Reporting on Homes for Ukraine has been uplifting and heart-breaking – and the story is far from over
The Homes for Ukraine system still faces major hurdles (Alamy)
Reporting on the most unique refugee system implemented in the United Kingdom since the kindertransport has been fascinating, uplifting and heart-breaking in equal measures.
Wall-to-wall coverage of the war – unlike anything since the opening months of the Iraq War – created the public and political drive to introduce the Homes for Ukraine scheme, allowing British hosts to open their homes to fleeing refugees.
Perhaps surprised by the generous spirit of the British public, the government was flooded with hundreds of thousands of people in those early weeks offering to take part, pushing the opaque Home Office visa system to breaking point from day one.
Without answers, many hosts and refugees turned to journalists for help in getting their stories told. Others wanted to check if the Home Office email they had been contacting daily without response was correct, while a large number just wanted someone to listen to their frustrations.
Cumbersome visa checks, IT gremlins and constantly evolving guidance created further pressures as days without visas turned to weeks and, in many cases, months. MPs were asked by the Home Office to stop emailing them for updates. One host relayed the response she received from a tearful caseworker answering calls on the outsourced Ukraine visa helpline: “I don’t want to lie to you, we don’t have access to the system and all they tell us to do is write down your case number and say we’ll escalate it. I’m so sorry.”
The government’s own figures show a rapid rise in Ukrainian refugees presenting as at risk of homelessness.
Few days went by in the early weeks of our reporting without another message or email from a host desperate for help in getting their case resolved. Updates flowed as the case progressed – some ended with pictures of smiling faces at the airport, while others relayed horrific stories of rape and murder experienced by those still desperately trying to escape.
All of this spoke to a government system in chaos, fighting fires behind the scenes, while largely refusing in public to admit there were errors in the process. But it also demonstrated the incredible generosity, kindness and sacrifice, of British hosts willing to go above and beyond to help other human beings in danger.
Our later coverage of calls from hosts to increase the monthly payment they received triggered some social media sniping about the families, accusing them of being in it for the money, but few had seen the almost universal willingness in those early days for hosts to do whatever it took to help their guests. Several spent large chunks of their life savings. One took annual leave from work to fly to Poland to attend a visa processing centre in person.
From conversations with Ukrainian refugees, there is an almost universal wish to return home once it is safe. After months of relative silence, the Facebook groups that had offered a crucial lifeline for hosts trying to navigate the early stages of the system are slowly filling up with posts once again – this time with people trying to navigate the difficult conversations around the next steps for their guests. Some are feeling the cost of living pinch, others are feeling the strain of having two families living under one roof, and many just feel they’ve done their part and it’s time for the government to step in.
Those posts should act as a warning light on the dashboard of the Homes for Ukraine scheme. The government’s own figures show a rapid rise in Ukrainian refugees presenting as at risk of homelessness, and local authorities with already-stretched housing lists can offer no solution.
Either because of a lack of foresight, a carousel of ministers being given responsibility for the scheme, or a combination of both, it is clear the story of the Homes for Ukraine scheme is far from finished.
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.