Stereotyped & BelittledUkrainians Suffer from UK Asylum Policy
Natalia Kogut and Maren Rohe explore the challenges Ukrainian refugees face accessing healthcare, housing and work under the Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme
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Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, millions of Ukrainians have fled their home country. Tens of thousands have come to the UK through the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ programme, offering a legal route to the UK and an alternative to the tortuous asylum procedure other refugees need to go through.
Today, approximately 163,500 displaced Ukrainians live in the UK. However, they struggle to access qualified jobs, housing and healthcare. This is made worse by stereotyping and lack of awareness in Britain of the historical context of the conflict, as we highlight in a recently published policy briefing based on interviews with Ukrainians in the UK.
The ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme was launched in March 2022, encouraging individuals and families in Britain to open their homes to displaced Ukrainians for a period of six or 12 months. In many cases, this period has now passed, but the Russian war on Ukraine shows no signs of abating. Most Ukrainian refugees cannot simply return to their lives in Ukraine and are looking for longer-term solutions for staying in the UK. Still, many feel treated unfairly when looking for jobs, housing, and visiting the GP or hospital.
There are often cultural and historical dynamics underpinning these experiences. Many Brits appear to still divide the world into a “First”, “Second” and “Third World” (according to a model popular during the Cold War), and consider people from the “Second” and “Third World” as less developed than themselves.
Ukrainians, from the post-socialist “Second World”, are seen as needing to “catch up” with Western levels of development, and treated as not fully equal to Brits and other Westerners. While Ukrainians are predominantly white and benefit from many of the privileges of whiteness, they are also perceived as “not quite white enough” and experience discrimination as a result – a phenomenon known as “xenoracism” or “Eastern Europeanism”.
Housing, Education and Healthcare
Several Ukrainians we spoke to felt they were not taken sufficiently seriously due to assumptions about Ukraine’s level of development.
For example, Maryia* described how her host assumed she could not understand supermarket expiry dates, and commented: “They might have expected that some ignorant poor woman would come who doesn’t know anything… I’m sorry, we are a developed country and to treat me like a girl who didn’t even finish school is very bad.” Lyudmyla described how in her experience, British people “think that Ukraine is a third world country, that is, we don’t know what a microwave is, what a refrigerator is, a TV, what medicine is.”
In a situation where Ukraine is under physical attack by Russia, such ignorance can feel like an additional cultural attack on the country. More than that, however, these stereotypes have practical implications for Ukrainians’ access to permanent housing, jobs, and even healthcare. Private landlords are often unwilling to rent to Ukrainians, so finding a place to live is difficult even for those in full-time jobs.
Housing benefits and “move on funds” made available by local authorities to move from hosts’ rooms into private accommodation are often only paid out after rental agreements are signed. But estate agencies require proof of funds before setting up a contract and even ask displaced Ukrainians without steady income or guarantor to pay for half a year in advance. This often prevents Ukrainians from finding a suitable place and can lead to homelessness and destitution.
While a steady income is therefore important, achieving this is difficult even for highly qualified Ukrainians. Many Ukrainians have had to take on low-skilled and low-paid jobs since moving to the UK, which are not in line with their qualifications. This is a common phenomenon among Central and Eastern Europeans in the UK, who suffer from stereotyping as “Polish cleaners” and “Romanian fruit pickers”. As Halyna told us: “[Most] Ukrainians who came to England are educated, they have several diplomas, but currently they only offer cleaning…. we’re cheap labour for the English at the moment.”
Employers may not consider diplomas as an equivalent to British education due to stereotypes about the Ukrainian education system. Moreover, the acute conflict means that some Ukrainians have left behind their diplomas and cannot recover them. In many cases, women have come to the UK with their children while the men have stayed in Ukraine to serve in the war effort. The lack of affordable childcare is felt acutely by these mothers who are navigating a foreign country without a social network to support them. This means they are often unable to take on full-time positions even when they are offered.
Despite these difficulties, about half of displaced Ukrainians have found employment. Many of our interview participants see hard work as key to returning to the quality of life they were used to in pre-war Ukraine. They are keen to convince Brits that Ukrainians did not come here to seek benefits, and that their experiences should not be discounted just because they were gained in a different country. “In Ukraine, if you don’t work, you don’t eat. I want to be useful – because we all have experience that will definitely be useful for Britain”, Ilona stressed.
In healthcare, the belief that Britain is a more developed country than Ukraine clashes starkly with reality. Many people we spoke to expressed shock and disbelief at the standards of care provided in the NHS.
Olha was six months pregnant when she began to bleed heavily, but had to wait nine hours for treatment. She sadly lost the pregnancy and finally returned to Ukraine to receive the care she needed. In our interview, she pointed out: “The only thing they helped me with was painkillers and only then, after nine hours of waiting, they provided medical assistance. In this sense, compared with Ukrainian medicine, of course Ukrainian medicine wins many times over.”
The crisis facing the NHS is a threat to the health and well-being of anyone who relies on public healthcare. However, some NHS services are especially difficult to navigate and negotiate for refugees. Several interview participants said medical staff did not take seriously their own accounts of their health and pain. Moreover, British doctors do not consider diagnoses or prescriptions made by Ukrainian doctors or any other doctors from abroad. Language difficulties may hinder communication, but it seems that Ukrainians also face stereotypes about the reliability of their country’s healthcare and their ability to understand their own conditions.
Apart from stereotypes about their country’s supposed backwardness and lack of development, Ukrainians in the UK also suffer from misunderstandings of Ukrainian-Russian relations. Some Brits appear to have only just learned that Ukraine is an independent country and not part of Russia, even though Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union over 30 years ago.
For Ukrainians, the memory of Russian and Soviet imperialism, historical attempts to “Russify” Ukraine, and national independence since 1991 are key to how they view the current conflict. About 30% of Ukrainians speak Russian as their primary language. However, this does not mean that they have sympathies for Russia, and they often nonetheless identify very much as Ukrainian.
Due to the war, Russian is increasingly perceived as the language of the aggressor, and some Russian-speaking Ukrainians make conscious efforts to speak Ukrainian instead. However, they may still use Russian as a language of communication, and using originally Russian interpreters in the UK can lead to clashes with supporters of the Russian invasion, as Valentyna describes: “[The interpreter] was silent at first, and then she started asking me about us, about our situation, about our war and said that the Americans are to blame for the war. She said that the Americans are to blame, not Russia.”
Despite the existence of a safe route for displaced Ukrainians to get to the UK and access work and benefits, Ukrainians are struggling to find qualified jobs, housing and healthcare. One of the biggest concerns of Ukrainians, however, is the inability to feel settled.
The visa schemes only allow displaced Ukrainians to stay in the UK for three years, and do not provide a route to indefinite leave to remain. Ukrainians are provided with temporary protection rather than full refugee status. This prevents them from making long-term plans, such as getting pre-qualified for a job here, getting loans for buying a house, starting a private business and many others.
The Government’s asylum policy desperately needs an overhaul. The former Ukrainian refugee minister, Lord Harrington, has said the Ukraine sponsorship scheme could be used as a blueprint for helping refugees in future crises. Yet the scheme itself needs improvement. Providing a more long-term perspective for Ukrainians in the UK is up to the national government. In the meantime, service providers such as local councils, Jobcentres and the NHS can do a lot to improve the situations of Ukrainians in the UK, as our policy briefing shows.
*All names have been changed
Dr Natalia Kogut and Dr Maren Rohe are research fellows at University of Birmingham on the AHRC-funded research project “Post-Socialist Britain? Memory, Representation and Political Identity amongst German, Polish and Ukrainian Immigrants in the UK”. They would like to thank Professor Sara Jones and Dr Charlotte Galpin, who contributed analysis for this article.