Homes for Ukraine Sponsor Relationship Breakdowns Put Vulnerable Refugees at Risk
An exclusive, three-month investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team reveals the extent of relationship breakdowns that has left Ukrainian refugees at risk of exploitation and homelessness, and local councils stretched
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“Hello friends, I’m asking for your help”, a Ukrainian mother wrote on a Facebook group post in a popular group matching hosts with guests, desperately hoping that social media could find her a solution to a situation no vulnerable refugee should ever find themselves in.
She had fled Ukraine with her daughter in tow and joined the Homes for Ukraine schme, far from the threat of Putin’s bombs. But this sanctuary didn’t last long: the Ukrainian family were kicked out by their sponsor and moved by the local authority into a hotel.
This story is not an anomaly: exclusive data collated by the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal that over 300 councils in England and Wales have been contacted about a sponsorship breakdown since the Homes for Ukraine scheme began in March. Only three councils have had no one contact them requesting to end the six-month placement early.
A total of 96,800 refugees have arrived under the Homes for Ukraine scheme since it began in March.
The analysis, based on data obtained under freedom of information laws, found that councils were contacted 1,937 times about a sponsorship breakdown and in over a quarter of councils at least one in every ten sponsorships ended early.
The highest proportion of sponsorship breakdowns occurred in East Riding of Yorkshire council (40%), Gosport Borough council (30%) and Blackpool County council (29%).
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“You will always have a small number of hosting arrangements that will not work out but they tend to be rare,” said Robina Qureshi from the organisation Positive Action in Housing. The NGO has been contacted by Ukrainians who have been asked to leave by their hosts. “What we have seen in terms of the Homes for Ukraine scheme is the absolute failure of any kind of assessment and management of the hosting process. As we said, quite clearly, at the outset, there have been no proper safeguarding checks, and there was an assumption that social media was a suitable way of finding hosts”.
Qureshi explained how, for hosting to work, “you need an efficient and competent management process. And simply put, it means things like not expecting someone to take someone in for six months when they don’t know them at all”.
The data also revealed what happened to Ukrainian refugees after their sponsorship broke down. Councils reported that some refugees were housed in hotel accommodation, others were re-matched with another sponsor in the UK, while at least 433 Ukrainian families were registered as homeless.
Over a quarter of families who had been forced to end their Homes for Ukraine sponsorship early spent at least a night in hotel accommodation. But, as another Ukrainian mother’s recent social media post demonstrates, housing refugees in hotels is a far from perfect solution.
“It’s emergency case, I don’t know where to ask help,” she wrote on the Facebook group. “After broken accommodation with hosts, local council wants to place us at temporary accommodation in airport hotel”. This would mean that her child would lose their place in school because the hotel was too far away.
Research by the Refugee Council found that asylum seekers housed in hotels have inadequate access to clothing, medical care and legal services, as well as an increased risk of depression.
The data is based on responses from 306 councils across England and Wales, although not all were able to provide a full data set, meaning that the true figure of people in temporary accommodation and registered as homeless is likely to be much higher. Government figures put the number of Ukrainian refugees who are now homeless at 1,333. Some fear that 50,000 Ukrainian refugees will end up homeless.
Fears and Fall Outs
Examples of relationship breakdowns and homelessness can be found everywhere on Facebook groups designed to support hosts and guests, as well as to match people fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with hosts in the UK.
Byline Times monitored activity on one of the largest groups dedicated to matching Ukrainian people with UK hosts. One of the most upsetting examples of a relationship breakdown featured a woman who had been told by a male host that she was no longer welcome in his home but that he had arranged for a new male host to take her in. Thankfully group members intervened.
Any relationship breakdown needs to be referred to the council, who can then re-arrange housing for the refugee family. But this incident shows the safeguarding gaps in the scheme that could leave women and children vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
Analysis of freedom of information responses from over 300 councils across England and Wales revealed instances where the host ended the sponsorship because of “differences in eating habits or parenting styles”, or deciding “hosting was not for them after all” – forcing Ukrainian refugees to uproot themselves once again.
Other refugees shared how “my sponsor told me to leave my house without any explanation”, or that the relationship “resulted in me feeling physically and mentally uncomfortable … I feel worried, anxious and unsafe”.
“Every day we are morally abused by our sponsor,” one mother writes. “We urgently need another host”. “I am in an unpleasant situation,” despairs another.
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Byline Times was told of one incident where a relationship broke down but the guest was terrified that being registered as homeless would result in her child being taken into care. A friend of a friend intervened, liaised with the council, and helped to arrange accommodation.
Part of the issue, explained Sile Reynolds, Head of Asylum Advocacy at Freedom from Torture, “is we have private citizens coming in to compensate for the lack of Government prioritisation of a resettlement programme. When that falls apart, local authorities have to step in. I feel a lot of positivity towards the scheme which has the potential to shift attitudes towards refugees. But it has provided a sticking plaster to cover a lack of willingness to invest in resources and housing for refugees”.
An Uncertain Future
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, but there are concerns for the sustainability of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which relies on the public opening their homes to refugees, subsidised by Government funding.
Byline Times submitted a freedom of information request to the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to discover how many sponsors were signing up to the scheme on a week-by-week basis since its launch. Our question was intended to understand if sponsorship levels were meeting the need for housing.
However, our request was refused on the grounds that providing the information “would unacceptably erode ‘safe space’” in which “officials and Ministers are able to reach policy decisions away from external interference and distraction”. Publishing the data would also, the Department claimed, “cause a ‘chilling effect’ on general policy making”.
An appeal, sent in July, received no response.
Our investigation comes as Russia threatens renewed aerial bombing attacks on Ukraine. It also follows reports that sponsors are not planning on continuing with the scheme due to the cost of living crisis: in August a quarter of sponsors said they would drop out after the first six months were over.
People on both the Homes for Ukraine and Family visa scheme are entitled to work and to claim benefits such as Universal Credit. The challenge is finding accommodation once the host relationship ends or breaks down – a recent investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that large areas of the UK were unaffordable to renters on benefits.
“You’re seeing people getting to the end of their six month posting period, and if it’s not extended by the host, then they’re having to find somewhere to rent locally, and they’re really struggling to find affordable housing,” said Reynolds. “Universal Credit is not going to cover the rent requirements in many places”.
A Government spokesperson said: “More than 134,000 Ukrainians have been welcomed to the UK since Putin’s invasion and the overwhelming majority of these have settled in well. All arrivals have access to benefits and employment from day one. Strict safeguarding checks are in place and in the minority of cases where a relationship breaks down, councils have a duty to ensure families are not left without a roof over their heads and we’re giving them £10,500 per person to provide this support”.
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.