The UK government must do more to prevent Ukrainian women and children fleeing war from being matched with single British men under the sponsorship scheme or risk placing refugees in danger, the UN has said.
Following reports that refugee women have been targeted on social media by predatory men offering them rooms in their homes, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) has called on Britain to introduce a “more appropriate matching process” as part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
The visa route, which was launched on 18 March, allows Ukrainians with no family links to come to Britain and be hosted by members of the public, who are paid £350 per month for doing so. More than 200,000 people have registered their interest in hosting.
Refugees must find their own hosts under the scheme, which levelling up secretary Michael Gove said last month he hoped they would be able to do using social media.
Swathes of Facebook pages were subsequently set up, designed to “match” refugees with hosts, and Ukrainian women started to “advertise” themselves in pursuit of finding a home.
Leading charities warned that this was causing “a lot of issues” and described the approach as “a Tinder for people-traffickers”.
The Sunday Times reported this week that a journalist posing as a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman from Kyiv was inundated with inappropriate messages within minutes of posting a message on the largest Facebook group for UK hosts.
A UNHCR spokesperson said the organisation had been made aware of increasing reports of Ukrainian women feeling at risk from their sponsors, and called for “adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation”.
“UNHCR believes that a more appropriate matching process could be put in place by ensuring that women, and women with children, are matched with families or couples, rather than with single men,” they added.
“Matching done without the appropriate oversight may lead to increasing the risks women may face, in addition to the trauma of displacement, family separation and violence already experienced.”
The spokesperson said the agency was also concerned about the “repercussions” should the original UK host prove a potential threat to the safety of the refugee.
And it called for “appropriate training and information” to ensure that hosts make an “informed decision” when applying to become sponsors, adding that housing a stranger in an extra bedroom for an extended period was “not for some people sustainable”.
The Independent revealed last week that lone children fleeing Ukraine had been housed with unrelated UK adults without proper checks taking place, despite government claims that unaccompanied children are not eligible for the scheme.
The UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner Dame Sara Thornton has expressed concern about the risks, telling The Independent: “Predators and traffickers see the war in Ukraine as an opportunity, not a tragedy, and women and children are the targets.
“We need to work closely with European countries to protect the millions of women and children who have fled the country, and ensure that they are supported and protected when they arrive in the UK.”
A government spokesperson said: “Attempts to exploit vulnerable people are truly despicable – this is why we have designed the Homes for Ukraine scheme to have specific safeguards in place, including robust security and background checks on all sponsors by the Home Office and local authorities.
“Councils must make at least one in-person visit to a sponsor’s property, and they have a duty to make sure the guest is safe and well once they’ve arrived.”
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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