Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began a year ago this week, was an extraordinary and unexpected event that has changed the world. In the biggest European conflict seen since the Second World War, Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and sent thousands fleeing for basement bunkers and their country’s borders. No-one – least of all Russia’s Vladimir Putin – thought the conflict would turn into a protracted catastrophe but one year on the toll of human suffering on both sides has been appalling.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has verified a total of 8,006 civilian deaths as of 15th February. Of them, 487 were children. Furthermore, 13,287 people were reported to have been injured. However, the OHCHR has specified that the real numbers could be far higher as many reports of alleged individual civilian casualties in certain locations are still pending corroboration.
On the other side, in its daily intelligence briefing last Friday the UK Ministry of Defence said the Russian armed forces and private military contractors fighting alongside them as paramilitary forces have lost 40,000 to 60,000 troops and suffered up to 200,000 casualties, which includes troops killed or wounded in action.
For Ukrainian families there have been tough choices to be made between standing with one’s country or fleeing to safety. It’s estimated that more than eight million Ukrainians have already been displaced by the conflict, of which the vast majority (82%) are women and children. Some 1.5 million have fled to neighbouring Poland, and the latest UN data also indicates that there are more than one million Ukrainian refugees in Germany. So far, the United Kingdom has received just 162,000, who’ve arrived via two special visa routes – the Ukraine family scheme (where they join family members already here) and the Ukraine Sponsorship scheme (where a sponsor agrees to house them for at least six months). The UK government puts the figure higher – with So far 65,900 family scheme visas issued, and 153,600 sponsors – but this leaves still the UK way short on compassion compared to its European neighbours.
There is also a growing concern that the majority of the current sponsors were those who came forward at the outset of the scheme, and very few new volunteers have come on board. With the first helpers now coming to the end of their six months’ government support period, the future of the 153,600 Ukrainian families they’ve been supporting has become worryingly uncertain. Many sponsors have complained that the government’s £350 a month grant falls way short of the reality of housing and supporting a Ukrainian family, especially given soaring food and energy prices and a very uncertain economy. It is estimated that most sponsors have spent around £2,000 setting up accommodation and vital basic facilities for the families they’ve sponsored. Few seem to have thought too clearly about what would be involved, and the impact of having a full additional family on your property. Complaints about having to buy beds, clothing, fridges and heaters have been common in the media, but it seems hard to imagine how sponsors thought it might be otherwise.
For its part the government has been very astute in not referring to the monthly £350 grant as support, but rather a ‘thank you’ payment – something which should have flagged up a warning to sponsors that the amount was not going to cover the actual costs of housing and supporting a vulnerable family.
Many UK charities working in this area warned at the outset that the problem with this scheme was not just going to be the cost to the sponsors, but the need for all aspects of support for the families to extend way beyond the six months period set by the government. In many respects the belief that you can enter a strange country, learn a language, apply for jobs, find a home of your own and be on your way in half a year was absurd, and certainly comes from a category of people who have the skills and privilege to achieve such things, but no sense of the reality for the rest of us.
To be fair to the Ukrainians, many have been absolutely outstanding in the way they have reshaped and rebuilt their lives here in the UK and have transitioned from refugee status to stable UK taxpayer in such a short period of time. That said, it is estimated that more 100,000 people may now be in immediate danger of becoming homeless as sponsors weigh up the viability or not of continuing their support for the Ukrainian refugee families.
The government’s forward plan dropped the responsibility for finding alternative accommodation onto local authorities, who are already warning that ‘rematching’ families is proving very difficult. According to the District Councils Network, which represents many local rural authorities, just 10% of original sponsors who came forward are wanting to continue their support. When you consider that the UK already has more than one million households on the homes waiting list, the outlook for the Ukrainian families we initially welcomed looks uncertain to say the least.
The latest official figures have revealed that 4,295 Ukrainian households already facing homelessness have needed help from their local council, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ending Homelessness has warned that this figure only comes from 72% of English local authorities, so is only a partial picture of the reality facing these families.
The APPG has also called on the Government to “learn lessons from recent humanitarian crises and bring forward a new strategy for refugee integration and resettlement, to allow for a better co-ordinated response in the future”.
They added: “We believe no Ukrainian who has found refuge in the UK after fleeing the devastating conflict at home should experience homelessness and be left without a safe place to live here.”
Matt Downie, the chief executive at homeless charity Crisis, said: “Although the visa schemes introduced by the Government have provided a lifeline for many refugees, it is incredibly concerning to hear that over 4,000 are now at risk of homelessness due to issues surrounding funding and financial support.
“What’s more, the severe shortage of affordable housing across the country has restricted their ability to move on into settled housing and rebuild their lives – an issue which is affecting far too many people in the UK as living costs continue to rise.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has announced a new support package of more than £650 million for those fleeing the war in Ukraine. The package includes an extension of payments to those hosting Ukrainians through the homes for Ukraine scheme, and funding to help Ukrainian refugees move into their own homes, but the concern remains that these interventions are insufficient.
In many ways, the needs of Ukrainian refugee families have been clouded by wider controversies and prejudices about ‘the stranger in our midst’, and the government has been deeply culpable in this. The intemperate and ill-considered remarks by some leading government figures have done little to encourage consideration and care for refugees of all circumstances, and in many cases have actually fuelled public division and hardened discrimination. But maybe that has been the intention?
Whether it’s telling foodbank users to ‘upskill’, the public to eat turnips, or glee at the thought of refugees departing by the planeload, there seems little in this present government’s outlook that is likely to help the refugee families who’ve fled the terrible war in Ukraine. A year on from the outset of the conflict the UK has demonstrated a shameful reluctance to take its share of the responsibility for the human cost of the war, whilst politicians continue to fall over themselves to demonstrate their support for the supply of lethal weapons and munitions. One can’t help but get the all too familiar impression that war is as much an opportunity for some, as it is a dreadful tragedy for others.
The reality for the Ukrainian refugee families here in the UK is that – like most migrants and refugees over the years – they’re largely on their own, and their difficulties mirror the wider crisis across the country, as rising costs drive ever more UK families into instability.
It’s a particularly sad and tragic fact that an historic ‘island and empire’ mentality has often led successive British governments to view incomers as a problem rather than a potential asset. It has conditioned fiscal policy and warped public prejudice towards our fellow human beings, and it really has no place in a modern humanitarian democracy.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian