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Home >> Newsletters >> Newsletter 2022-03-15

Ukrainian Refugees

On the 2nd March I wrote in a newsletter, ’by the time you read this newsletter, these figures will be out of date’. I was not being prophetic, merely realistic. The number of refugees has grown from hundreds of thousands to 2.5 million at the latest count, fleeing what is described by some as a ‘living hell’.

The UK Government has been slow to respond, and concessions and additional announcements have been piecemeal, and wrung out between gritted teeth on the part of the Home Secretary. They have form on this. In 2015, in response to a request from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to provide sanctuary for some of the 4.1 million Syrians displaced by the long running war in that country, the number offered by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, was ‘nil’. As public protest began, it was raised to 300, and finally to’ 20,000 spread over 4 years’. Those coming had to meet the criteria of being vulnerable families, living in a designated camp, and would be required to have all necessary papers, documents, security and biometric checks completed before travelling to the UK.

It all sounds familiar. However, let us be pleased that the family re-union programme has been specifically widened to include Ukrainian parents, brothers and sisters, and children over 18, to apply for visas to enter the UK and be re-united with their settled UK families. As of 14th March, 1000 visas have been issued, and ‘many more are in the pipeline’. The Home Office is ‘working at pace’ we are assured. That is, averages of 83 visas a day are being completed.

First arrivals under the scheme are expected to be in the UK by 18th March. Over 22,000 applications are ‘in the pipeline’, of which 9,000 are paused awaiting further information and documents. Let us also be pleased that those coming under the scheme can now stay for 3 years instead of the original 12 months.

Clearly the public mood was looking to the Government to be more generous than the visa linked family re-union programme. Therefore, the Home Secretary was back at the dispatch box announcing the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ pathway. Further details were announced by Michael Gove on 14th March.

Sponsoring Ukrainians

Here is the clearest summary I can give you, because even now further details are still to be announced.

  • Anyone of any nationality, with more than 6 months leave to remain in the UK, or a British citizen, can be a sponsor.
  • The host sponsor must be willing to provide accommodation in their home or another property which they own for a minimum period of 6 months.
  • Charities, community groups and businesses can also apply for sponsorship, providing they can offer accommodation for the six-month period.
  • The Government has not fixed a cap on the numbers of people who may apply or who may be granted a visa to come to the UK.
  • A payment of £350 a month will be made to each host, as a thank you gesture from the Government. It is not intended as rent, and the refugees do not have tenant status. The payment is not intended as a contribution to food or living costs such as fuel bills, though hosts may use it for that purpose if they wish. The payment is monthly for up to 12 months, and is the same amount, regardless of the number of guests in the accommodation.
  • Hosting is just accommodation, and does not include food or other provisions, although hosts are free to offer those if so desired.
  • Those coming to the UK with a visa will be able to work, access benefits, (though not housing benefits), and use the NHS without paying fees. That will be for 3 years.
  • (Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, and M+S are open to receive application from Ukrainians for employment).
  • A range of checks will be required of the host to cover the security, suitability of housing, and safeguarding of vulnerable adults and children. This may involve a visit to the host’s home. This part of the process may be in the hands of the local authority, although precise details are not yet clear. Michael Gove suggested a ‘light touch approach’ to safeguarding, which has dismayed some refugee agencies.
  • Security checks will also be required of Ukrainians before leaving for the UK. Those with Ukrainian valid passports will then be able to travel to the UK and further biometric checks (fingerprints and photos) will be taken after arrival. Those without passports or expired passports will be required to visit a visa application centre operating in the countries of Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Hungary, and Serbia. They should not travel until they have received a visa for entry to the UK. The Home Office insists on these checks on the grounds that ’it must ensure that the UK is helping those in genuine need’. **
  • The Government figures show that within 24 hours of the website for registering host applications coming on line, 88,000 people tried to record details. There are reports of the site crashing so regularly that many people abandoned their attempts. ‘Tomorrow is another day’.

The first phase

In the so called ‘first phase’, the Government outlines those who are first in the queue. If you are a host who knows the name of a Ukrainian person or family who you wish to sponsor, then you are advised to contact the Ukrainian(s) directly, and prepare to fill in a Government visa application form, preferably with their presence online. Give your own details and those of the person(s) you are sponsoring.

Those with valid Ukrainian passports will be able to fill in their passport details on the joint visa application form. Once these are accepted, they can travel to the UK, where further checks will take place.

Those without a valid passport must apply to a European visa application centre, giving full details of the sponsoring person in the UK. They should not travel to the UK until they have a visa acceptance.

If you don’t know any Ukranians personally…..

then the Government advises you to register your interest in being a host on their website. They suggest you may also contact your local refugee group who may be able to help with names. The Government will contact you in due course.

Curiously, until the end of February, York City of Sanctuary was not aware that Putin planned to invade Ukraine. He did not give our charity advance warning of his intentions. We had no reason to believe that within a fortnight, the biggest refugee crisis to hit Europe since the 2nd World War was going to be in plain sight. We are therefore currently not over familiar with Ukrainian people, though we have friendships with Afghans, Syrians, Kurds and Iraqis in the city. Remember those people?

Rally to the cause

Thanks to everyone who came to St. Helen’s Square on March 5th to express solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Over a thousand turned out, which was great. I was sorry to hear that the acoustics were not that good. From where I was standing, right over the loudspeaker, it sounded loud and clear! I got a plaintive text towards the end of the event reading,’ we are halfway back and we can’t hear. Help!’

The event was massive in terms of publicity and sent a message to those in power that ‘refugees are welcome here’. Further Government announcements and concessions followed, because the York event was mirrored across the country.

During the course of the rally, we met a young couple who had recently arrived back in York from Ukraine. We took details, because we realised that we need to be in touch with Ukrainians already settled in York, who may assist us with translations and support when refugees arrive here. We have begun widening our social network with Ukrainians in York and Selby, and are making good progress.

Please ask any neighbour or person who you know is from Ukraine to be in contact with us – if they so wish.

They may be of invaluable assistance as events unfold. They may know people who need sponsorship right now. Those people could join ‘the first phase’ and be in a safe environment soon. We could match you up.

Important message for those offering to be hosts

Please use the official Government website to register; ‘ for –Ukraine’. At the same time, let us know that you registered, and the accommodation you are offering. In that way, we can be ready to make support for hosts and arrivals a speedy and proper welcoming experience. We, and the other refugee agencies, and the City of York Council stand ready to be a proper place of sanctuary for those who come from that war- devastated country. As a host, we want to offer you support and resources to assist your generous reaching out to strangers in their time of need.

This pathway offered by the Government is not the ideal way to deal with the humanitarian crisis we are watching every day on our TVs. For example, Ireland has charted planes from Warsaw to Dublin, simply flying people out by the hundreds. The Irish Government is sorting out paperwork when they arrive, including visas, and overseeing accommodation and other needs. That sums up a simple and straightforward, national response. Ours is a complex DIY, privatised event.

An old story

There is an old story about a man getting beaten up and left in a ditch by thieves on the road to Jericho. A foreigner, a Samaritan, came along, and agreed to put him on his donkey and take him to the inn for safety and sanctuary, only if the victim of mugging showed him his ID card and a utility bill. No- actually I changed the last bit.

In fact the Good Samaritan didn’t know the guy from Adam. He just saw someone in need. Without further ado, he bandaged him up and took him to the inn, paying the landlord to keep him there until he recovered. That’s why the story is remembered. It is an example of a humane response to a crisis. That’s what so many people in the UK see at this moment. You and they want to reach out in compassion to protect women and children, those who are pregnant, or sick, elderly and frail, from bombs and missiles raining down upon them. That they are required to go through administrative hoops on the way to rescue is not in the true spirit of a humanitarian response.

** As proof of that, I remind you of the quote from the Home Office that suggests ‘security checks ensure that we are helping those in genuine need.’ That infers that some Ukrainian women and children flee their homes because they fear for their lives, and other women and children flee their homes when they absolutely genuinely have no need to be afraid, and are fraudulent. That is a slur to cast and a judgemental statement without evidence, about the motivation of people fleeing their homes.

The compassion of people in this country towards refugees who are suffering, wherever they may be, is often under-estimated by the Government of the day. Hence the kindertransport as the start of the 2nd world war loomed closer. That was not sponsored by the UK Government, but grew as a spontaneous movement by British people who wanted to rescue Jewish children from the jaws of death. It is still spoken of today, by those who are the descendants of those children.

I hope that Ukrainians may speak in future generations about the welcome and hosting provided by the people of York and the UK at their moment of need. We can do this, with your help.