Homes for Ukraine volunteer groups

Refugees fleeing destruction
Photo by WiR_Pixs on Pixabay, free to use

A joint press release

29 April 2022

Volunteer groups step up to plug holes in UK’s ‘dysfunctional’ Homes for Ukraine scheme. A joint press release from volunteer groups involved in helping Ukrainian refugees to access the UK government’s Homes for Ukraine programme (Homes4Ukraine, Manchester Homes for Ukraine, and Hand in Hand with Refugees).

While over 200,000 people have currently signed up as potential sponsors with the UK’s Homes for Ukraine programme, the absolute majority of them are still waiting to host. This is due to difficulties in finding a match, the complexities in the required paperwork, and lengthy visa waiting times.

“For all the bureaucracy, there is surprisingly little assistance and safeguarding in the system”, says Misha Lagodinsky, co-founder of volunteer group Homes4Ukraine.

“People registering as sponsors on the government website sometimes expect to hear from potential Ukrainian guests as a result. However, the government does not get involved in matching refugees with hosts”.

Instead, the official guidance points to “a number of charities and non-government organisations” offering such services without providing specific details. The guidance also alludes to people finding their matches on Facebook.

The holes in the Homes for Ukraine system

Volunteer groups such as Lagodinsky’s Homes4Ukraine (working across the UK), Manchester Homes for Ukraine, and Hand in Hand with Refugees (Coventry area) have stepped in to plug the holes in the system. The groups are running free matching services between the refugees and the willing sponsors, as well as helping them navigate the paperwork.

“We believe that an automated service is not sufficient. While a DBS and property check are included in the post-match process, this is clearly not enough for people to commit to sharing a house with each other for six months”, says Tatiana Lando, a Homes4Ukraine member.

Steph Ashworth, coordinator of Manchester Homes for Ukraine, said, “We get referrals from potential sponsors and refugees willing to come here from multiple sources, and then spend hours on matching each pair and supporting them with completing the visa applications. In our experience, there are complexities in almost all the applications that no automated system can easily find”.

Homes4Ukraine volunteers

“Matches even for relatively straightforward cases take about three hours per pair, and not only because of the complexity of the visa applications themselves”, -says Valeria Pavlova from Homes4Ukraine. Volunteers typically interview Ukrainian guests (in their native language) and hosts separately first and then mediate and, if required, interpret host-guest meeting calls.

“People need an understanding of each others’ social and cultural context. Ukrainians also need advice on UK housing, geography and economy, as well as often help with English – and all that before they even come here”, says Mikhail Spivakov, who volunteers with Homes4Ukraine.

Michael Wang, co-founder of Hand in Hand with Refugees, agrees:

“Dedicated attention and language support are absolutely crucial elements in the matching process. The language barrier can easily mask misunderstandings that can fester into serious issues down the line.”

Mediation vital

Maryna Shpak has fled from Ukraine’s Cherkassy region with her 54-year old mum and seven-year-old daughter. “I previously studied in the UK for five years and could see that the Homes for Ukraine programme offered a great deal. However, it was unclear how to access it without external help.” The family arrived in London to stay with their UK sponsors on 5 April. “Lagodinsky and his fellow volunteers from Homes 4 Ukraine have done a great job”, Maryna says.

Mykhailo Chumak, 16 years, and his mum Julia, originally from Kyiv, have just received their visas to stay with their sponsor family in Manchester.

“I speak English fluently and learned about the UK’s Homes for Ukraine programme from the internet. I realised that we needed to find a sponsor and left my details on a website offering a platform for unassisted matching. Nothing came out of it directly. However, Steph from Manchester Homes for Ukraine noticed my profile there and got in touch, offering free help. She quickly found us a potential sponsor family, and in less than a week we submitted our visa applications. It was reassuring to get introduced to the sponsors via Steph, as we felt she was someone we could really trust.”

Chose the UK as they speak English

Tetiana Matveeva and her 17 year-old son Pavlo arrived in the UK on 20 April to stay with their hosts in Drymen, north of Glasgow. “We chose the UK because we spoke some English. We already had to flee war-torn Donetsk for Kyiv in 2015, and we needed to get it right. I considered finding sponsors on Facebook, but with my imperfect language skills and a lack of local knowledge, the process was intimidating. How do I know what the host family is like? How do I juggle multiple offers? Homes 4 Ukraine has found sponsors for us in two days, a mum with a son Pavlo’s age. They collected us from Edinburgh and have been very accommodating ever since.”

Maryna Shpak agrees that mediating the match was important: “That the sponsors were known to Misha meant a lot to us.”

Meanwhile, visa delays remain a significant issue. It took the families interviewed above between two and three weeks to get theirs, but others are waiting for much longer.

“While the Home Office has promised that applications will be processed in the order they were received, this has not been the case in our experience. We have submitted more than 100 visa applications and while there has been a significant decrease in processing times for applications submitted after the 10th of April, many of those submitted earlier take up to a month to process. In several cases, the hosts’ local MP has confirmed with Home Office contact that the visas have been approved, but the travel letter takes more than two weeks to arrive after the event”, says Wang.

Aftercare: no unified guidance

“As more people are coming to the UK, ‘aftercare’ will also become a critical problem”, says Ashworth. Her group has identified the importance of post arrival support and put support services in place for both host and guest families.

Gala Morozova, a volunteer with Homes4Ukraine agrees: “Local councils do get funding to look after refugees and some are doing an excellent job. However, entry points into the system are not clear and there is no unified guidance on what happens even in the most obvious scenarios – such as when hosts and guests fall out or feel unsafe around each other. A one-stop government hotline for refugees and hosts would be very helpful.”

An obvious situation not fully accounted for is when the match falls apart, sometimes even before the guests’ arrival. The sponsors may no longer be in a position to host, or their local authority may deem their accommodation unsuitable.

“There is currently a confusion as to whether in these cases a visa can be transferred to a new host family”, agrees Ashworth. “In our experience, those arriving in these circumstances have to be placed into temporary council accommodation. As voluntary groups have host families ready to help, they would wish to work in close alignment with the local authorities to resolve these cases. But it is our impression that local councils do not necessarily want to work in partnership with us.”

Part of the reason for this is technical. “Where a family did move to a replacement host, the local authorities are not able to process the guest and sponsor payments or provide wraparound support. This is because any support must be authorised through a system known as Foundry, accessed by the local authorities but ultimately run and managed by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). Unfortunately, DLUHC has not provided local authorities with any instructions on updating the sponsor. It seems that updates can only be triggered by a fresh visa application”, says Wang.

“In our experience, sponsorship visa cancellation requests are not being processed even when the applicants have not yet entered the UK. As a result, visas are being issued for applications nominating sponsors who are no longer available to host.”

Additional information

1. Group information

Homes4Ukraine is a self-organised volunteer group focusing on matching UK sponsors with Ukrainian refugees and helping them navigate the sponsorship/visa process. The group has facilitated over 70 matches, including those involving large Ukrainian families. Homes4Ukraine cooperates with multiple other groups sharing sponsor databases, including those that are featured in this press release.

Manchester Homes for Ukraine is a self-organised group that offers a matching service, visa application support and post arrival support in the Manchester area who have facilitated over 150 visas to date.

Hand in Hand with Refugees is a voluntary community organisation working in the Coventry and Warwickshire area. They match local guests with local sponsors and provide both with long term local support, including welcome packs and a hotline for inquiries. They have facilitated over 100 visa applications.

2. Coverage of visa problems

Robert Jenrick MP who has taken in Ukrainian refugees in his family home, has described the process as ‘overly bureaucratic’ (Daily Telegraph, ‘Chopper’s Politics’ podcast, 16 April 2022). A Home Office whistleblower has claimed the scheme has been “designed to fail” (The Guardian, 23 April 2022). This is in contrast to the pledge of Lord Richard Harrington (Minister for Refugees) that Homes for Ukraine visa applications will be processed within 48 hours (The Telegraph, 2 April 2022).

3. Government support for matching

RESET UK has reported obtaining government funding to build an automated matching system. It is unclear to what extent this system is operational. In one case known to the Hand In Hand with Refugees group, RESET UK has facilitated a sponsor visa application for a Ukrainian guest despite her never speaking to the nominated host. The visa was processed successfully, however she was given no information on where her host lived, and how she should proceed from there. She opted to be rematched by the volunteer group.