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UK refugee scheme could lead to exploitation of Ukrainians, say experts

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More than 120,000 Britons have expressed interest in hosting Ukrainian refugees, amid concerns that the new government scheme could lead to exploitation of vulnerable women and children.

The figure was released by the government on Tuesday evening, little more than 24 hours after Homes for Ukraine programme was launched to take in those fleeing Russia’s invasion, most of whom are women and children.

Under the scheme, UK householders will be given initial “light touch” checks and paid £350 a month if they take in named individuals.

Lauren Agnew, human trafficking policy expert at Christian Action, Research and Education, said the scheme is “well motivated” but could lead to exploitation.

“With large numbers of applications needing to be processed quickly, red flags could be missed in the vetting of potential hosts.

“Recent statistics from the National Crime Agency estimate there are at least 6,000-8,000 modern slavery offenders in the UK. We can be certain that some of this number will be seeing the Homes for Ukraine scheme as an opportunity to turn a profit,” she said.

Local authorities will also receive £10,500 in extra funding per refugee for support services – with more for children of school age, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said.

Local government leaders have warned that the quick turnaround of arrivals could mean that accommodation is unsafe and relationships between sponsors and new arrivals break down.

James Jamieson, the chair of the Local Government Association, said: “With new arrivals possibly arriving as early as Sunday, councils are facing a very tight timeframe to make appropriate safety checks on accommodation being offered.

“There is a limit to what can be achieved by councils in such a short space … Despite good intentions, there is a risk that some accommodation offered may not meet safety expectations when inspected by councils or sponsorships may break down.”

Before the scheme launched, only Ukrainians with family links to the UK could apply for visas that would give them access to work and benefits.

But on Monday, the levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, announced that sponsors could bring any Ukrainian to the UK to live in their home for a minimum of six months.

Gove told MPs on Monday: “We want to minimise bureaucracy and make the process as straightforward as possible while doing everything we can to ensure the safety of all involved. Sponsors will therefore be required to undergo necessary vetting checks, and we are also streamlining processes to security-assess the status of Ukrainians who will be arriving in the United Kingdom.

“Anyone who acts as a sponsor will face light-touch vetting checks initially, and subsequently will be visited by those from local government who … are experts in safeguarding.”

A Ukrainian family could become the first to be rehoused in Britain after they were offered a place at a six-bedroom mansion in Yorkshire.

Lillia and Vitalii Kucher, along with their daughters Victoria, 14, and Ilona, six, have sought accommodation at Sabrina and Tony O’Brien’s home in Driffield near Hull, the Daily Mail reported.

They are looking to get to the UK in the next week after fleeing to Moldova when Russia invaded their homeland last month.

Almost 3 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion, with more displaced within the country as cities are shelled.

Concerns that Ukrainians fleeing the war are facing exploitation were also raised in the House of Commons on Tuesday by Theresa May.

The former prime minister said: “This is happening in Poland. It’s happening in other countries where Ukrainian refugees are fleeing to.

“It’s a sad reflection on human nature that the very point where these women and children are fleeing Ukraine for their safety to find refuge elsewhere, the criminal gangs have moved in to make money from the trafficking of what they consider to be yet another commodity, that is human beings, and they are attempting to make money out of this human distress and vulnerability.”

The UK has faced criticism over its policy towards those fleeing the violence in Ukraine, with applicants required to apply for a visa.

Boris Johnson has defended the scheme, insisting last week the country was “absolutely determined to be as generous as we possibly can be”.

The government has previously come under fire for its response to the evacuation of Kabul after the Taliban takeover in August last year.

Approximately 15,000 people were taken out of the Afghan capital but the rushed nature of the evacuation meant thousands of Afghans who had worked with the UK were left behind.

The government has been under domestic pressure to do more to prevent migrants crossing the Channel on small boats, putting themselves at risk in the busy shipping lane.

Reports claimed that 300 migrants crossed the Channel by boat on Tuesday, according to journalists monitoring activity off the Kent coast.