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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Explained: What is the UK’s ‘Homes for Ukraine’ refugee scheme?

The UK's 'Homes for Ukraine' scheme allows residents to host displaced Ukrainians in their own homes or independent accommodation for six months to a year. How does it work and what are some criticisms against it?

Written by Shiny Varghese , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 19, 2022 7:17:01 am
Refugees walk across train tracks to board a train to Bucharest at Suceava train station after fleeing Ukraine to the Siret border crossing in Romania. (Reuters)

Nearly three million people have fled Ukraine, to neighbouring countries, as a result of Russian aggression, and the numbers are steadily rising, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UK government this week introduced the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, which allows residents to host displaced Ukrainians in their own homes or independent accommodation for six months to a year. Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, launched the webpage for sponsors to register for the scheme, which opens visa applications on March 18.

While Gove himself has said he would be willing to be a host, British actor Benedict Cumberbatch too said he would play his part. At the recent British Academy Film Awards, the Doctor Strange star said, “There’s been a record number of people volunteering to take people into their homes, I hope to be part of that myself and also donating to charities who can help people in a very real way on the ground.”

How the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme works

The scheme allows individuals, charities, communities groups and businesses in the UK, across nationalities, to bring in Ukrainians. In Phase One of this scheme, the sponsor can choose whom to support, be it an individual, more than one adult or adults with children. Hosts will be subject to safeguard and security checks, so will the guests. While they are expected to give rent-free rooms, the UK government will offer “an optional thank-you payment of £350 a month”, which can continue till 12 months of sponsorship. Local authorities will be given £10,000 for helping each Ukrainian refugee through this new scheme, besides funds for providing education to school children.

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How it works for Ukrainians

UK’s home secretary Priti Patel informed that Ukrainians with international passports can directly apply online for entry without the need to visit a visa application centre. They can remain in the UK for three years and will have “full and unrestricted access” to state benefits, healthcare, schooling, and employment. They will need to be vetted before entry and biometric checks will be made in the UK after arrival.

The criticism

Opposition parties in the UK have called it a “do-it-yourself” asylum plan. Until now the Gateway Protection Programme, a UK refugee resettlement scheme, partnered with UNHCR has been in action since 2004, where local authorities have provided for housing. They either use empty buildings or repurpose vacant houses.

The NGO, Refugee Council, working with the Gateway Protection Programme, has also raised concerns about the trauma support women and children needed in such a crisis. They have called for “robust checks, training and having a social worker in place” to support asylum seekers.

The other concern is what happens to them after the six-month stay, if they cannot find jobs or employment. And should the Russia-Ukraine conflict last longer than three years (when their visa expires) what would their future be?

Lastly, the visa process appears to be long-drawn and time-consuming, at this crucial point. As on March 14, of the 17,600 total applications only 4,600 visas have been issued (www.gov.uk).

Through history

The UK has, in the past, devised historic processes for refugees. In 1938, the British government conducted a nine-month rescue operation for Jewish children fleeing the Nazi pogrom. Called Kindertransport (Children Transport), the parents or relatives had to provide a £50 bond, to be “assured of their ultimate resettlement”, and it was assumed they could reconnect with their families once the crisis was over. The children had temporary travel documents; they were taken on trains to Belgian or Dutch borders and then to England on ship. However, most children never saw their parents again.

Almost a year later, in 1939, the UK again wore its worker gloves to help refugees soon after the passing of Norwegian statesman and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. The Nansen passports, recognised internationally as refugee travel documents, from 1922 to 1938, issued by the League of Nations, were discontinued. The Office International Nansen, too, was closed. It then resumed as the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, with its headquarters in London. Many famous people have been Nansen passport holders including the composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rakhmaninov and the dancer Anna Pavlova.

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