After spending weeks dithering over how many refugees to accept from Ukraine, the Government has finally announced their landmark “Homes for Ukraine” policy. Rather than a government-led scheme that would enable refugees to live independently in social housing, the policy instead relies on individuals offering their own homes to Ukrainians, and paying them £350 a month to do so.
Some, however, have raised concerns about the scheme. Mark Harper MP, for instance, has warned of Russian sleeper agents who will be waiting for the opportunity to undertake another Salisbury style attack. This is a legitimate worry, but in many ways the Ukrainian refugees are far more at risk from people in Britain. These are, after all, mostly traumatised women and children who may have a limited grasp of the language. In the space of a few weeks, they have found themselves isolated in a strange country, trying to find a home in a stranger’s house.
Predators seek out vulnerable people, and Britain has a far from stellar record when it comes to preventing the exploitation of people in need of a place to stay. In fact, during the pandemic, the number of individuals demanding sexual favours in exchange for rent increased, with an estimated 30,000 women offered sex-for-rent between March and September 2020. There have already been grim reports of Ukrainian refugees being harmed, including a 19-year-old Ukrainian who was raped by a Polish man after he promised her a free room and shelter.
It is not just dodgy landlords that refugees need to be wary of. Human trafficking is also rife in the UK, with one estimate by the UN suggesting that 136,000 people had been trafficked in a single year. As the head of the UN refugee agency recently said:
When it was finally announced that there would be some background checks on those accepting Ukrainian refugees into their homes, this was immediately denounced as bureaucracy gone mad. But if anything, the checks are unlikely to go far enough. Prosecutions for “sex for rent” agreements are few and far between; it’s easy for a trafficking gang to find someone without a criminal record or an exploitative landlord to avoid the law. More thought needs to be given on how to protect these refugees and stop them from being preyed upon.
As important as it is to care for those fleeing Ukraine, we must ensure that we do not fall into the trap of making a bad situation even worse. In outsourcing its responsibility to house refugees, the Government may well have created a situation rife with danger.