The UK government’s Homes for Ukraine refugee hosting scheme has seen more than 180,000 Ukrainians granted visas so far. With more than 7 million Ukrainians scattered across Europe, this has, of course, been the right thing to do.
But after six months of the scheme the challenges that hosting refugees has posed to essential public infrastructure – including childcare, healthcare, housing – are evident.
The UK government is now reportedly asking hosts, who initially only agreed to a six-month term, to extend their commitment and is encouraging more people to consider hosting. But a recent survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that only 23% of hosts are willing to continue hosting beyond 12 months, while 42% of hosts would not consider doing it again.
While the rising cost of living has been the focus in the media, the ONS survey shows that this is not the main reason given by those who wish to discontinue. Rather, most hosts say that they only intended to provide short-term accommodation (58%) and/or miss having their home to themselves (50%).
Even for those who have felt the financial impact, the most overwhelming issues are non-financial. A woman who called in to LBC with Nick Ferrari admitted to being both financially drained and distressed by the burden of taking care of two families.
I have researched long-term, conflict-driven humanitarian crises. This research shows that decisions on how to support refugees should not be based on fleeting feelings but should be well considered. Refugee responses are almost never a short-term commitment. Ferrari’s caller summed it up well, when she said: “It was a great gesture, but no one really thought it through.”
What the Homes for Ukraine scheme entails
One of the scheme’s key conditions is that refugee visas are valid for at least three years. This does not mean, though, that the refugee population will shrink substantially as visas start to expire. It seems unlikely that the conflict will end soon. But even if it ended today, the government will be dealing with significant additional demand for key public infrastructure for years to come.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, it is up to refugees to return to their country once it is deemed safe. Research shows that this rarely happens. Returning is challenging. Rebuilding homes, economies and society takes time. Returnees can also face retribution, destitution or ostracism, amid a lack of access to basic and mental health services.
To underline this, a second ONS survey that shows that only 2% of Ukrainian refugees currently intend to ultimately leave the UK.
It’s also important to note that hosting was only ever going to absorb a small fraction of the refugee-driven demand for housing. There is only so much extra capacity in people’s homes, especially given that the majority of guests are families. The onus is on the government to find alternative solutions.
Hosts and refugees need better support
First, the government needs to make hosting less burdensome and to understand its limits. The Local Government Association has led calls to double the payments to hosts. This would help, but it wouldn’t be enough, because the burden is not only financial.
Refugees have multifaceted needs, which include registration, access to healthcare and mental health services, legal services and education. They also need employment opportunities, in order to become self-reliant.
In conventional refugee camp settings, the logistics are in place to meet these needs efficiently and at scale. Hosts, by contrast, are ordinary citizens with neither the time nor the training to meet the full spectrum of refugee needs.
When refugees are served in the kind of decentralised way that the Homes for Ukraine scheme is based on, significant logistical problems arise. Local authorities may not be capable of developing and disseminating knowledge to their employees fast enough or provide services in one place. Hosts and their guests may lose time bouncing between offices and getting no assistance.
Second, the government needs to proactively manage where refugees are placed across the country. The second ONS survey shows that the majority of Ukrainians are settling in London (31%), specifically, and England (93%), more broadly. In England, hosts initiate the process and then councils are brought in to facilitate the registration. Allocation decisions, however, should be based on the national infrastructure capacity.
Since Germany, for example, took in nearly 1 million refugees in 2015 and 2016 – refugees who were primarily fleeing the war in Syria – the German government has effectively managed population distribution through a quota system based on tax receipts and population size. Berlin received 6% of the refugee population by the end of 2017, while the North Rhine-Westphalia region, the most populous region comprising four cities, had taken in about 21%. Disregarding the impact of Ukrainian refugee inflows into Berlin, this suggests an overall even distribution of refugees across Germany.
Third, refugee crises must be properly managed with the host communities’ needs taken into consideration. In the refugee camp model, services such as clean water supply and education are often made available to the host communities, because the camps have greater capacity and efficiency. The Homes for Ukraine scheme operates the other way round, with the host community sharing already limited resources with refugees. If hosts’ needs are disregarded, this runs the risk of public dissent.
Beyond the six months mark, there are a few key questions to be addressed. What is being done to safeguard the interests of host communities while securing the needs of the refugee population? What is being done to minimise the real risk of exploitation and abuse of the scheme? What measures or agreements are in place to aid any Ukrainian people wanting to return home, now or in the future?
Further, what impact is this scheme having on other refugee groups – who are currently experiencing the worst processing delays in UK history?
Without the right answers to these questions, what was once a sign of solidarity and warmth could become a source of disenchantment, or worse, resentment.