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14 March 2023

Inside Homes for Ukraine: sex bargains, child neglect and domestic servitude

An exclusive investigation by the New Statesman reveals the dark side of Britain’s refugee scheme, which failed to safeguard some guests and their hosts.

By Polly Bindman

Today, 14 March, marks exactly a year since Boris Johnson‘s announcement that Britons could host Ukrainian refugees in their homes. Now, the New Statesman reveals how some desperate people fell through the cracks of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

The concept was simple and unprecedented. Anybody, provided they passed basic criminal and property checks, could sign up to welcome a Ukrainian person or family into their homes for a minimum of six months, receiving a payment of £350 every month from the government as a “thank you”.

Over the past year, some Ukrainians have begun to settle into their new lives in Britain, starting school or finding jobs. Some have since left the scheme, moving into private rental accommodation elsewhere in the UK, while others have been forced to register as homeless. In many cases, relationships between hosts and guests have blossomed. But for a few, they’ve broken down entirely, reveals data obtained by the New Statesman.

Already stretched after years of cuts, councils have been under immense pressure to carry out their duties of managing Ukrainian arrivals, checking sponsors and arranging re-matches. They also monitor potential safeguarding concerns, which have been raised repeatedly since the scheme’s inception.

Responses to freedom of information requests obtained by the New Statesman from 117 councils, representing around 50,000 Ukrainian arrivals under the scheme, reveal that a large share of councils have reported a number of concerns. More than half (53 per cent) of the 100 councils that responded to the relevant request recorded at least one instance of matches breaking down because of “inappropriate behaviour from host”, while 39 councils cited instances of relationships breaking down due to the host being “unable to cater to the guest’s needs”.

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A further 17 councils said that relationships had broken down in their area due to “child safeguarding concerns”.

Due to data protection rules, a number of councils recorded a range of “five or fewer” rather than precise numbers, so the New Statesman has calculated ranges of potential occurrences in the charts below.

Councils also reported instances where hosts expected housework (18 per cent of councils that replied) or sexual or romantic relations (16 per cent of councils) in exchange for lodging.

Nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of councils said that on at least one occasion they had to escalate concerns of illegal or inappropriate behaviour from both hosts and guests to either the police, social services, the Department for Housing, Levelling Up and Communities or the Home Office. One third of councils said they’d reported hosts to the police for reasons including “exploitation, domestic servitude, fraudulent sponsorship or controlling behaviour”, or to social services for reasons including “child’s safety, expectation of work, children being left without appropriate supervision”.

[See also: Russia and the new language of war]

Just over a third (35 per cent) said that they had reported Ukrainian guests to social services for reasons including “suspected trafficking; concerns about parenting, concerns over child safeguarding, and mental health issues”.

In total, the councils reported that 6 per cent of matches have fragmented due to a “breakdown in relations”.

According to a November survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics, the most common difficulty reported by two thirds of hosts was uncertainty about what will happen to guests after their hosting ends, while a plurality of hosts have reported a depletion in their financial well-being since becoming sponsors.

[See also: Dmytro Kuleba: “Russian victory will ruin everything the West stands for”]

Lucy* is a Homes for Ukraine host from Worcestershire. Two of her four matches, each of whom she connected with via Facebook, have broken down. Lucy claimed her guest physically assaulted her husband after they accused their guests of stealing food. Citing an overall lack of support for hosts, Lucy set up a Facebook support group for hosts struggling under the scheme, which has more than 200 members. She said that if hosts were provided with additional support such as “mediation” and check-ups from the council to ensure they were coping financially, fewer relationships would break down.

“One of our main concerns from the outset was the lack of safeguarding,” said Lauren Scott of Refugees at Home, a UK charity connecting people with spare rooms to refugees. “There were so many red flags – for example, single men only wanting to host young women via Facebook.”

“It did feel like in those early days the government was choosing numbers over safety,” suggested Bridget Young, director of the No Accommodation Network (Naccom), which represents 140 charities for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants across the UK.

While there were a number of improvements in the following months, including clearer guidance on which matching organisations had “recognised provider” status – like Refugees at Home or the community sponsorship charity Reset – “loopholes” remain. Last April, a network of charities led by Naccom, anticipating the sort of situations our investigation has uncovered, wrote a letter to Michael Gove, the Levelling-Up Secretary, offering a series of recommendations on how the government could ensure the “safe and effective running” of the scheme.

Contrary to Naccom’s recommendations, however, the government has never mandated that councils carry out pre-arrival accommodation checks. Instead, councils are “encouraged” to conduct these initial checks “where possible”. In addition, there is still no requirement for matches to be organised through “recognised providers”.

“On the Homes for Ukraine scheme, mandatory security checks are carried out on all adults prior to issuing a visa, and councils conduct accommodation and DBS checks as a second layer of safeguarding,” said a government spokesperson. “Councils have a duty to ensure families have temporary housing… We are providing councils with per-person funding, as well as £150m to support guests into their own homes and £500m to find housing.”

Just 10-15 per cent of matches are likely to have been established through a recognised provider, estimates Reset. Kate Brown, the organisation's head, noted that the New Statesman’s findings “point to the need to have as many layers of safety built in [as possible]”, which their service provides.

While the number of failures may have been “small”, the “impacts are life-changing”, said Scott of Refugees at Home, adding that there has been “a reluctance [from government] to recognise that Homes for Ukraine is anything other than a success”.

Data obtained by the New Statesman also reveals that 4 per cent of Ukrainian families arriving under the scheme have since been registered as homeless, with figures as high as 18 per cent in some local authorities. Without affordable housing, some hosts feel “compromised” as “they need their space back but there are no alternatives”, said Scott. Some councils have provided a solution, acting as guarantors for Ukrainians wanting to rent privately, “but the situation is very patchy”.

“We have been raising concerns with government about the growing number of Ukrainians presenting as homeless to councils, and in particular those families facing the uncertainty of temporary accommodation,” said James Jamieson, a Conservative councillor in Central Bedfordshire and chair of the Local Government Association. “More detail is urgently needed on the £150m [of government funding for Ukrainians at risk of homelessness] announced in December in light of recent figures on homelessness. We are also concerned that there is no funding beyond the first year for councils, and funding for arrivals in 2023 has halved.”

[See also: Countries urging Germany to send Ukraine tanks must now do the same]

Uncertainty about next steps is causing tensions even among successful matches. Jane Finlay said her family of four Ukrainian guests are unlikely to find work nearby “in rural Cornwall” where they’re currently settled. Although the match has been a success – recently she and her guest Anna ran a marathon together to raise funds for Ukraine – Finlay said there is “no clarity” from central government about the future for her Ukrainian guests.

“Taking away that ability to plan and that agency from people is the single-most stressful thing for them,” she added. Anna, currently studying for a master's degree in the UK, agrees: “This uncertainty is killing us, it’s really, really hard. We don’t know the next steps.”

The Home Office has said it is unable to comment on individual cases relating to immigration status, and is keeping the “future need for an extension of sanctuary in the UK under review”.

On 27 February, in response to a petition with 18,000 signatures asking whether Ukrainians with humanitarian visas have the right to settle, the government said these are not “routes for settlement”. One implication of this “persistent uncertainty”, according to Mala Savjani, an immigration solicitor at Wilson Solicitors who does work for the immigration advice charity Here for Good, is that Ukrainians could start claiming asylum in the UK.

In light of the increasingly hostile environment towards migrants arriving to the UK from countries other than Ukraine, some have argued that the scheme's successes – but also failures – provide an opportunity for learning.

“It’s important to recognise that the Homes for Ukraine scheme has been successful in many ways, particularly around how many arrivals we’ve taken in a year, the focus on community sponsorship, and a real public mobilisation to help people,” said Adis Sehic of the Work Rights Centre, a charity supporting migrants into work, which recently found elements of Homes for Ukraine left refugees “vulnerable to exploitation”.

“Given the current climate in asylum and immigration policy in the UK more generally,” Sehic continued, “it shows you what’s possible when the will to help this population of vulnerable people is there.”

*Name changed on request of anonymity.

[See also: Ukraine Diary: A year on, Russia’s war has failed to break our spirit]

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