The first UK government-funded scheme linking sponsors with Ukrainian refugees has been launched amid warnings that initiatives aimed at helping people to secure sanctuary in Britain risk becoming “Tinder for sex traffickers”.
The charity Reset Communities and Refugees, which has led UK community sponsorship schemes since 2018, has launched a service to pair sponsors with refugees, provide training and assist with safeguarding.
It comes two weeks after the government’s Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme opened for visa applications from refugees with a named sponsor. About 4,700 visas had been granted and 32,200 applications had been made under the scheme as of Thursday, according to Home Office figures.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has been working to expand the scheme to those without a match and has given £300,000 in initial funding to Reset, which has developed a pilot service that matches refugees with sponsors.
It hopes to expand the service more widely after more than 7,000 refugees were initially registered on its website, along with 8,000 UK households, offering places for more than 20,000 refugees.
The matching service, which draws on the expertise of a 40-strong team of caseworkers, is being offered to sponsors, refugees, devolved governments, local authorities and organisations that do not have other means of pairing refugees and sponsors.
The aim of the scheme is also to help local authorities and other groups assist refugees with challenges including language barriers, education, health needs, bereavement and work.
Kate Brown, the chief executive of Reset Communities and Refugees, said: “This is an extraordinary moment for the refugee welcome movement in the UK. With 200,000 people signed up to offer their homes under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and hundreds of thousands more offering support, we are in a position to help more refugees than ever before.
“We must make sure that there are fair and rigorous systems in place to support the refugees and sponsors as they embark on this programme.”
The matching team will also be carrying out assessments of the refugees to understand personal circumstances, including if they have ties to a place or particular preferences.
Once the match has been made, the sponsors and refugees will be required to submit a visa application to the Home Office which, along with local authorities, will be responsible for the formal vetting process, including DBS checks.
The launch of the scheme comes against a backdrop of evidence that UK-based criminals have been targeting women and children fleeing the war.
A letter from 16 refugee and anti-trafficking organisations to the communities secretary, Michael Gove, last week said that the Homes for Ukraine scheme was potentially dangerous for refugees who had fled Ukraine. It said the initiative, which allows would-be hosts to be matched with Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in the UK, in effect mimicked the dating app Tinder’s signature “swipe left, swipe right” approach to rejecting or selecting a partner, and had insufficient safeguards.
Initial evidence from the letter’s signatories, which include Refugee Action, the Refugee Council and the Helen Bamber Foundation, said traffickers had already appeared to have made attempts to target Ukrainian women and children, as had slum landlords.
Last weekend Louise Calvey, the head of safeguarding at the charity Refugee Action, said that “issues with the scheme means that it risks being a Tinder for sex traffickers”. “We are already aware of people with illegal motives who are advertising on social media,” she said.
Labour welcomed the scheme, but said more needs to be done to help refugees in urgent need. Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, said: “It is a relief that the government has belatedly realised a DIY scheme where desperate people have to advertise themselves on social media is not good enough.
“Precious time has already been wasted. More needs to be done to help refugees in urgent need, including cutting unnecessary bureaucracy. The government cannot go on wasting the amazing generosity of people who have stepped up and offered to open their homes.”
The DLUHC said: “No visa is issued by the Home Office until checks have been completed on the Ukrainian applicant as well as on every adult in a sponsor’s household. Local authorities will then run DBS checks on sponsors, with enhanced DBS with barred-list checks for those housing families with children or vulnerable adults.
“Under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, Ukrainians will be guaranteed free access to NHS healthcare, including mental health care. They will also be able to work and receive benefits. The government has also ensured that local authorities have appropriate levels of funding to support new arrivals.”