued the lowest number of visas to Ukrainian refugees. 53% of respondents said Britain’s contribution had been weak.

Apart from the difficulties in the application process, there is concern that the Home for Ukraine route could expose people fleeing the war to exploitation. A human trafficking policy expert, Lauran Agnew, said while the scheme is “well-motivated,” red flags could be missed in the vetting of hosts as large numbers of applications need to be processed quickly.

“Recent statistics from the National Crime Agency estimate there are 6,000-8,000 modern slavery offenders in the UK. We can be certain that some of this number will be seeing the scheme as an opportunity to turn a profit,” she said.

Also, a Facebook page created to help match Ukrainians with UK homeowners is also being targeted by hackers suspected to be Russian trolls trying to infiltrate the group.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis has created the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since WWII, as about 4 million people have fled Ukraine, mostly into the neighbouring countries. UN data as of March 28 shows that over 2 million had been received by Poland, 595,869 by Romania, 383,627 by Moldova, and 354,041 by Hungary. In response to the emergency situation, EU countries have thrown open their borders for the fleeing refugees and offered them support. In contrast, all of the UK’s responses remain shrouded in misinformation and shambolic process.

“The Polish authorities have been really good. Polish people are polite and welcoming. It’s a shame the UK Government can’t follow the Poles’ example,” a Ukrainian refugee who applied for the UK Family Scheme visa from Poland said after waiting in line for a week to get the visa.

It is not clear how many visas have been issued under the Home for Ukraine scheme, but the first set of refugees arrived in the UK last week. Under the family scheme launched earlier, 21,600 visas had been issued out of the 37,4000 applications submitted. While many refugees stuck in Ukraine and other countries long to enter the UK, the chaotic visa application process set by the British government has made it extremely hard for them.

Olusegun Akinfenwa writes for Immigration Advice Service, a UK-based law firm offering global immigration advice and legal representation for refugees and asylum seekers.

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