HFU0015

 

Written evidence submitted by Opora

 

  1.                Organisational context

1.1.  Opora is a primary information and support hub for Ukrainians in the UK. We were one of the first organisations that had a functional matching system up and running, through which we facilitated more than 8.5k arrivals in the UK (3.5k+ matches). We later became one of the recognised matching providers. We adopt an entrepreneurial approach to deliver charitable activities, leveraging technology to maximise our impact. We run online information and support channels for Ukrainians in the UK on Telegram (20.5k Ukrainians in the UK on the main channel, 30k+ total reach), where we signpost to our resources (guides to life in the UK, webinars, blogs), as well as to other relevant resources. We also run a closed Facebook group for sponsors (5.1k people) where we share and interpret guidance and allow current and past sponsors to share experiences and support each other. To meet our beneficiaries' needs, we collaborate with a community of partners and support organisations dedicated to the well-being of Ukrainians in the UK. Our scalable online community channels allow us to proactively identify obstacles and advocate for the needs of those we support, with the objective of enhancing outcomes and addressing barriers to the sustainable rebuilding of lives in the UK. To support our knowledge and direction, we also run twice-yearly community surveys.

 

  1. The objectives of the scheme and how it was set up

2.1.  The objective of the Homes for Ukraine scheme was to allow people residing in Ukraine at the time of the Russian invasion with no family ties to the UK to gain access to the UK for a period of three years. As a part of the visa conditions, people from Ukraine needed to match with UK residents who had suitable accommodation to offer for a period of at least six months.

2.2.  Our charity’s practical experience of the set-up of the scheme came right at the outset with the scheme’s announcement. By that point in time, we had built up a sizeable community of Ukrainians on Telegram (several thousand people) and were supporting some attempting to come to the UK on family visas.

2.3.  The Homes for Ukraine scheme featured very little operational infrastructure from the outset. Whilst the government did provide an expression of interest form for potential hosts on the official government site, this expression of interest form did not lead to any actual matching process (since there was no centralised or official process at all). This meant that a large number of potential hosts did not go on to host, as they were unaware that singing up did not lead anywhere.

2.4.  From the position of a new charitable initiative set up expressly to cater to this new crisis without pre-existing sector and governmental connections, it took considerable effort and resources to navigate the scheme structure and information. This is within a context where the government relied on initiatives and organisations like ours to operationalise the scheme. The light-touch approach from the government allowed for a flexible and quick response, but in too many areas, the light-touch approach was completely hands-off, which meant there was a lack of clarity about processes and correct procedures. This also meant that while many legitimate and ethically-minded initiatives were forming to address the acute need, there was far too much space for misuse and bad practice.

2.5.  The initial government guidance for potential sponsors on how to find Ukrainians to sponsor was to do so via social media. Given the lack of safeguarding procedures or any sort of oversight possible on social media platforms, and within the context of the people for whom the scheme was opened being vulnerable refugees fleeing war, often women and children, this was wholly inadequate.

2.6.  The guidance that was available from the government for UK sponsors, Ukrainian guests, and relevant organisations was incomplete and inadequate at the outset. There was an iterative process of improvement of guidance and information available over time, but the lack of clarity around the correct process and procedure in the first weeks and months caused confusion and anxiety amongst sponsors and guests. Examples of guidance that was unclear at the outset were guidance on hosting unaccompanied minors, and the timeframes for local authority checks on the suitability of accommodation.

2.7.  There was also no unified and easily accessible information on support available for Ukrainians arriving in the UK or signposting and referral information for organisations tasked with supporting new arrivals. This is in contrast with the British National Overseas visa programme for Hong Kongers, for example, which featured a handbook of information for new arrivals. Any similar future visa scheme needs to feature at least a basic level of verified and trustworthy information to improve the ability of new arrivals to more easily and safely navigate a new environment and new support and public service systems.

2.8.  The fact that the delivery and responsibility for different parts of the scheme lay with different government departments (Home Office and DLUHC), and the practical operationalisation and day-to-day oversight was, to a large extent, dispersed amongst local authorities, meant that there was confusion regarding whom to contact with which problem. DLUHC was more accessible to matching providers like us, for example, because of a weekly meeting run by the Homes for Ukraine taskforce, but they were unable to answer questions regarding the visa process and barriers within it.

 

  1. Arrival numbers and checks conducted on applicants and sponsors

3.1.  It was clear that the system was not set up to deal with the number of visa applications needing to be processed and the number of arrivals.

3.2.  The visa processing speeds in the first weeks and months were slow and inconsistent. There was a lack of clarity about what the process was for obtaining information about the progress of the visa applications, as well as a lack of clarity about what the recourse and process of escalation were for those who had issues with their applications. This led to a number of hosts putting undue pressure on the system by entering multiple queries and attempting to escalate via multiple unrelated routes, such as contacting MPs (who often had no way to obtain any further information either).

3.3.  The safeguarding and security checks that were supposed to be conducted prior to the arrival of Ukrainians in their host accommodation were too often not conducted on time. We have evidence from both hosts and guests that DBS checks weren’t conducted on time, and the suitability of host accommodation was not confirmed until after arrival, or sometimes not until the council was contacted multiple times.

 

  1. Challenges and future risks

4.1.  The primary challenge for Ukrainians in the UK on the Homes for Ukraine Scheme is the lack of clarity around options available to them once their three-year visas expire. The initial three-year framing was a generous one in the context of other emergency visa schemes, but as the war has dragged on, it has become apparent that a solution beyond three years will be necessary. This solution needs to come as soon as possible to give people the space and time to decide and prepare.

4.2.  The Homes for Ukraine visa scheme carries a lot of potential in terms of the support and quality of life that can be achieved within the context of other refugee cohorts. There was an initial safe accommodation offer, with in-built levels of support from host families, though this offer was contingent upon the particularities of each individual relationship within the host-guest dynamic, as well as upon the capacity of the host to provide support.

4.3.  The HfU scheme also offered full recourse to public funds and access to the job market, healthcare and schooling. This allowed Ukrainian refugees the ability to find a higher level of support and stability in the UK. Whilst the offer within the three-year visa timespan has a lot of potential, more so than for many other refugee cohorts, there is the incongruity that, unlike other cohorts, the Ukrainian scheme is not currently a route to settlement. This means that whilst the Ukrainian cohort has been afforded a greater chance at the successful rebuilding of lives and, if they wish, integration than other refugee cohorts, unlike those other cohorts, they have not currently been afforded the ability to continue building upon and fulfilling that potential.

4.4.  Key future risks for the Homes for Ukraine cohort lie in three general categories: housing, legal status, and employment.

4.4.1.      The question of long-term safe, suitable, and sustainable housing has been at the forefront since the beginning. According to the Opora community survey from July 2023, around 1 in 3 Ukrainians in the UK haven’t found stable, independent accommodation. This points to the need for further tailored support to help Ukrainians enter and navigate the private rental sector.

4.4.2.      The lack of clarity around potential options available to Ukrainians after their three-year visas expire destabilises their decision-making capacity in the present. Without clarity on this front, people do not know how much resource they should dedicate to rebuilding and integrating since they do not know whether they will be able to capitalise on their efforts beyond the three-year mark. The lack of clarity impacts other aspects of people’s lives, like the ability to find stable and suitable employment. Employers are less likely to consider candidates whose future in the country is unknown, especially if work visa viability is uncertain.

4.4.3.      In our survey, 21% of Ukrainians listed the inability to find work equivalent to what they used to do at home as the main barrier to leading a successful, sustainable, and integrated life in the UK. The inability to find suitable employment impacts negatively on most other circumstances, including accommodation and general quality of life.

4.5.  Within the context of a prolonged war in Ukraine and the potential extension of the visa scheme or the establishment of a route to settlement, thought and preparation need to be given to the question of family reunification in the UK. Currently, most male family members are back in Ukraine having been conscripted to fight or otherwise disallowed from leaving Ukraine. As time goes on, the impact of the war will mean that more will be granted medical or other grounds to leave and rejoin their families. This influx will require ways to adequately support new arrivals traumatised, injured, or otherwise impacted by the war.

 

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November 2023

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