Safeguarding Concerns Raised For Ukrainian Refugees After Delays To DBS Vetting Checks
UK hosts have raised concerns about safeguarding for refugees (Alamy)
British hosts have called for tougher safeguarding measures to ensure Ukrainian refugees are not exploited.
Delays to local authority checks on UK hosts of Ukrainian refugees have triggered fresh safeguarding concerns nearly six months after the government's Homes for Ukraine scheme was launched.
One host told PoliticsHome they were shocked at the potential risk of exposure to sexual predators that female Ukrainian refugees were being exposed to.
Under the current rules, prospective hosts and refugees are subject to standard security checks through the Police National Computer as part of the initial visa process, with local councils expected to conduct property inspections on all homes and further checks through the Disclosure and Barring Service on all adults living in a host's property.
For those planning to provide shelter to more vulnerable guests, including children, councils are expected to conduct a more rigorous check, called an Enhanced DBS.
At the outset of the scheme, government guidance urged councils to conduct checks ahead of arrival, but said they could be delayed until after Ukrainian refugees had arrived due to the urgency of their relocation, prompting fears at the time that some arrivals could be placed in unsuitable homes.
But hosts and charities have warned that DBS checks are continuing to be delayed, with some still waiting more than a month after their guests were granted visas.
Meanwhile, other hosts have raised concerns that a lack of repeat checks on refugees was putting them at risk of being exploited after their arrival in the UK.
Speaking to PoliticsHome, Harriet Digby, who is hosting a young Ukrainian woman said there had been a six-week delay before their DBS checks had been requested by their local council.
"Our council came to visit us shortly before the Ukrainian refugee staying with us arrived, and dropped by on the day she arrived," she said.
"The two council workers were nice and talked through some of the essentials, but the whole scheme seemed poorly thought-through.
"Universal Credit would only pay into UK bank accounts and not onto the pre-payment cards that Ukrainian refugees to the UK receive. The council suggested that her Universal Credit was set up to pay into our UK bank account to be passed on."
She added: "Afterwards, there was a long delay on the council requesting a DBS check – about six weeks after the refugee moved in. That means there could have been potentially six weeks where a young vulnerable woman, with no means of income, no UK SIM card, limited or no English and no understanding of emergency services in the UK would have been left with complete strangers.
"We would have been in complete control of her finances and receiving and dealing with money on her behalf. Nor has there been any further follow-up or on-going support to check on her welfare."
And Digby reported further concerns about the sponsorship scheme – which has relied heavily on social media to match hosts and refugees – after meeting another Ukrainian woman who met her British host through an online dating service.
"I work for a homeless shelter, and my husband is a barrister, so we understand the importance of safeguarding and were shocked by the whole process.
"We made the effort to try and introduce the refugee staying with us to other Ukrainians through local community networks, and get their contact details.
"This meant that they would have somewhere else to go or someone to contact if they felt at risk.
"Doing so, we met one Ukrainian mother who met her sponsor through an Eastern European dating website. She spoke no English and decided upon arriving in the UK that she had no romantic feelings for her host.
"The fact that the situation isn't at least monitored or checked on is really worrying."
Digby added: "We don't blame the council – we understand they're very heavily under-resourced and trying to help refugees as best they can.
"It's the whole system itself, it seems designed to fail and discourage applicants."
It comes after local authority leaders told PoliticsHome they were increasingly concerned about the risk of homelessness among Ukrainian refugees as their time with hosts came to an end, raising further concerns that vulnerable people could be left at risk.
Another sponsor, Claire Hunter, said her family had received the application for the DBS checks almost three weeks after a young Ukrainian family had arrived with them.
"We filled out the forms immediately, but I am sure we could have delayed the process significantly," she said.
"Some families have their property checks conducted on Zoom. I understand there was a rush to get people here because of the dangers they faced, but [the government] should be making sure that all new arrivals are going to safe homes, and checking in with those who have already arrived to make sure they are still happy."
Hunter added: "I'm sure the vast majority of sponsors are doing this for the right reasons, but the process of finding families to help is really open to abuse. Once people have arrived they have no support."
And she raised further concerns about the ad-hoc matching process, saying it left refugees open to being targeted by "predators".
"Many of us noticed that posts of young women looking for hosts would have the most comments. Some of them were really disgusting, and those were the people that would happily put that on a public forum.
"When our guest arrived we spoke about it and she showed me the messages she had been sent privately by men.
"They were really dirty, horrible things that she was being sent," she said.
"I am sure lots of these individuals wouldn't have criminal records, but that doesn't mean they are not predators. Doing those [DBS] checks ahead of their arrival is the minimum that should be done, but councils should be doing welfare checks every few weeks after."
A government source said a welcome guide had been published online to point refugees towards support, and added those matched with hosts who later failed their property or DBS checks would be eligible for rematching through the scheme.
But Zehrah Hasan, Advocacy Director at the Joint Committee for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the current approach was "deeply worrying".
"It's wonderful that so many people have wanted to welcome Ukrainian refugees into their homes, but it's clear there should be appropriate safeguards in place to protect the families seeking sanctuary here. It's deeply worrying to know Ukrainian families may be house with individuals who could abuse or exploit them," she said.
"What we're seeing is yet another symptom of a cruel, careless Home Office who haphazardly pieced together a slap-dash scheme for Ukrainians, instead of ensuring we had a fair and compassionate asylum policy in the first place, that allows everyone safety, regardless of where they're fleeing."
Responding to the concerns, a government spokesperson said: "We strongly reject these criticisms. We have developed the Homes for Ukraine scheme working closely with the Ukrainian Government and councils, with safeguarding our first priority.
"Extensive security checks take place before any visa is granted and councils are able to veto any sponsor arrangements they deem unsuitable."
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