The outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees has demonstrated something we’ve always known, most people in the UK want to help those in need and we continue to be amazed by the numbers of people who want to open their homes to refugees. Our matching programme has been up and running for two months now and while we’re not matching as fast as we’d like, Ukrainian refugees are receiving a warm welcome across the whole of the UK.
As part of our commitment to learning from the scheme and what it means for the future of resettlement we have been reflecting on perceptions of refugees and what that means for sponsorship. Through our conversations with thousands of sponsors, we have been surprised how fixed people’s views can be on who refugees are.
During our mandatory training webinar, we ask people to close their eyes and picture a refugee. As you read this, an image might pop into your head, is it a woman with her child sat in front of a UNHCR tent? If so, you are not alone and it is not surprising that this is what you visualise as we are continually fed images of what a refugee looks like and, sadly, what they don’t look like. Mainstream media has regularly fed us images of young men crossing the Channel and labelled them ‘economic migrants’ or ‘illegal migrants’ and the Government has also been outspoken about legal vs ‘illegal’ routes for refugees. What is less often reported or talked about is the vast majority of people who come to the UK via the Channel are granted asylum.
There is an additional layer of complexity around understanding of Ukrainian refugees as at the beginning of the war in Ukraine we were told that men were not allowed to leave the country, this of course, was not true and there are exemptions.
All of this has led to some challenging conversations with potential sponsors as part of our work on the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Some sponsors have a clear view on who they want to sponsor, and while this is understandable, is it not always possible to meet their wishes. Refugees also have fixed views on where they want to be.
Refugees who need sanctuary include men of all ages, large families, women with teenagers, single women, friends, and young couples; and they all have diverse needs. Families need to know there are schools which will nurture their children; single women want to live with other women and young couples may be focused on living somewhere they can work. Older men are often more flexible about where they live, if there is some transport so they can get to the shops.
Our matching service puts refugees in the driving seat, which means they get to decide whom they are sponsored by. We’re still finding that location matters hugely to them – many people who have left Ukraine had left cities and want to live in a city here in the UK – and we are finding it hard to persuade people to live in the countryside. Every day, we receive emails from people already hosting, or those being hosted in the UK asking us to ‘rematch’ them to a more urban setting. This is a responsibility of local councils to arrange, however, it is an indication of just how important the right match, in the right place is.
We know it’s hard to be told that that your home is not somewhere a refugee wants to live but it’s really not personal. For most of us it is hard for us to imagine what it’s like to have our lives turned upside down and flee for our lives. Imagine if you had to pack a bag and leave your home due to war, you would probably seek sanctuary somewhere which felt familiar so if you left a market town, you would look for a small town. If we can’t find a refugee to match you with yet, try not to be disheartened, there are many things you can do to help.