Ukrainians granted sanctuary in Britain sent to live with suspected gangsters

Exclusive: Labour calls for investigation after The Independent reveals hosts’ links to serious and organised crime

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Saturday 13 April 2024 18:03 BST
Russia carry out glide bombs attacks on eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian refugees fleeing the horrors of war to find sanctuary in British homes were sent to live with suspected gangsters under the government’s flagship Homes for Ukraine scheme, The Independent can reveal.

People with suspected links to serious or organised crime were among those approved as hosts under the scheme, which was set up in 2022 to encourage warm-hearted homeowners to lend a spare room to those fleeing Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

In the worst cases, Ukrainian families and individuals “just disappeared”, according to one council worker, while others were forced to work for their hosts or were charged rent. In one stark example, a couple with a young child were sent to live with a convicted paedophile.

Labour MP Alex Davies-Jones, the shadow safeguarding minister, said the shock findings, uncovered by this publication, raise serious concerns about the safeguarding and the screening of hosts, as she called for a “full and proper investigation”.

Eleanor Lyons, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, described the reports as concerning. She added: “We know traffickers often target vulnerable people, so we must do all we can to support displaced Ukrainians and prevent them from becoming vulnerable to exploitation.”

The Independent can also report that:

  • Council workers involved with the scheme reported refugees being forced to work for their hosts on farms and charged rent
  • One worker claimed some sponsors had only agreed to host young, female Ukrainians “for the purposes of exploiting them for sexual gratification”
  • Around a quarter of eligible councils – 37 out of around 150 – said they had been alerted to a serious safeguarding concern about a host, which can include child protection concerns
  • At least eight people who signed up for the scheme had suspected links to serious or organised crime
  • One local authority worker told researchers that one applicant was found to have a trafficking conviction

Maris Stratulis, England national director at the British Association of Social Workers, said her organisation had raised concerns about the scheme since the beginning.

“For some individuals and families, this scheme has literally been a lifeline and a safe and positive experience,” she said. “For others, fleeing to ‘perceived’ safety has not been a reality – their human rights and needs have not been protected.”

She added that poor coordination between the government and local councils “has created opportunities for children and adults to be lost in a system and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation”.

According to the figures, which The Independent obtained through a freedom of information request, at least 93 serious safeguarding alerts were raised across the UK over sponsors who put themselves forward for the scheme. Eight of these were about the links potential hosts had to serious or organised crime.

A further 374 warnings, known as “adverse hits”, were sent by the government to councils about Homes for Ukraine sponsors, the data shows. These hits occur when the host has failed Home Office checks.

In the London borough of Croydon, the council received alerts from the Home Office about two separate sponsors’ connections to serious and organised crime. The council said these sponsor arrangements were swiftly “discontinued” after the alert was received.

Suffolk County Council received a similar alert. The Ukrainian guests were offered an immediate transfer to another home, but they turned this offer down and later found alternative accommodation with friends.

Another alert over a sponsor’s connection to organised crime was received by Nottinghamshire County Council, resulting in a “subsequent guest change of accommodation”.

Sheffield City Council dealt with three serious safeguarding alerts: one sponsor with links to serious and organised crime, one sponsor who had accommodation requests linked to multiple commercial properties, and one case in which the sponsor was abroad and offered to pay for a Ukrainian to live in a hotel room.

In the case of the crime-linked host, the Ukrainian guests arrived in the UK but their whereabouts were unknown. The council had to raise a missing persons report with the police, who located them in private rented accommodation in another city.

Independent anti-slavery commissioner Eleanor Lyons says Ukrainian refugees must be protected from exploitation
Independent anti-slavery commissioner Eleanor Lyons says Ukrainian refugees must be protected from exploitation (Getty)

In a case publicised in Northern Ireland, a couple with a young child went to live with a convicted paedophile for a number of weeks before he was deemed unsuitable to be a sponsor. A criminal record check by the Home Office had reportedly not flagged his conviction, and the family had moved into a mobile home on the man’s property before further checks had been completed.

The social workers’ report, compiled by researchers from University College London and the organisation Focus on Labour Exploitation, found there were strong concerns over the UK’s Ukraine schemes. One local authority worker told researchers that a host involved in Homes for Ukraine had been found to have a trafficking conviction.

Another worker in the east of England said: “We had a number of families and individuals just disappear. Once in the UK they just disappeared, and we had no way of knowing if they were safe or in circumstances which placed them at risk – for example, around labour exploitation, criminal exploitation.”

Another interviewee said they had seen cases where hosts had “agreed to host young, attractive, female Ukrainians for the purposes of exploiting them”. They added: “We’ve heard cases where entire families have been hosted and the host has been making efforts to isolate the young female from the rest of the family.”

Councillors also said they had come across cases where refugees had been forced to work for their hosts. These cases included farmers in Northern Ireland reportedly using the scheme to get people to the UK to work for them, and then also charging them rent.

Speaking about the blurred line around labour exploitation, one council worker in the East Midlands explained: “The sponsors are saying: ‘Oh, here’s the car, could you go and pick my children up?’ or ‘I won’t be back till 9pm, could you babysit the children in the evening?’ The Ukrainians feel that they’re compelled to do it because they’re living in their house rent-free.”

One member of a strategic migration partnership – a council-led group designed to implement refugee schemes – said that during the scramble of getting thousands of Ukrainians to safety, they had to “find a balance between eliminating every single risk, which is just not possible”.

Many participants told researchers that visas for Ukrainian refugees had been issued before the pre-arrival DBS and accommodation checks were completed. The checks were then failed, and a new host had to be found at short notice or guests were reluctant to leave.

In a briefing given to MPs in February by the Local Government Association, it was noted that local authorities were still reporting cases where visas were being issued to Ukrainians before councils had carried out sponsor checks.

Safeguarding alerts usually go to county councils, but some borough councils also provided responses. A handful of these councils provided a figure of less than five, due to data protection, meaning that the number of serious safeguarding alerts could be even higher.

A government spokesperson said: “Keeping sponsors and guests safe is a priority for the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

“All sponsors and all adults living in a sponsor’s household are subject to stringent checks before they are allowed to host a Ukrainian refugee, and we would urge local councils to contact the police if they suspect any exploitation.”

Over 180,000 visas have been issued to refugees through the Ukraine sponsorship scheme, government data shows.

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