Tina Deinekhovska’s experience of arriving in the UK via the government scheme that welcomes Ukrainian refugees if they are sponsored by a British host, has probably been as seamless as could be envisaged.
Having fled the northern suburbs of Kyiv with her two children a week after the Russian invasion on February 24, she reached Warsaw where a film director contact put her up. A British friend, whom Deinekhovska had met through work as a translator, then offered to help her travel to the UK.
They applied to the Homes for Ukraine scheme on March 18, the day it was launched. Visas were approved within five days and she landed, with her 11-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, in the safety of her friend’s London home last Saturday.
“We were so lucky to get so much help from people along the way,” said Deinekhovska.
So far, however, such stories are the exception. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are waiting to travel to the UK through the same scheme, and the government’s answer to the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war is now attracting anger.
“It is a big shame that the British public are being so generous but the government isn’t helping us to help,” said Rend Platings, a British-Iraqi resident in Cambridge, who launched a hunger strike on Friday in protest at the speed with which her own friend, Kristina Corniuk’s application has been processed.
The government launched the initiative following widespread criticism of its initially limited response to the huge numbers of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, forced into exile in the wake of the Russian invasion. While EU members were throwing borders open, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government at first only envisaged allowing Ukrainians with resident family members into the UK.
The Homes for Ukraine initiative expanded on this by encouraging the British public, charities and other organisations to seek out and identify Ukrainians fleeing the conflict and volunteer to house them for at least six months. It offers £350 a month in return, and £10,500 to local authorities for each refugee offered homes in their area under the scheme.
The response has been overwhelming with more than 200,000 individuals and organisations in the UK enlisting. But, as of Friday, entry has been approved for only 4,700 of 32,200 Ukrainian applicants.
“We are looking at every bit of the process to try and speed it up,” refugees minister Lord Richard Harrington told a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday.
The slow start is in part a reflection of tension between the urgent needs of those fleeing the conflict, and the checks that UK authorities are putting in place to try to ensure the system is safe.
But on that front too, the scheme has come under attack. Robina Qureshi, a Glasgow-based human rights activist with a decade’s experience introducing refugees to volunteer hosts through her non-governmental organisation Room for Refugees, said that sex traffickers targeted the government scheme immediately, posing online as big-hearted British families.
She cited the case of 14-year-old Anastasia, who thought she was coming to just such a family, but who Qureshi rescued from a traffickers at the Polish border. Among other disturbing examples she gave was that of a man claiming to be a wealthy doctor signed up to Homes for Ukraine, who over Facebook had offered a young woman accommodation in return for sex.
“Traffickers turn to social media to get intelligence about their victims, and this programme has driven tens of thousands of refugees and ‘sponsors’ to the same social media too,” she said.
At the parliamentary hearing, Catherine Frances, a director-general at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, acknowledged the risks. But she said that “multiple safeguards” were being put in place. All potential hosts are subject to criminal background checks and the homes of sponsors are also supposed to be inspected.
But the delays that the bureaucracy is causing, are also fuelling fury. Platings, who out of solidarity has painted her house in the yellow and blue colours of the Ukrainian flag, said she pushed through the application for her friend Corniuc on the programme’s launch day. Apart from receiving a receipt, they have heard nothing since.
“I am going to pull all the strings for my friend but the reason I am hunger striking is that not everyone can pull those strings. The government should be dealing with these applications in a timely way. I don’t see any evidence they are and there are lots of people in dangerous limbo as a result.”
Harrington recognised the challenges the scheme had faced, but said the aim was to clear the backlog by ramping up to processing 15,000 visas a week both for those coming under Homes for Ukraine and those with UK resident family. The number of caseworkers has been boosted, and the process simplified with this in mind.
The government has also enlisted the help of charities such as Reset Communities and Refugees, with experience in community sponsorship, to assist with the matching process.
Meanwhile, volunteer hosts are making preparations across Britain. Deborah Brown, an NHS psychiatrist in north London, said she was converting a room in her terraced house for a single Ukrainian woman.
She had created a WhatsApp group with 36 other volunteers in her neighbourhood so that when their guests arrive, there will be a ready-made community to help them settle. That is something about the programme, she said, that has real advantages over the typical experience of refugees.
She had been inspired to help partly as a result of her roots. Her ancestors fled pogroms in Lithuania and Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
“I suppose my Jewish background has made me aware of the importance of the kindness of strangers,” she said. “I hope,” she added, “that if the government sees the public’s appetite in welcoming Ukrainians, it might change its stance to refugees more generally.”