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Friday, December 9, 2022

We must honestly air concerns about the host refugee scheme

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ince Monday, generous and well-meaning Brits have been registering their willingness to host refugees with the Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. Maybe you are one of them. More than 150,000 have signed up and numbers are still climbing. From today, hosts and refugees who have (somehow) found each other can submit a joint visa application and work together to have the family relocated from Poland to their home. Only 5,500 Ukrainians have a visa so far but according to government sources, soon we’ll have lots more as they are reducing the application from 49 pages to 30 this weekend.

There’s been acres of coverage and debate in homes and between friends about who will and won’t host. Matt Hancock’s jumped in, offering his home, despite being in the middle of a traumatic divorce. Michael Gove has been full of excitable bombast.

What there has been a lot less of is detail, and experts are now voicing serious concerns. The scheme was devised overnight with no consultation with the refugee charities which have the necessary experience. “120,000 people have just handed over their personal details to a register. That, in my opinion, is going nowhere,” said Robina Qureshi, chief executive of Positive Action in Housing, an organisation that has years of experience housing refugees with host families. She was not consulted either. “They are giving the general public the impression that something is happening, when nothing is happening — it’s a scam. How is this register going to work? Where are the protections for the refugees?”

A spokesman from the City of Sanctuary, a network supporting refugees, is similarly concerned: “We have no clarity on this register and its outcomes, no clarity whatsoever. The lack of notice or detail has left the sector scrambling to respond. Alongside significant safeguarding issues, we are worried it will not pick up on the most vulnerable.” The Refugee Council is also troubled.

On safety, the Government has already admitted only limited policing will take place once families have moved in. Michael Gove has passed safeguarding onto local authorities, already strained from understaffing and underfunding.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians in desperate need of our help continue to languish in a visa bottleneck. So why didn’t the Government prepare better? Done with little consultation, chaotic but politically savvy, and superficially optimistic: it’s a classic Boris Johnson reaction. Overnight, attention was diverted from the Government’s incompetence on granting visas and refugee status. Simultaneously, Number 10 shifted responsibility for the scheme’s success onto us, charities and local councils and churches.

I don’t wish to pop the generosity of those offering help. I don’t doubt for a second the sincerity involved. But hosting mostly women with their children, many suffering from trauma, is not a responsibility to take lightly. And this was not emphasised. It was all tally ho, let’s go! At Positive Action in Housing there is a long vetting process that begins with a detailed questionnaire and care is then continued throughout the whole procedure and the refugee’s stay.

Since Monday, Qureshi says they have been inundated with well-meaning but sometimes disturbing requests: “One couple said they only wanted a Ukrainian orphan; nothing else would do.” Others’ motives ranged from, “I’ve been wanting a project since I retired” to “I just needed to do something.” As one refugee councillor explained, “Refugees are not projects. Or experiences.” They are also not free baby-sitters or unpaid cleaners.

Many arriving will be suffering from trauma or PTSD. Symptoms can include anxiety, insomnia, irritability and anger, sometimes confrontational behaviour. Initially for hosts this may be manageable, but as the months go on, experts say families in close spaces may not cope. The Refugee Council has listed other challenges to consider. Hosts will need to help their guests access education, the benefit system, the NHS, learning English and finding jobs. There is also anger that Afghan refugees, welcomed last year, have been largely forgotten.

I don’t want to be the negative one. We all want to help. None of the above is insurmountable. We need optimism, but careful consideration too.

There’s a meme doing the rounds on WhatsApp. It shows a picture of two beautiful young women with the tagline, ‘I’m doing my bit for Ukraine, by hosting refugees Olga and Svetlana’. Some who receive it are disgusted, others continue to share, passing it off as ribald humour in the face of a crisis. I think we should view it as a warning.

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