The Ukrainian children at the mercy of UK’s refugee scheme

5 June 2022

Under-18s travelling alone not permitted to be hosted under Homes for Ukraine programme, leaving them with no route to UKRussia-Ukraine war: latest updates

Nazarii has spent the last three weeks listening to fighter planes fly over his village in western Ukraine and hoping that his British visa will arrive soon.

The 17-year-old applied to join a family in Hampshire under the Homes for Ukraine scheme on 11 April and thought it would be straightforward. But with no decision from the Home Office, it appears Nazarii may be the latest casualty of a government policy that denies visas to unaccompanied children.

Under-18s travelling alone are not permitted to be hosted under the Homes for Ukraine programme, leaving them with no route to Britain.

British families that have been carefully vetted and subject to enhanced DBS checks are frustrated that they cannot help teenagers with whom they have been matched. Many are already alone and vulnerable to trafficking and abuse.

The government claims the policy is designed to safeguard children, but by offering no alternative, charities say it could leave young people in greater danger in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe.

For Nazarii, travelling with his parents is not an option. His mother has to care for elderly relatives in their village near Ternopil and his father is a much-needed doctor.

His potential host, Samantha Read, 54, from Church Crookham in Hampshire, works as a teaching assistant and lives with her husband, Tim, and their 17-year-old son, Theo.

She said she rang the Home Office helpline at the start of April to ask if she could host a 17-year-old and was told it was fine if there was written parental permission. After DBS checks and vetting by social services they were expecting the visa any day.

Speaking about Nazarii's parents, Read said: "All they want is to keep their son safe so he can have a positive future. We have formed a bond with this family. We know we can support him emotionally, financially, provide a safe haven in a loving family home.

"Is it really too much to ask that the Home Office grant this visa as they told me they would in a timely manner?"

Meanwhile, Nazarii is left wondering how he will find safety. "I often hear many sirens and military planes, terrible sounds," he said.

Robina Qureshi, chief executive of the refugee hosting charity Positive Action In Housing , said: "The thing that is most shocking about this is that the most vulnerable of refugees, unaccompanied children, are being denied access to the UK."

Qureshi wants established charities like hers, with experience of placing refugees with families, to be allowed to bring teenagers to Britain. "We need the government to act urgently for the sake of 18 unaccompanied minors who we are supporting at present who are at risk of trafficking or being forced to live in or return to a war zone. They are frankly terrified," she said.

Kostiantyn and Sasha, both 17, are sleeping on a stranger's sofa in Warsaw having fled Ukraine at the end of February. The friends, who were studying engineering and maths at college together in Kyiv, speak fluent English and no Polish.

They were matched by Positive Action In Housing with a carefully vetted couple in Manchester. Kostiantyn said: "We were convinced everything was going to be alright but now we've discovered that we can't come without our parents and it seems impossible.

"In Ukraine if you're 16 you can travel - you don't need to ask your parent."

Dennis Colligan, 60, a GP from Didsbury in Manchester, agreed to host the boys along with his wife, Cathy, 59, a speech therapist. Both have enhanced criminal records checks as part of their jobs and empty spare rooms as their three adult children have left home.

Colligan said: "It's very disappointing because we've got a situation that would work. Cathy and I have got the space, we've got the resources and we've got a background in knowing about safeguarding, children, health and welfare.

"It seems a real shame that we can't actually get them over here and get them settled, so they feel safe and can resume their education."

Kostiantyn's mother has stayed in Ukraine to support his father and he wants to be able to work and send money home to support his family. Sasha's mother has gone to France.

They are nervous of the risks if the placement falls through. Sasha said: "We want to travel to the United Kingdom because we have a sponsor here - we already know we'll find a place to sleep and a friend in Manchester who's a really nice person. But we don't have all of these benefits in other countries like France or Germany, so it's more dangerous to go there."

Dan Paskins, director of UK impact at Save the Children , said "The government's 'one size fits all' approach in these instances can put children at risk of taking dangerous routes to seek safety.

"What's needed are caseworkers who are on the ground, who have the skills, background and knowledge to be able to make a really informed and rapid assessment of each individual case - particularly for children coming to live with adults with whom they have a longstanding relationship."

A government spokesperson said: "Due to safeguarding concerns, unaccompanied minors are only eligible under the Homes for Ukraine scheme if they are reuniting with a parent or legal guardian in the UK.

"There are no plans to make those trying to sponsor unaccompanied children 'guardians'."

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