Fears over unregulated Facebook pages where Ukrainian refugees ‘advertise themselves’ to find UK hosts

Concerns current ‘matching’ system for UK sponsorship scheme is like a ‘Tinder for people traffickers’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 21 March 2022 14:30
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Priti Patel warns of Russian agents posing as Ukrainian refugees to infiltrate the UK

Ukrainian refugees have started to “advertise” themselves on social media in a bid to find hosts in the UK, prompting concerns that the programme could expose vulnerable people to abuse.

A swathe of unregulated Facebook pages have been set up designed to “match” people who have fled Ukraine and hope to find a temporary home in Britain with UK residents who are willing to house them.

In many cases young women are posting photographs of themselves, sometimes with their children, on the public Facebook groups appealing for an offer of housing from people in the UK, to which any Facebook user can reply.

The government launched the sponsorship scheme on Friday, with the application page stating that Ukrainian nationals and their family members may apply only if they have a “named sponsor”.

The scheme will allow Ukrainians with no family links to come to the UK and be hosted by members of the public, who will be paid £350 per month for sharing their homes. More than 150,000 people have so far registered their interest in hosting refugees who have fled Ukraine.

There is no official mechanism or portal by which refugees and prospective hosts can be linked up. When announcing the scheme last week, minister for levelling up Michael Gove said he hoped individuals and community groups would be able to “match” with refugees using social media, adding that charities would help with the process.

The Independent is raising money for the people of Ukraine – if you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

The Independent has discovered at least a dozen Facebook pages that have subsequently been set up designed to enable this matching process, many of which already have thousands of members. They are filled with posts by both prospective hosts advertising their offer of accommodation and Ukrainian refugees appealing for housing.

Jenni Regan, chief executive at iMix, which represents refugee and asylum charities in the UK, said the emergence of the Facebook groups threw up “a lot of issues”, describing the approach as “almost like a Tinder for people traffickers”.

“Many of the Ukrainians seeking refuge are young women who are already incredibly vulnerable. It feels like protections against sexual exploitation and violence have been completely forgotten, which is terrifying. We know that this has already been a problem for those leaving Ukraine and travelling into neighbouring countries,” she said.

Ms Regan said the charity was also seeing potential hosts from the UK get “frustrated” when offers of help are rejected.

She added: “We noted that one user claimed it was like a bidding war with far more supply than demand and with a bias towards people wanting to be hosted in London. We are seeing the goodwill of the British public being eroded by the process.

“There are also several unregulated sites that have popped up over the weekend offering to match people. If people are drawn to these in favour of those backed by charities with experience and knowledge of resettlement, such as the Reset Homes for Ukraine Site, we could soon see the process become commercialised with people paying for a service which is currently free.”

Adding that there was also evidence of scammers potentially using the scheme, Ms Regan said: “To apply for the scheme both sides must provide information such as passports and bills. In the wrong hands this data could be gold dust for potential identity theft.”

The government has said that any sponsor wishing to house Ukrainians will be subject to Home Office checks before any visa is issued, with adults in the house of a sponsor required to complete DBS checks and an enhanced DBS check for families hosting children or vulnerable adults.

This map shows the extent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

But ministers are being urged by charities to work with the third sector to go further and create an “official, central” way of matching people hoping to use the scheme.

Lauren Agnew, trafficking policy expert at CARE (Christian Action Research and Education), said that while it was “heartening” to see the “generous” response from people across the UK keen to play their part in supporting refugees, the potential problems with the approach being taken could “not be ignored”.

“The government may not be endorsing hosts seeking out refugees to sponsor on social media, but the current system will nevertheless create an environment for this to happen. A system allowing the public to identify refugees to host presents an opportunity to bad actors seeking to take advantage of them,” she said.

“Already, we are seeing unregulated groups and accounts springing up on social media. Human traffickers can masquerade on these sites as genuine individuals wanting to help when, in reality, they are online to ‘shop’ for their next victims to exploit. How can Ukrainians know groups or individuals presenting on social media are genuine and safe?”

Ms Agnew said it was the government’s job to “close those gaps before any harm is done”, and called on ministers to “work with expert groups to identify what action is needed”.

“It is also incredibly important that the government uses its channels to urge refugees not to interact with groups and private individuals on social media. Instead, they should seek help through official websites affiliated to the government or reputable NGOs,” she added.

A spokesperson for the department for levelling up said: “All those offering to house Ukrainians will be subject to Home Office checks before any visa is issued.

“Adults in the house of a sponsor will also be required to complete DBS checks, with an enhanced DBS with barred list check for families hosting children or vulnerable adults. We will keep these checks under review.”

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page

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