‘Homes for Ukraine’ & the Two Faces of the British Government
Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall follows up on the story of British host Jane and Ukrainian refugee Nadia and the fresh hurdles they have faced around the Government’s asylum scheme
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In April, I documented the saga of one Ukrainian woman, Nadia, and her family, who were trying to come to the UK under the auspices of the newly launched ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme. Although Nadia was fortunate to be offered a home relatively quickly by a British woman, Jane, it took many weeks to complete the process and she had to overcome a number of obstacles along the way.
The UK press has reported many similar tales of setbacks and difficulties faced by other British sponsors trying to facilitate the safe arrival of Ukrainian refugees.
In my view, some challenges were to be expected as such a hastily devised scheme bedded down. However, I hoped to hear better news when I chatted last week with Jane and Nadia’s daughter, Anna, whose English is good enough for her to express herself in her own words, to hear how they were settling in, three months on.
Before our conversation, I read an uplifting article about the positive experiences of a few other Ukrainian families, who described the warmth of their reception and their appreciation for their British hosts. The hosts, in turn, described how rewarding the experience had been for them; and how they had done their utmost to help their guests settle in and feel at home, while also allowing them personal space. These seemed to be success stories.
So, knowing how much Jane had similarly done to support and welcome Nadia and her family, I looked forward to hearing an equally positive account from them.
Anna confirmed that “she could not have imagined being made to be feel more comfortable” in Jane’s home. She said Jane and her partner had “done everything for us”. They had provided Anna and her relatives with a safe space; had supported them through every step of the process to get registered with their local authorities, and claim the benefits for which they were eligible. To get her younger cousin into school; and to establish contact with other Ukrainians in their neighbourhood.
While the two families frequently shared meals and spent time together, Jane had also made sure to give her guests some privacy. Anna told me “I feel like home here”.
She also said that, in her first few weeks, she was so relieved to be physically safe, after her harrowing departure from Ukraine, that she simply did not have time to worry about anything else. She was just immensely grateful to the British Government for launching the scheme and to Jane for offering her family a safe place to stay.
But, a few weeks in, Anna said that she and her family started to experience a different set of challenges. With their immediate need for physical safety met, they were now struggling with more emotional and psychological problems.
‘Unbelievable Incompetence or a Cynical Betrayal’Jane and Nadia’s Journey Throughthe ‘Homes for Ukraine’ SchemeAlexandra Hall Hall
New Hurdles Emerge
One of the most obvious issues has been a strong feeling of ‘survivor guilt’ and constant worry about what is happening back in Ukraine, where Anna’s father is still based.
Although everyone in the village in Cornwall where they are now living has been welcoming, not everyone understands the depth of their trauma. Anna said people are always asking if “we feel happy here” or telling them how lucky they are to be in the UK. Anna certainly appreciates her place of refuge in the UK, but she cannot just forget about the ongoing situation in Ukraine and the friends and family members she has left behind.
She said these people mean well, but it is a struggle to meet the expectation to always appear happy and grateful. “I like the UK, but I don’t see my future here,” she told me. “I want to be back in Ukraine as soon as it is safe.”
Jane feels that sponsors and well-wishers need to have a better understanding of what Ukrainian refugees have gone through.
“One of the stresses for a sponsor is looking on at the pain of our guests and not being able to do anything to relieve it,” she said. “I know that they are frightened every day about Anna’s father. I am aware that Anna knows people who have died. Just sharing the knowledge of their pain but without trying to offer banal words of condolence has its own challenges.”
She offered the following advice for other sponsors: “Don’t parade them on social media, saying ‘here is my Ukrainian family, look what I have done’. Don’t expect them always to be grateful and happy. Don’t expect them to be jolly when you try to organise excursions or activities to entertain them. Don’t ask them to talk about their experiences, or about the current situation in Ukraine, because this only puts them under further stress.
“On their shoulders is a massive weight of guilt. Understandably they are angry, frightened and damaged people. Helping them, and not taking any of their anger, frustration, or hurt personally is vital – as is giving them as much agency as possible, as soon as possible. Giving them independence and autonomy is fundamental to the process working. We hear of host families finding it hard to let go.”
Another worry for Anna and her family has been how to support themselves financially. They are all on the Universal Credit benefit for the time being, but under pressure to find work. They want to do this but are struggling to find the right opportunities in their area. Anna, her mother and aunt are all highly educated, with two degrees each. However, the only jobs which appear to be available at the local job centre are minimal wage roles in cleaning or hospitality.
Anna is at pains to stress that her concern is not that such work is beneath her. It’s just that the job centre staff, under pressure themselves to get every applicant – not just Ukrainians – into work, do not seem to be able to take into account her previous professional experience or to differentiate between applicants. “I left everything behind in Ukraine,” she said. “But it’s stressful to be expected to do the jobs nobody else wants to do.”
Jane detects a sense in some quarters that Ukrainians are a convenient source of cheap labour, able to pick up the jobs left vacant due to Brexit. There seems to be no recognition that Ukrainian refugees vary just as much in terms of their qualifications and abilities as existing UK residents. But she is aware that, whether due to lack of training, or a lack of good jobs, it’s not just Ukrainians who get pushed by job centre staff towards jobs for which they are not suitable.
Anna and her family are also anxious about what will happen to them in the longer term, if the war in Ukraine drags on. They are genuinely luckier than most in that Jane has promised to let them stay with her for up to three years – the full term of their current visas. But many other host families only signed up for the initial six-month term envisaged under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. What happens next is very uncertain.
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If the host families decide not to extend their hospitality for another six months, their Ukrainian guests will have to find their own places to live. But Jane noted that there is a massive housing shortage in Cornwall. The £350 a month payment for each hosting family also runs out after 12 months and has not been adjusted to take account of the rising cost of fuel. “Most Ukrainian families are simply not going to be ready to stand on their own two feet,” she said. “In three months’ time, there will be a tsunami of problems.”
In fact, some hosting arrangements have already broken down, leaving some Ukrainian refugees homeless and vulnerable.
Anna and Jane told me that this had happened to one family in their village – the British hosts had apparently expected their Ukrainian guests to work for free in support of their business in return for being offered shelter. The Ukrainians felt they could not refuse, despite being asked to work for no money. Ultimately, the hosts threw them out and the local county council has still not been able to find them alternative long-term accommodation. Jane and Anna clarified that they have not heard the British hosts’ side of the story.
According to a recent CNN report, some Ukrainians now face homelessness alone in the UK. But the Government has been slow to anticipate such problems or provide sustainable solutions.
According to the CNN story, local councils do now have access to a ‘re-matching’ process to try to find Ukrainians new accommodation when the relationship with their original sponsor breaks down. But charities told CNN that the process was “inconsistent and difficult to access”. Meanwhile local authorities are left grappling with how to support the abandoned refugees, without enough central guidance or support.
Such stories make people like Anna fearful about whether the same thing could happen to them. Even though Jane has reassured them that she is committed to supporting them for the next three years, there is nothing to stop her from changing her mind.
“From a sponsor’s point of view, the whole thing is hugely time-consuming,” she said. “Not something I begrudge for one second, but I can see the stresses it could add to people with work commitments.”
Anna also noted that difficulties may arise due to cultural misunderstandings. “I think that the British should say more directly what they find inappropriate,” she told me. “I know that your nation likes to soften everything with a smile because you do not like open confrontation. But in everyday life it is better to speak directly so that there are no silent conflicts.”
Adding to Anna’s uncertainty is the heated wider political debate in the UK over migration and refugees.
She said she is acutely aware that other asylum seekers feel that Ukrainians are being given special treatment and is sensitive to the risk of a backlash against Ukrainians if they end up staying in the UK for a very long time or ever appear to complain about their situation.
This risk is even more acute, against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis, in which many British people are also struggling to make ends meet. Resentment against Ukrainians could grow the longer they stay or the more of them that come.
Anna said she was particularly disturbed by the Government’s new scheme to send migrants to Rwanda to deter them from trying to enter the UK illegally (even though the UK has not established any alternative legal method, making it almost impossible for genuine refugees to apply for asylum).
“Is it a joke?” she asked. “What if the UK gets tired of us and we get sent to Rwanda?” Jane added that this was a real fear among Ukrainians – and that they do not feel they can trust this Government.
An Unsustainable Scheme?
The Government launched the Homes for Ukraine scheme to great fanfare and has enjoyed taking credit for it as an example of British generosity. However, it has left most of the practical consequences of implementing the scheme to local authorities and hosting families.
As a result, Jane and Anna described the scheme as “a lottery”. If they’re lucky, Ukrainians will be matched with British hosts who have the resources, time and willingness to help them navigate the bureaucracy and settle in. But it’s luck of the draw. There is no guarantee that the families will be a good fit with each other or that they will be securely accommodated and able to get by once the initial commitment of six months is over. The Ukrainian refugees remain at the mercy of the continuing generosity of their British hosts.
Jane said that there were bound to be some teething problems with the programme and that her local authorities were doing their best. She shared with me a recent message sent out to all host families by Cornwall Council acknowledging that it needed to start planning for the longer term. It also provided information about access to mental health counselling, English language classes and activities for younger Ukrainians over the summer.
However, three months on, she feels that the Government could have done more to put the scheme onto a more effective and sustainable footing.
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Ideally, by now there should be a more streamlined, centralised process for matching applicants and families, and guiding them through the settlement process. Local authorities should also be receiving more resources to support the refugees, as it becomes apparent that Vladimir Putin’s war is continuing – making it unsafe for most Ukrainian refugees to return home any time soon.
Above all, Jane believes that the Government urgently needs a plan for looking after those Ukrainians whose hosts ask them to leave either during, or at the end of, the initial six months commitment – rather than just leaving it to local authorities to figure out how to do so.
Her worry is that, if increasing numbers of Ukrainians become homeless as their initial welcome runs out – and the British public sours on the scheme – the Government will not take responsibility but blame problems on the host families or the refugees themselves for not fitting in.
Anna echoed that sentiment. She said she still feels grateful to the British Government for initiating the scheme, but “its success is only due to the efforts of the individual host families”. She questions whether the Government should have launched it, if it was not prepared to support it properly. But she is afraid to express such thoughts out loud, for fear of appearing ungrateful and generating a backlash.
Against this background, what sticks in the craw most for Jane is the Government’s continued boasting about its generosity to Ukrainians when, in practical terms, it has taken in far fewer refugees than other European countries, relative to size, and on far more restrictive terms.
The latest figures from the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees bear this out. They indicate that the UK has granted temporary protection to more than 82,000 refugees from Ukraine. By comparison, Poland has taken in more than one million; Germany almost 800,000; the Czech Republic more than 380,000; and Italy and Spain both more than 100,000 each.
According to an analysis of these figures by the Guardian, this means that the UK has taken in fewer Ukrainians per capita than all but one other European country out of 28.
Rule Makers, Not Rule Takers
It was distressing to listen to Anna and Jane’s story. It is a ‘happy ending’ on one level, but it is also a story of government inadequacy, dressed up with false claims.
The Government can point to the fact that it is doing far more than many other countries in supporting the military effort in Ukraine – for that, it certainly deserves some credit.
But, only last week, the Home Secretary was still boasting in the House of Commons about the UK’s “long, proud history of welcoming refugees” and citing the Homes for Ukraine scheme as an example – without acknowledging any of the problems the scheme has faced or its uncertain long-term future.
The UK’s record on accepting refugees looks even worse when set against the global picture. According to UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees’ figures, low- and middle-income countries currently host 83% of the world’s refugee population. The top hosting countries are Turkey with 3.8 million refugees; Colombia with 1.8 million; Pakistan and Uganda with 1.5 million each; and Germany with 1.3 million. Meanwhile, the UK has taken in less than 140,000 people.
These statistics, and stories such as Anna’s, are yet another example of the gap between rhetoric and reality advanced by the Government.
It talks about the UK being a global force for good. It boasts about its record in taking in refugees. It prides itself on being a beacon of human rights and democracy in the world. It takes tough stances on these issues at the United Nations and lectures other countries on their standards. It berates Russia for violating international law through its invasion of Ukraine. It recently criticised the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade, removing women’s constitutional right to abortion.
But this is the same government which has just passed a law criminalising certain types of public protest – leading to the heavy-handed police action and threat of prosecution against anti-Brexit activist Steve Bray outside Parliament last week. This is the same government which is trying to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a country with a human rights record the UK has itself questioned, while making it as hard as possible for genuine asylum seekers to apply for protection in the UK.
This is the same government currently planning to give itself the ability to reject rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, an institution established to uphold the European Convention of Human Rights which British officials helped to draft. This is the same government trying to circumscribe the powers of judicial review. This is the same government tightening its remit over the Electoral Commission.
This is the same government which has watered down the Ministerial Code and is trying to pass legislation to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol which it dislikes – an act which former Prime Minister Theresa May and several other Conservatives backbenchers openly declared to be illegal. This is the same government which passed draconian lockdown measures during the worst months of the Coronavirus pandemic, but is now apparently unconcerned by the violation of those same codes by its own Prime Minister.
This is a government which applies one standard to itself and a different standard to everyone else. Do as I say, not as I do. No wonder those like Jane remain suspicious, and Ukrainians like Anna are fraught with anxiety.