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Seeking refuge: The UK's response to Ukraine means it's time to ask difficult questions, experts say

The Home Office has defended the use of visas for Ukrainian refugees

Seeking refuge: The UK's response to Ukraine means it's time to ask difficult questions, experts say

Patchwork provision for asylum seekers and refugees is laid bare

For more than one month now, the world has been watching Ukraine – the violence, the suffering, the trauma inflicted on its people by Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces.

At least 6.5m people are known to be internally displaced, while almost 4m more have managed to cross the country’s borders and become refugees. Only a fraction have made it to the UK, where 200,000 citizens have applied to offer up the sanctuary of their own spare rooms.

From the bedrooms of the budget hotels and bedsit units where they’ve been staying for weeks – months – as guests of the Home Office, refugees and asylum seekers from other countries are watching too as they continue to wait for news about their own futures.

In these rooms, some without chairs to sit in or space for their babies to learn to crawl, residents – families, pregnant women, single men all held under different UK Government contracts and schemes – are increasingly anxious about their futures. And they’re asking why the UK’s response to the crises that saw them flee their countries, including hunger-struck Afghanistan or bomb-battered Yemen, is so different to that for Ukraine. 

It’s a question, experts say, which exposes the patchwork provision in place in the UK, despite the government’s frequent claims of a “proud history” of welcome for all who need it – as does the question of why those thousands of Ukrainian seasonal workers living now in Scotland cannot apply to bring their families here. Or indeed, why visas are needed for Ukrainians at all, unlike in other European countries. Despite promises that up to 10,000 visas would be approved per week, there remains a bureaucratic backlog.

“It’s a back-of-an-envelope approach,” says Dr Teresa Piacentini of the University of Glasgow, a migration studies specialist. “They’re dealing with it as an immigration management issue, that’s what’s underpinning it,” she says of the UK Government. “That’s about numbers. The UK Government lacks an ability to forward plan, but also reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t. 

“With Homes for Ukraine, why not Homes for Syria or Homes for Afghanistan?” she goes on. “What we are seeing become embedded is this idea of who is a deserving refugee, who is acceptable and genuine.

“We need to ask these very difficult questions.”

The pattern of arrivals to the UK is as complex as the experiences of those making the journey. Government figures show that at 9,800, more Iranians claimed asylum in the UK in 2021 than did people of any other nationality. They were followed by people from Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Syria and Afghanistan. For the latter two countries, well-publicised resettlement schemes have been established in partnership with UNHCR. The Syrian scheme saw families settled in council housing outwith Glasgow, which remains the only Scottish local authority to accept asylum seekers. They set up lives and businesses in places like Bute and Greenock and while there have been bumps along the road, insiders agree it’s led to successful outcomes. There is confusion, therefore, about why this model wasn’t used to build the emergency response to the Afghan crisis last summer, when interpreters, security guards and others directly employed by the UK in Afghanistan were airlifted out of Kabul amidst the chaos of Operation Pitting and the Taliban takeover.

More than 7,000 people were relocated in the first wave of response, which has now been succeeded by the 20,000-person Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme. Its first beneficiaries arrived in the UK in January and were taken to budget hotels where more than 12,000 people remain. In Edinburgh, around 300 Afghans are still in three hotels and local families have stepped in to help some with laundry and food.

They have no idea how long they’ll have to stay there, but life is increasingly difficult, residents say in furtive conversations with the charities supporting them. Despite assurances about their rights, many fear questions or criticism will damage their chances of a house and a job. Rooms are minimally-furnished, mealtimes and menus are set, days are long, mental health is suffering.

The same is true for those bussed from the Kent coast and Northern Ireland to men-only hotels in six cities around Scotland, where they await relocation south of the border. And while women at the country’s only mother and baby unit for asylum seekers in Glasgow have more facilities in their bedsit rooms, these are so poor that they risk breaching the children’s human rights, according to the office of the Children and Young Person’s Commissioner for Scotland.

These groups total around 5,800 and are housed by Home Office contractor Mears, which says it is working to overcome a shortage of suitable housing and promises to shift families from the mother and baby unit by the end of the month.

Within local and national government, there are reports that clients are now more desperate to get into housing and are fearful that they’ll be left behind amidst the Ukraine response. “We are treated differently compared to the Ukrainian refugees and people don’t bother with us,” said one Afghan father living in a Scottish hotel. His children are here but often come home from school hungry; they don’t know Scottish food, they don’t like it. After class, their parents are unable to give them a taste of home. They don’t have access to kitchens and they’re not allowed to keep food in their room. “We put ourselves at risk pursuing the mission of this country in Afghanistan,” the dad said. “We worked really hard, we are ready to work here. But now they are not considering us as human beings. Ukrainians get everything, we get nothing.”  

That was before Newsnight broadcast evidence that visas for Ukrainians are being prioritised over applications by Afghans, and there is fear within the third sector that such sentiment will take root and become corrosive. Abdul Bostani, director of Glasgow Afghan United, has few answers to give hotel residents seeking information. “We listen to them, support them and report the issues to the Scottish Government, the Home Office, Cosla and Mears,” he says. “We try to solve the problems where we can and we support the response to the Ukraine crisis, but we would call for an equal response to all refugees, no matter where they have come from.”

That’s also the position of the Scottish Refugee Council. “The Home Office’s patchwork approach to refugee protection, launching targeted schemes which only bring very small numbers of people from specific groups to safety, is a system of discrimination,” says its head of policy, Gary Christie. “It’s a system which is driving division through grouping refugees into false categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.”

And, he says, the “stop-and-start bespoke approach of the current UK Government to refugee resettlement has meant the UK has been so ill-prepared to play a full and proper role in sharing the responsibility to the people feeling conflict in Ukraine”.

“The Syria scheme was not the magic bullet, but it provided a model for dispersal,” says Piacentini. “Now short-term holding in hotels has become a normalised policy. Even if it is supposed to be for three months, that is still too long for people who are traumatised.”

Meanwhile, there are serious concerns about Homes for Ukraine: the glacial pace of visa provision; the exclusion of UK-based Ukrainian seasonal workers; safeguarding and support issues. Scottish charity Positive Action in Housing, which has operated its Rooms for Refugees volunteer host register for several years, has questioned why neither the UK nor Scottish Government has asked to work with it on Homes for Ukraine, accusing the government of “forcing war refugees to get visas like holiday tourists with time on their hands” and publishing details of “sex for refuge” offers made to Ukrainian women by men who have applied to join the scheme. 

The UK Government says such evidence should be handed to police and that there are “robust security and background checks on all sponsors”. “Registering your expression of interest in becoming a sponsor does not mean an individual has passed security checks, and all sponsors must go through these checks,” a spokesperson said. “For the safety of the applicant, no visa will be issued until these Home Office checks have been complete.”

Critics say the system, which comes with monthly payments of £350 for hosts, is too complex and question the long-term vision for its management. The Scottish Government has stepped in as a super-sponsor to expedite arrivals, with no upper limit set on numbers. Several MSPs, including Nicola Sturgeon, Neil Gray, Ash Regan, Jackie Baillie and Alex Cole-Hamilton, have indicated that they may become hosts. As of 7 April, 40 of the 566 people allowed into Scotland by the Home Office were approved through the super-sponsor scheme.

Across the UK as a whole, 40,900 visas have been issued. Only 12,000 people have actually arrived and a total of 79,800 applications have been received.

Marie Hayes, Scotland director for the Red Cross, called Homes for Ukraine “an outsourcing of responsibility to the British public”. The charity welcomes the Scottish Government’s move to become a super-sponsor for Ukrainians, she told MSPs on the Constitution, External Affairs, Europe and Culture Committee, because it “takes back control, to an extent”. But, she said, “we do not want to fail to learn that temporary accommodation is only a very short-term solution.”
Homes for Ukraine reminds Piacentini of David Cameron’s “big society” drive, which aimed to have communities take over libraries, museums and transport. “Governments need to go to the experts,” she says, “but instead what we get is this kind of DIY solidarity from people in the street who feel like they want to do something. But that too has a shelf life. In 2015, solidarity with Syria had a shelf life. We need very well thought-through, considered, planned, government-type programmes that project forwards.”

According to social justice secretary Shona Robinson, the introduction of different resettlement schemes by the UK Government is a matter of “regret”. “Refugees and anyone seeking asylum should be welcomed and accommodated with the support they need to rebuild their lives. We have consistently raised with the UK Government issues around their inhumane asylum and immigration system and called for this to be addressed,” she told Holyrood.

But the Home Office dismisses such criticism. “We have been working as fast as possible to house everyone and are proud this country has provided homes for more than 4,000 Afghan evacuees in such a short space of time,” a spokesperson said. “We have also acted rapidly to ensure those fleeing Putin’s invasion can find safety in the UK, setting up the Ukraine Family Scheme and now the Homes for Ukraine scheme.” Support of Afghan refugees continues, the spokesperson added, saying “it is wrong to set these two vulnerable groups against each other”.

That is indeed wrong, says Pinar Aksu of Glasgow’s Maryhill Integration Network (MIN), which has been working with refugees and asylum seekers for 20 years. But Aksu, who was held in immigration detention as a child, lays that at the government’s door. “They say the current system is broken, but it is one that they created,” she goes on.

“Within my groups, we have been having genuine discussion about this. Everyone supports the Ukrainian people and wants them to be safe and supported, but they are wondering why this war is treated differently to other wars. We all say it’s the fault of the system we have and the system needs to be fair, just and in line with international protection and law.”

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