At last, we’re opening up our arms and our homes, says Saskia Murphy
Last week, a staggering 18 days after Putin’s army marched into Ukraine, the British government finally announced the details of its visa scheme, which will allow Ukrainian nationals to seek refuge in the UK.
In the time it took the government to decide under what terms it would allow women and children fleeing war into the country, almost three million people had escaped from Ukraine, arriving in bordering countries exhausted, traumatised, and scared.
Anyone who has spent the last few weeks following the Russian invasion and the plight of refugees fleeing Ukraine will be all too familiar with images of children wrapped up in coats and woolly hats, standing in long queues with their mothers and other relatives as they make treacherous journeys into the unknown.
The response in neighbouring countries such as Poland, which had taken in more than 1.8 million refugees as of 15 March, has been one of kindness and urgent support. Ukrainians arriving in Hungary, Slovakia, and Moldova (one of the poorest countries in Europe) have been provided with food, medical assistance and emergency shelter.
Now, as Putin’s war rages on, Europe is confronted with finding a long-term solution to the new refugee crisis.
Under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, people living in the UK who have a spare room, or separate self-contained unoccupied accommodation, are being asked to offer to house Ukrainians for a period of at least six months, with the government offering hosts £350 a month.
Ukrainian nationals will be allowed to live and work in the UK for up to three years and receive full and unrestricted access to benefits, healthcare, employment and other support.
Less than 48 hours after the website went live, more than 130,000 households had registered their interest in hosting Ukrainian individuals and families.
But of course, like most things this government turns its hand to, there are concerns over how the scheme will be delivered.
As of last Wednesday, only 5,500 visas had been approved as Ukrainians seeking refuge in the UK are forced to grapple with a 49-page application form. And the scheme has drawn criticism for its selective bureaucracy – the initial stage of the Homes for Ukraine scheme relies on applicants in the UK knowing a named individual they want to help.
Despite government red tape, people in Britain are ready to do their bit. For weeks people have aired their frustration on social media, pledging to drive to the Poland-Ukraine border to transport refugees back to the UK themselves, if only the government would allow them into the country.
Now, with a scheme finally in place, tens of thousands are preparing to open up their homes. Spare bedrooms are being cleared out, beds are being made up, and children are going through their toy boxes ready to share their belongings with a child in need.
As this magazine goes to print, thousands of Ukrainian refugees will be landing on British soil, almost 2,000 miles away from Putin’s bombs.
Now is Britain’s chance to open its arms to those seeking sanctuary.