Homes for Ukraine scheme is at risk of becoming a Tinder for traffickers
The government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme has been warmly welcomed. Allowing Britons to open their homes to Ukrainian refuges is a laudable idea that allows people up and down the country to do their bit to support the vulnerable.
As a member of the public looking on, I’m pleased to see this response by the government. Its initial attempts to welcome refugees fell far short of what is needed. As a campaigner against trafficking and modern slavery however, I have concerns. Although most people lining up to sponsor a Ukrainian family under this scheme will have good motives, a small minority will not.
Regrettably, criminal elements in this country are actively seeking to exploit the crisis in Ukraine to turn a profit. Women and children, the main groups fleeing war, are at acute risk. Human traffickers have been spotted at the Ukrainian border making false promises of free transport and accommodation. Those who, out of desperation, assent to these offers can find themselves in debt to criminal gangs, forced to work – and worse – pay them back.
Vulnerable individuals escaping war cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of those who would exploit them
CARE has issued several warnings over the potential for this kind of exploitation in the UK. With large numbers of applications to the Homes for Ukraine scheme needing to be processed quickly, we are concerned red flags could be missed in the vetting of potential UK hosts. The vulnerability of displaced people and the threat of targeting by bad actors means serious care should be taken with checks.
The government should be aware that criminals wishing to exploit refugees are not going to advertise their intent. They may use individuals with “clean” records to act as a sponsor, including those who are themselves victims of exploitation. Trafficking and modern slavery are huge industries, and they are manned by individuals who are adept at obscuring their criminality. Ministers must work closely with expert groups to prevent exploitation.
The idea of refugees being paired up with hosts via social media is also a concern. We are already seeing unregulated groups and accounts springing up on social media platforms such as Facebook. Human traffickers can masquerade as genuine individuals wanting to help when, in reality, they are searching for victims to exploit. Tinder for traffickers cannot be something we tolerate in this country.
Getting Ukrainian refugees to safety shouldn’t be the end of the story. Local authorities will be tasked with ensuring the continued welfare of refugees. It is vital that checks carried out at the local level are consistent, and that training is provided on modern slavery. Refugees must not fall off the radar if they move location. We call on ministers to take account of this.
There can be no doubt that the Homes for Ukraine scheme is well-motivated, and it has the potential to help a great many people. However, it is essential government gets it right.
Vulnerable individuals escaping war cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of those who would exploit them.
Lauren Agnew is trafficking policy expert at Christian Action Research and Education (CARE).
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.