Concerns about the Homes for Ukraine scheme we can’t ignore

Young activists campaigning for refugees (Rene Cassin/via Jewish News)
Young activists campaigning for refugees (Rene Cassin/via Jewish News)

The distressing recent images of refugees desperately attempting to escape Ukraine have been deeply evocative for British Jews.

Many within our community have parents or grandparents who fled to this country in search of safety. And for those with Ashkenazi ancestry it has perhaps been particularly resonant that some relatives, including members of my own family, came to the UK from similar towns and villages to those Ukrainians are escaping today.

Amidst such harrowing scenes, the public support and welcome for Ukrainian refugees has been extremely heart-warming.

As a community with a long history of displacement, it is hugely uplifting to see Britons responding so empathetically to those currently in need of protection. This widespread solidarity also strongly challenges government claims that regressive refugee policies are what British voters want.

Remarkably, more than 130,000 people have volunteered to host Ukrainian refugees through ‘Homes for Ukraine’ at the time of writing. Such broad compassion and incredible generosity have shown that approaches like the cruel Nationality and Borders Bill are completely out of touch with public sentiment.

However, while JCORE welcomes the introduction of any safe routes to enable people escaping violence and persecution to reach the UK, we do hold concerns about aspects of ‘Homes for Ukraine’.

It cannot be right that aside from those with family members in the UK, Ukrainians fleeing the conflict will need to be personally nominated to receive protection in this country.

Refugees escaping war should not require visas and extensive paperwork to reach sanctuary. If the government is serious about representing public opinion, then it should follow the example of our European neighbours and waive all visa restrictions for Ukrainian refugees.

As it stands, we are also concerned that the scheme places undue pressure on charities and civil society groups to match refugees with a UK host.

To be implemented successfully, rigorous safeguarding checks must also be put in place. The government cannot allow vulnerable people to be put in positions which could result in exploitation.

Reports that hosts may only be subject to ‘light-touch’ criminal checks are deeply worrying. While the circumstances are different, such concerns bring to mind the experiences of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany using domestic service visas in the 1930s. Those reaching the UK were provided with accommodation as live-in servants, where sadly many were mistreated.

While those arriving on ‘Homes for Ukraine’ will be granted greater independence, with rights to benefits and work, without proper procedures, the potential for vulnerable refugees to face similar inappropriate attention and exploitation from hosts is alarming.

Critically, the government must also not see the incredible public solidarity and kindness offered to Ukrainian refugees as an opportunity to abdicate its own responsibility.

Instead, it should step up to provide readily accessible safe routes to the UK for those fleeing conflict and persecution and ensure all seeking sanctuary in this country are treated with dignity and respect.

This includes providing suitable accommodation for all refugees. It is shocking that six months on from Operation Warm Welcome, thousands of Afghans remain stuck in bridging hotels.

Housing conditions for many others seeking asylum are also appalling – it is shameful that the deeply inappropriate Napier Barracks remain in use as asylum accommodation. Despite the scheme’s flaws, it is unfortunate that ‘Homes for Ukraine’ has not been broadened to assist refugees from other nationalities.

Worryingly, the bureaucratic, narrow approach to those fleeing Ukraine appears to form part of the government’s broader disregard for its obligations under international refugee law.

It is unsettling that this scheme, which rightly engages public sentiment to welcome Ukrainian refugees, is being implemented alongside the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would criminalize many people escaping persecution and conflict.

The government must respect the Refugee Convention and ensure that all in need of sanctuary can access the UK’s asylum system.

It cannot divide refugee groups and pick and choose who it is willing to support based on nationality, or as proposed under the Nationality and Borders Bill, method of entry to this country.

In Torah, we are urged to welcome the stranger 36 times; as British Jews, we must make clear to the government that such a punitive approach cannot be in our name.

About the Author
Jack Kushner is the Campaigns, Communications and Youth Engagement Coordinator at the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE).
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