There are significant loopholes in Michael Gove’s refugee scheme which could prevent vulnerable people from coming to the UK and increase the risk of homelessness for those who do, aid experts have said.
The Homes for Ukraine program, unveiled by the Communities Secretary over the weekend and which will be rolled out this week, will enable individuals, charities, community groups and businesses to bring people fleeing war to safety.
Sponsored Ukrainians will be granted three years leave to remain in the UK, with the right to work and access public services. But concerns have been raised that Ukrainians will still need to apply for a visa to qualify for the scheme, which charities say is a significant barrier for many.
In addition, the Guardian understands that refugees will not be able to apply for Housing Benefit as part of a Universal Credit application, putting them at risk of homelessness if their accommodation with family members or of sponsors breaks down.
The First Ministers of Scotland and Wales are reportedly seeking to become “super sponsors” so they can go beyond the measures announced by Gove.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said it was important to tap into the generosity and goodwill of the public, but the program needed to be properly resourced.
He said: “Helping people take in Ukrainian refugees should be part of the UK offer. But if it works, it must be provided with all the right resources and all the necessary rights for Ukrainians – so that they can get all the health care they need, access housing benefits – because the reality is that the sponsorship arrangement will be a short-term measure.
“This conflict does not look like it will end soon. There needs to be a clear path to longer term housing.
Every EU country has scrapped visa requirements for short-term Ukrainians, but the UK government insists visas will be needed, despite pressure to drop the policy.
Solomon said a visa program was “in effect a managed migration route, which is not suitable for responding to a humanitarian crisis”.
The road is even more complicated if a refugee does not have a Ukrainian passport, as there are additional requirements, including providing biometric data to a processing center. For vulnerable people, including unaccompanied children, this would be a significant barrier, Solomon said.
The Guardian understands that Ukrainian refugees arriving under the scheme will not be able to apply for Housing Benefit, which allows an individual to pay private rent. This is out of step with regular refugee status in the UK after the asylum procedure – there are no restrictions imposed on working or claiming benefits.
No additional funding has yet been announced for health services, as was the case when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and the UK took in fleeing Afghans, Solomon said.
Louise Calvey, Services and Protection Manager at Refugee Action, said: “The public outpouring of compassion for Ukrainian refugees in this country has been incredible. However, this does not allow the government to outsource its refugee protection responsibilities.
“Instead of developing a comprehensive, fully funded refugee resettlement programme, the government is leaving the British public to pick up the pieces of a refugee protection system it has torn apart.”
She continued, “Sponsoring refugees is a wonderful way for people to show their support, but they cannot be a country’s main response to large-scale displacement. Sponsorship is slow, bureaucratic and selective and only takes in an average of 150 refugees each year.
“We are also deeply concerned about the security risks to refugees inherent in the proposed program. Many people fleeing Ukraine will be traumatized and need specialist support, and some will be vulnerable to exploitation. This inadequate refugee protection program comes after more than two weeks of government dithering and delays.
A source from the Department of Upgrading, Housing and Communities said they believe they can launch the program very quickly, without bureaucratic barriers.
They said it was okay that a visa was still required, and that the ministry had to balance bringing in as many people as possible and carrying out checks to protect the country’s security.
Unconfirmed reports suggest intelligence and security services have raised concerns about terrorists and organized criminals taking advantage of relaxed routes to the UK from Ukraine.
Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, told the BBC’s Sunday Morning program that “the humanitarian response trumps everything, as far as we are concerned. But our security officers will continue to monitor the situation in terms of what is happening. »