Ukrainian refugee sponsorship: an opportunity for all refugees?

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By Professor Jenny Phillimore, Professor of Migration and Superdiversity, Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology

With the advent of a sponsorship programme for Ukrainian refugees, several media outlets have been at pains to point out the slow take up of the UK’s existing Community Sponsorship Scheme.  Around 700 refugees have arrived via this scheme since its introduction in 2016.  There are few parallels between the existing scheme and that which is proposed for Ukrainians, yet there is much we can learn from the University of Birmingham’s evaluation of the programme.

The Community Sponsorship scheme was introduced to enable local communities to sponsor vulnerable refugees escaping the Syrian conflict. It has since been opened up to refugees from other nations. The refugees resettled into the UK via Community Sponsorship have been waiting in camps or urban settlements for lengthy periods of time having been displaced often years prior to arrival. It is a highly structured programme which requires individuals to form an official group, to register as a charity or gain the support of a charity, raise funds, complete a lengthy and detailed application form, secure agreement from the local authority and police and then have their application signed off by the Home Office.  Forming a sponsorship group and gaining consent to sponsor a family often takes months, or even years.

Once agreement is received, groups must identify affordable housing of an appropriate size and wait for the arrival of a refugee family. After arrival refugee families are supported by groups of between 5 and 30 volunteers who form a circle of care around the new arrivals supporting them to access education, language learning, healthcare and employment. Volunteers “broker” refugees into the local community, running events to make connections between refugees and their neighbours, and working with local institutions to ensure integration processes are as smooth as possible.

Volunteers frequently describe their work supporting a refugee family as simultaneously the hardest and the most rewarding thing they have ever done. Refugees find the support of volunteers invaluable and often deep relationships of care form between refugees and volunteers as support turns to friendship. Yet refugees can find themselves isolated from their peers and lacking access to insider information about what they need to know about living in poverty in a new country.  On the whole the Community Sponsorship has been successful in supporting the integration of refugee and local communities but its scale is small in comparison to the level of need partly because of the onerous application process which includes strong safeguarding measures.

The proposed Ukrainian scheme is very different to what exists currently, in that individuals and families can sponsor a refugee or refugee family and there is no requirement to raise funds or to locate separate housing. The application process also has to be much faster, with many Ukrainians currently displaced and countries adjacent to Ukraine rapidly reaching capacity as more and more women and children escape the conflict. Unlike the situation of Syrians sponsored by communities, those needing refuge from the Ukrainian conflict are very recently displaced and are likely to be extremely traumatised.  Allowing individuals and families to sponsor displaced Ukrainians clearly offers great potential to quickly build capacity to meet urgent need. With around 10% of the UK population saying they would definitely open their homes to needy Ukrainians there is reason to be optimistic.  However, it is worth reminding ourselves that those who arrive will be extremely vulnerable, largely women and children, in a state of shock having lost their entire lives, and possibly loved ones, in just a matter of weeks.

While the level of bureaucracy associated with Community Sponsorship is clearly not viable, there is a need to safeguard the new arrivals against the possibility of abuse by hosts through a rapid vetting process. Further to this, newcomers need to be informed about their rights and entitlements as they enter the UK and informed about the actions they can take if they face abuse or exploitation of any kind. The majority of people hosting refugees will not have any knowledge about the kinds of support they need.  Our evaluation of the Community Sponsorship programme showed that the support of local people is extremely important to refugees, but that those volunteering with refugees need help to meet their needs. It is essential that the Government invests in information, advice and guidance for refugee hosts.

There is scope for such support to be provided by specialist refugee and asylum seeker organisations already working in the UK. National organisations such as Reset, the Refugee Council and Refugee Action as well as smaller grassroots groups such as Baobab Project and Brushstrokes in the West Midlands have a wealth of expertise on refugee support but are already hugely under-funded. Such organisations urgently need additional funds to enable them to scale up to support the arrival of Ukrainian refugees.

The extent of sympathy and desire to help Ukrainian refugees in the UK runs counter to the Home Office’s attempts to reduce the number of arrivals. If the projections are to be believed offers of support will exceed demand for places.  The situation presents an opportunity to right the wrongs faced by Afghan refugees many of whom have been languishing in hotels with scant access to healthcare, schooling and employment opportunities since August. They, and other forced migrants, should not be forgotten as the world turns its attention to Ukraine.

It is important to use the current wave of sympathy for Ukrainians to remind both the UK Government and population that forced migration affects people from many nations, and that others already in the UK and planning to seek asylum here are just as worthy and in need of support as Ukrainians.

Ideally, access to the upcoming scheme could be extended to enable British people to sponsor refugees escaping from other conflicts, and the appalling situation in Ukraine used to remind people that all conflict causes displacement and trauma. All forced migrants need help, wherever they originate from. 

For more learning from the evaluation of the UK’s Community Sponsorship Scheme, see our Community Sponsorship Evaluation webpage.

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