Hundreds of Ukrainians will be offered accommodation on a disused cruise ship in Scotland as Scottish National Party ministers pause the “super sponsor” scheme because of a lack of housing.
Refugees fleeing their homeland after the invasion by Russia faced sleeping on camp beds in public buildings unless drastic action was taken, ministers warned.
The passenger ship the MS Victoria will be docked in Leith, Edinburgh, to provide 739 rooms, equivalent to about 10 per cent of the 7,000 Ukrainians who have fled to Scotland.
Two-thirds of these people applied under the super sponsor scheme, launched in March, after the Scottish government committed to accommodate at least 3,000 people.
In addition, North Lanarkshire Council announced plans to refurbish 200 unused council tower block properties, funded by £5 million ($5.9m) from the Scottish government, to provide longer-term accommodation.
Scotland's largest social landlord, the Wheatley Housing Group, has also pledged to make 300 homes available to local authorities to house displaced people from Ukraine.
Although the Scottish government has "paused" the scheme for three months, an official document suggests longer-term issues.
The paper said it had been hoped that “the crisis in Ukraine would prove temporary and that a peace agreement could swiftly be reached” — despite widespread warnings about Vladimir Putin’s unwillingness to back down on the invasion.
Scotland’s temporary accommodation sector is at capacity, the document confirmed. It added: “If numbers continue at this level, local authorities may find themselves having to house displaced people, including families, in emergency contingency accommodation such as camp beds in community settings.
“While contingency accommodation is a necessary part of local councils’ crisis response to short-term emergencies, such as fires and flooding, it is not a sustainable solution for protracted emergencies like the war in Ukraine.”
Wales announced it was pausing its scheme for a month at the start of June, but later decided on an indefinite extension of that decision. Scotland’s three-month pause will begin at 9am on Wednesday and will not affect anyone who has already made an application or had their visa granted.
In a joint letter sent in March, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, the Scottish and Welsh first ministers, had said that there would be “no cap” on the number of people who could use the respective schemes.
“Placing families into accommodation that was due for demolition and an old cruise liner that was probably for scrap is in no way the proper and humane way to treat refugees,” said Gary Gray, co-founder of volunteer group ScotHosts, which was set up to support arriving refugees and their Scottish hosts.
He said that a month ago he became “disgusted by the shoddy way that everyone in authority was handling it” and predicted that the scheme would have to be paused. He therefore stepped back from having anything to do with the Scottish government’s programme.
More than 21,256 visas had been issued naming a Scottish sponsor, which is more than 20 per cent of the UK total and the highest number per head of population across Britain and Northern Ireland, said the government.
Neil Gray, the Scottish minister with special responsibility for Ukrainian refugees, has asked Lord Harrington, the UK minister for refugees, whether the British government will consider introducing its own super sponsor arrangements.
“With a recent decrease in people applying for private sponsorship in England, and Wales having paused their own scheme, the number of applications naming the Scottish government as sponsor has increased considerably in recent weeks,” Mr Gray said.
“For this reason, we have taken the incredibly difficult decision to follow Wales in pausing our scheme so we can continue to provide a high level of support and care to everyone who has already been granted a visa.”
Mr Gray said that the position would be reviewed in three months but could be brought forward “if circumstances change”.