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‘Homes for Ukraine’: Ukrainian women fleeing Russian invasion at risk, UNHCR says

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The United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) called for better oversight of the United Kingdom’s ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme after reports of “sexually suggestive” messages sent to Ukrainian women surfaced, a UN report released late Wednesday stated.

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The UK government launched the initiative in mid-March to pay British people to open their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, allowing Ukrainian refugees who do not have any family ties in the country to settle there.

The scheme connects the two parties together outside any regulatory framework, mainly through social media, according to the UN’s report which also highlighted that some Ukrainian refugees (especially women) were receiving “inappropriate and sexually suggestive messages from men, sometimes within minutes of making contact online.”

Refugees seeking asylum in the UK need to have a sponsor before applying for a visa to settle there. The UN reported “bureaucratic delays” in issuing visas to refugees compared to the swift process and action taken by several central and Eastern European countries that have welcomed millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war.

A woman wrapped in a Ukrainian flag reacts at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London, Britain, February 27, 2022. (Reuters)
A woman wrapped in a Ukrainian flag reacts at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London, Britain, February 27, 2022. (Reuters)

The delays caused the UK’s Home Secretary Priti Patel to issue an apology last Friday for all the inconveniences and long waiting times faced by the traumatized applicants.

The UNHCR said in a statement issued on Wednesday that it has been made aware of reports that some Ukrainian women were at risk from their sponsors under the scheme.

UNHCR highlights the need for adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation, as well as adequate support for sponsors. UNHCR believes that a more appropriate matching process could be put in place by ensuring that women and women with children, are matched with families or couples, rather than with single men,” the statement read.

The refugee agency warned that matching done “without appropriate oversight may lead to increasing the risks women may face, in addition to the trauma of displacement, family separation and violence already experienced.”

Ukrainian refugees wait for a bus to depart from a temporary shelter, after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Przemysl, Poland, March 29, 2022. (File photo: Reuters)
Ukrainian refugees wait for a bus to depart from a temporary shelter, after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Przemysl, Poland, March 29, 2022. (File photo: Reuters)

It added that it was concerned about the repercussions involved if a UK host turned out to be a “potential threat to the safety of the refugee,” and the six-month minimum duration stay laid out as one of the scheme’s criteria.

The UNHCR stressed that “appropriate training and information” was needed to ensure that the hosts were making an “informed decision when applying to become sponsors” of the refugees.

“Housing a stranger in an extra bedroom for an extended period is not for some people sustainable,” the agency added. “There will need to be close support and communication between the relevant ministries, councils and vetting processes.”

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