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Photography Aleksandr Kadykov

Young people in the UK are signing up to house Ukrainian refugees

Homes for Ukraine is a welcome new scheme – but it’s another example of the Tories individualising an issue that should be handled by the state

This week, the government unveiled their Homes for Ukraine scheme, apparently in an attempt to redress their woefully lethargic response to the unfolding refugee crisis. As it stands, the plan is for individuals, charities, community groups and businesses across the UK to offer a rent-free room or home to Ukrainian refugees for a minimum of six months. The government can offer £350 a month to people who house refugees, although this fee will not increase for any additional refugees housed. Ukrainian refugees will then be granted three years’ leave to remain in the UK, and will be able to work, claim benefits and access public services during this period.

Cheeringly, more than 138,000 Britons registered their interest in hosting in the first few days after the website went live. 25-year-old Harry Robinson, who lives in Leeds, is one of them. “I registered my interest the day the website went live,” he tells me. “Clearly, people need help. I’m in a very fortunate position as I own a two-bedroom flat and I live here on my own, so I have the capacity to host someone. I guess I felt a sense of duty: as someone with the means to do this, I ought to.”

Martha Young, 28, who lives in Manchester, has also registered her interest in the scheme. She explains that she and her partner have looked into other refugee volunteer programs before. “We bought our house just over two years ago and it’s the first place where we’ve had a spare room,” she tells me. “When Ukraine happened and the program opened up, it was perfect timing.”

She adds that, due to her Jewish heritage, housing refugees is something she feels particularly strongly about. “We didn’t want to look back on this period and feel like there was anything more we could have done. So many people I know are only here – in the UK, but also just alive – because their parents or grandparents were able to get Kindertransport [an organised rescue of Jewish children from Nazi territory prior to the outbreak of the Second World War].”

More than three million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Around 4,000 visas have been issued to Ukrainians seeking safety in the UK – which might sound OK, but to put that into perspective, Poland has taken in nearly two million Ukrainian refugees. Harry points out that, in fairness, the scheme had to be launched with extremely short notice and it’s likely a logistical nightmare. But this half-hearted approach tracks with the Tories’ historical disdain for refugees: when the UK resettled 20,000 Syrians, Germany resettled more than 600,000. Similarly, the UK took in 12,600 Afghans, while Germany took 181,000. With the current crisis, as they have with other crises, the Tories are shirking responsibility and displaying a characteristic lack of empathy. “It is absolutely horrifying to think that we clearly could have done this with Iraq or with Afghanistan,” Harry adds. “We could have done this all along.”

“I’m pleased they’ve got the scheme, but part of me feels like the scheme lets the government off the hook,” Martha says. “They’ve said we can take in ‘unlimited numbers’ but in reality, with the way the scheme works, you have to be able to name the person you want to house [and they need to be able to name you on their visa application]. How many people in the UK who are willing to house someone can actually name a Ukrainian refugee, and a Ukrainian refugee name them?”

“I live here on my own, so I have the capacity to host someone. I guess I felt a sense of duty: as someone with the means to do this, I ought to” – Harry Robinson

Concerns have also been raised by The Refugee Council over the scheme. Its chief executive, Enver Solomon, told the Guardian the program was “effectively a managed migration route, which is not suitable to use to respond to a humanitarian crisis.” Solomon also stressed that the government urgently need to put in place appropriate mental health support for guests suffering from trauma. “It’s a bit like asking people to become foster carers without having a social worker in place,” he explained. It’s also imperative that refugees – who are mainly women and children – are protected from violence, exploitation, and abuse. While Martha says that she believes the vast majority of those signed up for the scheme have good intentions, she rightly stresses that even if there’s just one case where a host exploits a vulnerable refugee, “it’s still one case too many.”

While undoubtedly a welcome and much-needed program, the Homes for Ukraine scheme is just another policy which chimes with the Tories’ longstanding willingness to outsource their duties to the general public. Case in point: a centenarian man hauling himself around his garden with a Zimmer frame to ‘raise money’ for the (supposedly) state-funded national health service. The government should be establishing an efficient, state-funded and state-led resettlement scheme for Ukrainians, but as usual, it’s putting the onus onto benevolent individuals. Of course, people want to help, and in times of crisis sometimes unorthodox solutions and individual kindness are needed – but equally, in such crises, strong leadership, slick management, and appropriate resources and funding are essential. 

In the future, Martha will certainly be able to look back at this point in time and feel confident that there was nothing more she could have done. As will Harry and anyone else who comes to the aid of refugees. But will the government be able to say the same? History will be the judge.