Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the worst refugee crisis since the second world war, with the UN estimating that over 4.3m people have already fled the country.   

The UK government has been a vocal and active supporter of Ukraine, but its asylum policy – built on its “Home for Ukraine” scheme – fails to meet the scale of the humanitarian crisis. The UK is the only country in Europe applying a visa regime for Ukrainian citizens and so far just 12,000 Ukrainians have reached the UK. [1At the end of March, Germany had registered 270,000 Ukrainian refugees; Ireland with a population 13 times smaller than the UK, had registered 13,500. [2] With new data suggesting the scheme is inadequate to meet the scale of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, if the government wants reality to match its rhetoric then it needs to urgently overhaul and simplify its resettlement scheme. 

The UK is not pulling its weight in response to the humanitarian crisis 

Around 200,000 UK families are known to have expressed an interest in hosting refugees from Ukraine through the government scheme, with UK ministers and the media hailing these numbers as a sign of the country’s generosity. Unlike previous resettlement programmes run by the UK, the government has so far placed no upper limit or target on the number of visas that could be issued, with health secretary Sajid Javid saying he expects “hundreds of thousands” of Ukrainians to arrive in the UK. 

But the way the "Homes for Ukraine" scheme is structured means it is unlikely anything like that number will come to the UK. This is partly due to capacity issues, with widespread reports of backlogs as refugees and sponsors alike wait weeks for a response. Data released by the Home Office on 8 April, more than three weeks after the "Homes for Ukraine" scheme was launched, showed that just 40,900 visas have been issued to refugees since the start of the war, and only 12,500 under the "Homes for Ukraine" scheme. At this rate, the UK is nowhere near being able to pull its weight in supporting a response on the scale required. 

The government’s scheme has bewildered refugees and potential hosts 

While troubling, these bottlenecks can be resolved over time. The bigger problem is the way the resettlement scheme has been designed, which makes it unlikely all the families able to host refugees will be able to do so.  

To apply for a visa Ukrainian nationals must provide the name of a sponsor in the UK who is willing to host them. While many thousands of Brits are eager to do so, there is no easy way for refugees to find them. Britain has historically not been a major destination for Ukrainian emigration, and most Ukrainians have no UK connections or contacts. 

This problem is compounded by the way the matching scheme works. While the government has collected data on people willing to host, it has not created a centralised system to enable Ukrainian refugees to match with potential hosts. Instead, it has devolved responsibility to charities, refugee organisations (such as Reset Communities and Refugees) and private initiatives to try to match potential host families with refugees.  

The result has been an ad hoc, DIY-approach that has left refugees and potential hosts alike frustrated and bewildered. [3] Many refugees do not understand how to navigate the system, and do not know how to contact organisations that could help them find a host family. Experts have also raised concerns that the government’s hands-off approach risks the scheme being abused by criminal gangs. [4

The government urgently needs to simplify its approach to the refugee crisis  

Home secretary Priti Patel has apologised for delays but has stressed the importance of security checks [5], and the government has made clear it will not remove its visa requirements. However, there are several ways it can make it easier for refugees to find asylum in the UK. The government is better placed than a dispersed coalition of charities to gather information on those who wish to participate in the scheme. At a minimum it could establish a single portal for both refugees and potential hosts to register their desire to take part in the scheme. This should be available in Ukrainian and Russian as well as English (at present, the visa application form is only in English). Government officials and refugee organisations could then work together to process this information and match people.  

Given the large number of potential sponsors in the UK, the government could also consider abolishing the "naming scheme". Instead, it could issue visas to Ukrainian nationals before they have a host family, provide temporary accommodation in the UK, and then complete the matching and settlement process when refugees have already received asylum. This approach, which has been proposed by the Scottish and Welsh governments, would have its own logistical challenges – as finding accommodation for quarantining arrivals in pandemic showed – but it would have the major benefit of pushing the cumbersome bureaucratic part of the UK system to the end of the process, after the point that refugees had been granted entry. 

The UK has taken a leading role in supplying weaponry to the Ukrainian armed forces and has joined the EU and the US in imposing unprecedented sanctions on Russia’s politicians and economy. But alongside support the war effort, the UK government must also provide all the support it can to the war’s victims. To do that, it needs to rapidly overhaul its refugee resettlement scheme.

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  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-61028712 
  2. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukrainian-refugees-should-be-distributed-across-eu-berlin-says-2022-03-28/ 
  3. https://news.sky.com/story/ukraine-war-families-tired-and-frustrated-with-uk-visa-system-for-refugees-say-it-is-next-to-worthles…
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/mar/26/uk-homes-for-ukraine-scheme-risks-operating-as-tinder-for-sex-traffickers-say-ch…
  5. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-61028712

Original source – The Institute for Government

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