Image: Michal Siewniak addresses one of many gathering in support of Ukraine held in his local community in Welwyn Garden City.

Scenes of chaos, disinformation, unhelpfulness, layers of bureaucracy; these are some of my comments after seeing what some of the Ukrainian refuges had to go through while trying to make an appointment with the British Consulate in Warsaw. Some people, who fled the war, travelled in freezing conditions for days, had to make 12 hour round trip to meet a Home Office official. Unacceptable? Most definitely. 

I agree that Britain has a long standing tradition of welcoming refugees, however before we start congratulating the Home Office on their efforts to welcome our Ukrainian friends, it is worth remembering that Poland has already provided home and shelter for 1,916,000 refugees from Ukraine (figures from 17th March) whilst other neighbouring countries have taken 283,000 (Hungary), 229,000 (Slovakia), 491,000. Interestingly, Ireland has taken 6,600 whereas UK so far only 3,000, as of 14th March. 

So what awaits Ukrainian refugees, who might want to move to a safe country or, to be more precise, are desperate to settle secure? On Monday, 14th March, the government launched the Home for Ukrainians scheme. The scheme itself went live on Friday, 18th March. 

The setup is quite “interesting”. Although around 44,000 have already signed up to the scheme, the government, in my view, made a wrong decision in terms of how the process works. Essentially, Ukrainian applicants must have named people in the UK willing to sponsor them. Only in the last few days, I had a number of phone calls from residents of Welwyn Garden City, who are really keen to support our Ukrainian friends, however without having any information about the country, culture or any connections with Ukraine, each individual will have to heavily rely on some of the Ukrainians already living in the UK. We are quite lucky in Welwyn Hatfield as we have worked a lot in recent weeks with members of the Ukrainian community, who might be able to “match” individuals in Ukraine, with people in the UK, who are happy to move to Britain.  

I might be cynical, however the British government is urging the public to come forward to help as we are in the middle of a global humanitarian crisis. In my view, this clearly demonstrated that the government doesn’t want to provide the adequate infrastructure to support the scheme and it relies on a good will of British people. I wonder whether this is also because of Home Office recent stance and reputation on immigration. I’ve seen first-hand, in my day job, how hard it was for Afghan families to navigate the complexity of the Home Offices internal procedures. Inhumane and impossible task, to say the least. 

I agree that in order to support Ukrainian refugees, we need a national effort to respond to the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the war in former Yugoslavia, however the government feels to me to be detached from parts of the process whilst local charities, faith groups, universities and businesses will have to step in to enable the scheme to be a success.. 

Most readers might already know that each host family will received a payment of £350 for up to 12 months will be paid in areas. Anyone willing to take someone in, will have to do for at least 6 months. The scheme clearly (or not) states that Local Authorities will receive significant funding to support Ukrainian refugees. When and how this funding will be distributed? 

The government also says that there are plenty of organisation, which will be happy to provide additional support with e.g. finding schools for Ukrainian children, registering families with GP’s or even helping people to open bank accounts. 

I am aware that the government, whoever is in charge, has always a difficult task on managing complex subjects such as humanitarian crisis or immigration. However, it seems to me that the Home Office, yet again, has failed to do a proper homework. I wonder whether anyone from the Ukrainian community has been consulted on efficient ways, in which this scheme should work in practise. I wonder whether any of the Ministers thought about speaking to any of the Ukrainian refugees about their fears as well as their future plans and aspirations. Any such scheme must relate to people and needs to take into the consideration human factors; providing shelter whilst protecting people’s integrity and dignity. Many Ukrainians I spoke with are proud and they are very keen not to be a burden on the British taxpayer.  

And what about us? As I said many times before, we should try to use every opportunity to make a difference, bring peace, and even in the most challenging situations, remain committed to building bridges and not walls. In the last few weeks, I’ve realised again that we must continue being a force for good! We can’t give in even when we feel broken and completely overwhelmed. Naive? Maybe. However, do we have any other choice?

By Michal Siewniak, board member of New Europeans UK