Britain’s Homes for Ukraine scheme will be “entirely unworkable” unless the government cuts excessive red tape and takes urgent steps to coordinate the matching process, the shadow communities secretary has warned.
In conversation with the observer Lisa Nandy also said that charities and local governments should be properly consulted before announcing the sponsorship scheme, which will allow members of the public or organizations to bring a named refugee from Ukraine to the UK.
The first phase of the initiative opened on Friday for visa applications from Ukrainians wishing to travel to the UK who have a named sponsor. So far there have been 150,000 expressions of interest to help people fleeing Ukraine who have no family ties to the UK.
But Nandy said: “There is no formal centralized system to match people on the register with those in need, which is quite exceptional.
“When you add the excessive bureaucracy – the lengthy forms and the documents you need to prove your identity and residency – the obstacles make this system utterly unworkable. Unless urgent steps are taken to address this, we will see very few people take up this offer and much of the public’s generosity going to waste.”
At first, Nandy says, it appears the government wants desperate people to apply on social media so the British public can find them. “As this drew criticism, they seem to have moved on to including charities,” she said. However, the sector is concerned about the lack of clarity and consultation.
Last week, a charity, Reset Communities and Refugees, launched a matching system on its website.
But another UK-based refugee agency said so observer: “The government has asked us to be an appropriate organization without telling us what that entails. We’d love to help, but we don’t want to blindly get involved in a process we don’t know about. We could expedite host placements and internships, but we don’t have the expertise to create visas. These people are fleeing war and should not have to go through the complexities of the visa process.”
Daniel Sohege, specialist in international refugee law and director of human rights organization Stand for All, said: “The informal match portals that are popping up on social media platforms appear to be unregulated, meaning they could be exploited.”
He tweeted: “If you base your refugee protection system on Tinder then you definitely have problems… Denies access to many and puts those who get it at risk of exploitation and human trafficking.”
He told that observer: “We need a government-run matching portal with built-in protection checks. The government has reached out to certain groups, but has not engaged the refugee or child protection sectors to a large extent.”
Earlier this week, Communities Secretary Michael Gove said hosts would only have to undergo “very light” criminal records checks. However, the actual measurements will be more stringent, it was later confirmed, as all hosts require Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.
“We support thorough screening because of the sheer volume of children involved that we need to protect,” Nandy said. Local authorities will take on the role of verifying sponsors and inspecting shelters.
However, the Labor MP said: “I met with a group of councilors just before Michael Gove arrived to make a statement on the program to the House of Commons on Monday and not a single one has been contacted.
“Councils are keen to help, but their concern is how this system can work in practice. A council chairman from a major city authority said they only had nine secondary school places across the city.
“This refugee cohort is different from other groups we have supported in the past – there will be many children and the elderly, so we need to make sure there is proper education and social care.”
On Wednesday, representatives from the Department of Leveling Up, Housing and Communities and the Interior Ministry held a Zoom call with some 200 council leaders to discuss the Homes for Ukraine program.
A source said: “The chatbox was flooded with questions: When will we know the numbers? How do you get to us? When will we get instructions on what to do with the schools?
“Everyone wants to do the right thing, but the worst thing is not having the right structures.”
They added: “A key question that kept coming up was why the local government was not consulted prior to the announcement. This initiative was hatched in Whitehall rather than bringing in chief executives from across the country and asking them what would work.”
Nandy said: “It is truly incredible that no one from the department has picked up the phone of the councils who will be providing these services, especially at a time when they are really struggling to meet their basic statutory requirements.”
Local councils have been informed of estimates of how many refugees they may need to take in. A London local authority announced this observer They were expecting around 1,200 families. Councils receive £10,500 per refugee to help with education, social care and English language support.
Speaking in the House of Commons last week, Gove said his office is working with the Local Government Association and has been in contact with individual council leaders to outline the level of support. He added: “Obviously we will be keeping an eye on things to make sure the local government has what it needs.”
Refugees receive a welcome pack upon arrival and have a contact person at the community level if placement fails.
The government says it is working expeditiously to implement the second phase of the program so that charities, faith groups and community organizations can increase the number of refugees by directly sponsoring refugees.
The Scottish Government said it will initially take in 3,000 Ukrainian refugees with no family ties to the UK and has put in place a route that will eliminate the need for applicants to be matched with a named person before they are cleared through the visa system.
Earlier this week, Gove said: “We want to minimize red tape and make the process as straightforward as possible, while doing everything we can to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Sponsors are therefore required to undergo the necessary security clearances and we are also streamlining the process to security check the status of Ukrainians arriving in the UK.”
The sponsorship route comes in addition to visas for Ukrainians with relatives already in the UK, with 8,600 visas granted under the family program to date.