Ukrainian refugees in UK at risk of 'human trafficking and exploitation’

British response to Ukraine refugee crisis exacerbates potential for abuse, report says

Workers at a 'welcome hub' for arriving Ukrainians wait to guide people at St Pancras station in London, England. Getty Images
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Live updates: follow the latest news on Russia-Ukraine

The UK’s visa programmes for Ukrainian refugees are “lacking in clarity, resourcing and accountability” and are heightening the risk of trafficking and exploitation, a report has shown.

More than 100 experts have highlighted the “troubling implications” of the UK’s visa-based response, saying they are struggling to make sense of the “chaotic, fragmented and confusing” system.

In a report produced by experts at University College London for the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, the visa requirement is widely regarded as creating and heightening the risks of human trafficking and exploitation.

This compares to EU countries’ more open responses, which were seen as a “major source of resilience” against such threats.

The UK’s “hostile environment” is also creating a “difficult climate” in which to respond to the crisis, they added.

The report details issues raised during a roundtable of experts from governmental bodies, health care and legal groups, law enforcement officials and academics.

Numerous concerns were raised about the Homes for Ukraine programme, with experts worried both about the “deliberately predatory hosts” and about conditions becoming increasingly exploitative over time.

They identified the potential for domestic servitude, with unclear government guidance heightening the risk of exploitative placements.

And they said that councils are likely to struggle to house refugees who need accommodation because their relatives cannot house them or their placement with a sponsor breaks down.

“Six months is a long time to sign up to host somebody and as far as we can work out there’s no backup for what happens if it goes wrong, although on paper there is,” said one respondent, from an NGO.

“But in reality there is a housing shortage, as we probably all know, and there’s already thousands and thousands of Afghans waiting for housing in hotels, so what happens if a hosting placement goes wrong — where are the Ukrainian people going to go?”

They also said there is a shortage of official information for refugees, their hosts and councils, with a high volume of “decentralised and fragmented material and initiatives” potentially causing confusion and hindering refugees’ access to support.

In addition to women and children, groups particularly at risk of exploitation include separated and unaccompanied minors, older people, Roma and other minority groups, as well as international students.

“I’m hearing from the police who are going into the brothels that they are very concerned that there’s an increase in the number of Ukrainian females … I suspect that those females are compelled into sex work rather than being more consensual sex workers, and I’m concerned about the lack of our ability from a policing and disruption and safeguarding perspective to intervene and protect,” said one participant, a barrister.

“There was clear consensus among experts from across different backgrounds that new risks specific to this war are interacting with existing systemic issues in the UK, putting many refugees from Ukraine at heightened risk of human trafficking and exploitation — both on the way to the UK and once here,” said lead report author Dr Ella Cockbain, of UCL’s Department of Security and Crime Science.

“Simply warning people about human trafficking and modern slavery is not enough; they need to be given safer, better options and access to vital support if things go wrong,” she added.

Dame Sara said the responses to the Homes for Ukraine programme have shown how willing the public is to support refugees.

“Thousands of individuals, organisations and businesses have offered shelter, support and job opportunities,” she said.

“What we must do now is put in place systematic prevention and protection measures to ensure the risks of trafficking and exploitation do not become a reality.”

Among the report’s 25 recommendations is a call for the Home Office to waive the visa requirement, improve access to support for non-Ukrainians fleeing the country, and publish regular data on how many separated and unaccompanied children are arriving in the UK.

It should also ensure councils get £10,500 ($13,000) per refugee arriving under the family programme, and these refugees should get a £200 ($249) payment when they arrive, as is the case for arrivals under the Sponsorship programme.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which has responsibility for the Homes for Ukraine sponsorship programme, should provide information clarifying expectations around domestic chores.

And it should work with councils to make clear plans for how refugees will be supported with housing if placements fall through or relatives cannot house them.

“In response to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s barbaric invasion, we launched one of the fastest and biggest visa schemes in UK history. 86,000 visas have been granted with over 27,000 Ukrainians arriving safely in the UK,” said a government representative.

“Thanks to changes we made to streamline the system, thousands of visas are being granted every day, but it is right that security checks are conducted on both applicants and sponsors to make sure Ukrainians fleeing the war and sponsors are safeguarded.

“Under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, councils must make at least one in-person visit to a sponsor’s property and following guests arrival, they have a duty to ensure the guest is safe and well.”

Updated: April 29, 2022, 7:04 AM