It’s something the government is curiously less than keen to talk about, but it has been saying ‘refugees welcome’ with some enthusiasm in the case of two groups in need of asylum, in contrast to its unconscionable language on refugees crossing the Channel. The (relatively) welcomed refugees are from the Beijing crackdown on the basic rights of the people of Hong Kong, and Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression.
On the first of those, the government is doing a reasonable job in providing services and support, although there are some key outstanding issues. Young Hongkongers, many of whom were forced to flee after standing up for democracy and the rule of law, are being forced to pay high overseas student university fees – or are not to be able to go to university at all.
Ukrainian refugees are coming at a time of housing crisis
On welcoming Ukrainians, with modest government financial support, it is the British people who have, through the Homes for Ukraine and family support schemes, led the way in providing more than 100,000 homes and support to navigate all the bureaucratic and practical challenges. But that’s not a long-term, sustainable arrangement. Many UK families have made significant sacrifices – in space, in privacy, and financially – to support their guests, but they can’t do that forever, particularly in the face of the cost of living crisis.
Some of the more than 160,000 Ukrainian refugees have returned home, but with the end of the Russian aggression not in sight, most have not, and more may well arrive. The government assumption is that after an initial period of hosting, the refugees will find their own homes and continue as established members of British society. But that runs right into the impact of decades of failed housing policies in the UK, the mass privatisation of right to buy and the dependence on a handful of mass builders to provide homes, which they’ve patently failed to do.
Refugees are becoming victims of this broken housing system
More and more Ukrainians are now having to ask local councils for social housing, one in five Ukrainian refugees are living in overcrowded accommodation, and one in ten were threatened with eviction during their stay, with high risks associated with the family scheme. Research by charities and local authorities found that more than two thirds of Ukrainians had little confidence in their ability to find private housing. Local authorities have found it hard to resettle Ukrainian refugees; the acute shortage of social housing has directly impacted their ability to house Ukrainians.
The government has allocated £500mn to help local authorities buy homes, but stretched around so many areas that won’t go terribly far, although seeing a boost to the numbers of houses in public hands, after the long, damaging privatisation of the right to buy scheme, is welcome news.
The crisis is exacerbated by high rents and the increased cost of living. Ukrainian refugees face numerous barriers to obtaining privately rented accommodation and many struggle to get guarantors to qualify for private rental properties. Some landlords are asking for several months and in some cases a year’s worth of rent up front. Credit checks also prevent refugees from getting accommodation. Collectively, these problems risk Ukrainian refugees being left vulnerable and open to exploitation – in a country which took them in and promised safe refuge.
The UK government must act
In the short term, the government must prioritise reforms to resettlement schemes such as Homes for Ukraine. It must provide more funding to British hosts that are taking in larger Ukrainian households, to make the long-term success of the scheme viable. Rishi Sunak must reaffirm his commitment to Ukrainian refugees by providing specific funding to pay for security deposits on rental properties, and restrictions on credit checks must also be eased. These simple measures are easily implementable and will have an immediate impact on the most vulnerable.
Helping to write Kremlin propaganda?
If the government fails to address this problem, the political consequences on Britain’s international standing could be severe. It provides Kremlin propagandists with the opportunity to perpetuate a distorted narrative of Western neglect; they will claim that Britain has transported Ukrainian women and children to live precariously on the streets. Britain would be perceived as insincere and neglectful in the eyes of some Russian audiences, and that would seep out beyond Russian borders. Housing could represent a very real avenue in which the Kremlin continues its information war against the nations supporting Ukraine.
Russia is – against international law – abducting Ukrainian children and seeking to reshape their identity. What’s happening is clear, but the story being told by the Russians is predictably false. Putin’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, boasts of how Russia is facilitating a humanitarian effort to place orphans with “wonderful” Russian families. The UK will be painted as a contrast.
Disinformation in a propaganda war
The propaganda war is fierce. Audiences across Europe are being subject to a barrage of negative stories about Ukrainian refugees that countries such as Britain have taken in. Fact checkers from the European Digital Media Observatory have noted how Russian propaganda has sought to create resentment in host countries by fabricating stories about Ukrainians being criminals and being given preferential treatment.
In Poland, a news story about a Ukrainian refugee family being forcibly removed from accommodation due to unpaid rent in Krakow was circulated on social media. However, investigative journalists from online platform StopFake, revealed how the story and images were taken from an event which occurred in 2021 – well before Russia’s invasion last year.
Russia’s war on truth has long been a thorn in the side of British and European democracy; the promulgation of falsehoods and perverted narratives has sowed discord. However, the issue of Ukrainian homelessness in Britain is solely of our own making. It represents an issue that everyone can get behind and support; it is morally right that the British government do its best to keep Ukrainians safe whilst in the UK. Anything less would be truly shameful.
What message do we wish to send?
All it would take is a picture of a Ukrainian woman and child sleeping rough in the British winter cold to impact both on Britain’s international image, but also on the struggle for hearts and minds across Europe and beyond.
Such an image can and should never be a reality in Britain. We owe it to the vulnerable refugees that have sought our help. But even if the government won’t act on that – and it hasn’t shown any kind of humanitarian concern on so many issues – perhaps it will think about how British domestic failures can be strategically weaponised to undermine Britain’s standing and Europe’s resolve to stand against Russian aggression.
This article was written with King’s College London researcher Ben Soodavar