More than 1,200 Ukrainians are living with host families in East Sussex and almost 400 Ukrainian refugees are currently being hosted under the Homes for Ukraine scheme in Brighton and Hove, among them 139 children. They are part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, launched in March 2022, in which people were invited to offer a home to Ukrainian refugees for a minimum of six months.
The most obvious difficulty is what happens after the six months.
Brighton and Hove Council is appealing for more hosts for Ukrainian guests, as some refugees reach the end of their six-month stay with local families. West Sussex County Council responded to our request for information by assuring us that, at the end of the six months: “as long as the guests are on the sponsor visa, they will not be homeless as it will be up to us to make sure they have accommodation”.
Refugees receive three-years ‘leave to remain’ in the UK and may take on paid employment. However, many refugees fear finding themselves homeless should hosts discontinue the Homes for Ukraine arrangement. Together with those joining relatives in the UK, over 200,000 visas have now been issued, although they form a relatively small proportion – 3% – of the seven million displaced in Europe.
Accentuating the positive… and the challenges
We are learning more about their experiences. Local newspaper reports tend to emphasise positive aspects, though some reports do acknowledge the traumatic experiences that refugees have gone through and their difficulties in settling in the UK. Also highlighted is the importance of support from neighbours and friends. In a recent Sussex Bylines article, we heard from Nonhlanhla Dube about the challenges faced by both guests and their hosts.
Everyone has different experiences but some stand out:
Hanna (guest): “Everybody has their own life story which they bring with them. Many of us had to go from Ukraine to short-term accommodation with relatives in other countries which was not a long-term solution. Pressure of space strained relationships. Coming to Britain in the summer where people were nice to us was a relief at first, because we felt welcome and could stop moving. But we were always reminded that we were refugees. People were envious of us because we were able to move around Europe.
Pat (Hanna’s host): I was ready to host a guest and had thought that a single woman would work well in my house. Having moved overseas myself, I knew how difficult the early days of being in a new country can be, and I hoped to help. My guest came through a personal contact who had met her in Ukraine in summer 2021.
‘I was feeling desperately sorry for the refugees – it was an emotional response’
Mary (host, not her real name): They [guest and relative] fled across the border by car on the first day of the war, with nothing. Then they moved to Germany because a relative lived there. They were three to four months in a small flat. The British scheme looked attractive. I heard about it through publicity at the time. I was feeling guilty and desperately sorry for Ukrainian refugees. It was quite an emotional response – I put my name on the register of interest. My neighbour put a notice on the WhatsApp group, looking for host families locally… so I agreed.
Hanna: Getting the visa was the easy part. My host and I completed the visa application together online, from different countries.
Pat: We applied for the visa together – it took two hours flipping documents back and forth across our different countries via the internet – and then the visa came through in 10 days. My guest, whose understanding of written English is excellent, found a workaround. We had to go to the Home Office shortly after arrival to get the biometric residence permit.
‘They were promised a land of milk and honey. They probably feel let down now‘
Mary: They were promised a land of milk and honey. Residency came quickly but the visa process was slow. I had to ask Caroline Lucas (the MP for Brighton Pavilion) to help. They were so happy when the residency card came but they probably feel let down now.
Hanna: The city organised job fairs for Ukrainian refugees. I am a qualified university teacher of English in Ukraine and I had retrained and qualified as a manicurist and hoped to get work in England in a nail bar. My host helped me reframe my CV which I took to the nail bars and the job fairs but nobody looked at it. I was told that, with my English, all I could expect was a cleaning job. I eventually got zero-hours contract work in the hospitality industry and my universal credit is reduced accordingly.
Pat: We went together to the job centre and the job fairs and I was shocked that nobody seemed interested in my guest’s accomplished CV that we had taken time to shape in English, because I already knew that my guest was good at English.
‘Not knowing the language: like being an alien from another planet’
Mary: [My guest’s relative] spoke reasonable English and was qualified. She immediately started to go to interviews. She got a zero-hours contract but it was too unpredictable. She’s now in London renting a flat with other Ukrainians. How the scheme works depends on individual circumstances. For young, single people it’s much easier.
Hanna: It was hard enough for me and I know English. How anybody who doesn’t have any language can possibly cope – it’s like being an alien from another planet.
Pat: In addition, there is the architecture, the culture of how things work, that I can make a pretty good guess at, but my guest doesn’t know.
Mary: There were things I didn’t think about. (My guest) spoke no English – it’s been very challenging…She (now) goes to English lessons at the local college. We had to wait for two months as the course was full. She’s giving one-word answers now rather than always going for her phone to look at google translate, so that’s an improvement. The health visitor came with an interpreter – that really helped.
Hit and miss aspects of the scheme
Mary: There are lots of things wrong with the scheme. There’s no guidance for guests about British culture. Brighton & Hove did provide a ‘welcome pack’, with information on how to open a bank account, how to deal with trauma. We had a designated family support officer. The council processes have been quite helpful.”
Under the scheme a ‘thank-you’ payment of £350 per month is paid to hosts, rising to £450 after 12 months. Most hosts – 94% according to an ONS survey – are taking people into their homes for humanitarian reasons, and it is clear that they are helping their guests with far more than accommodation. The first six months are crucial for refugees who may have already changed countries more than once, and there are many challenges for all concerned.
Whilst local providers feared that the rising cost of living would be a major issue for hosts, ONS data suggests otherwise, and that the most significant reasons for hosts leaving the scheme include wanting their own home back, and/or breakdown of relationships in the home. Over 60% of those surveyed intend to continue hosting for more than six months.
The biggest potential problems for Ukrainians is finding other accommodation if they have to move on, and obtaining employment. As our conversations showed and ONS survey data confirmed, it is difficult for them to find suitable work that matches their qualifications. Perceived proficiency in English is one of the main barriers.
Also not helpful is the perception that Ukrainians are better off than other refugees. For example, around 10,000 in the Afghan Resettlement Scheme are still living in hotels, with no certainty about their legal status.
Writing this article was difficult: several people we approached declined to give interviews. Feelings are obviously too raw: their future is painfully uncertain, with no end to the war in sight. So we’ve only begun to touch on some tangible experiences, not the emotions behind them. Being part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme is an evolving, complex situation in which guests and hosts are continually navigating a changing sense of belonging.
Check this link to see what help is available for refugees in East Sussex.
Active groups in East and West Sussex supporting refugees include: in Brighton and Hove Voices in Exile and The Hummingbird Project; in Hastings The Refugee Buddy Project; in Worthing Worthing 4 Refugees. And the villages of East Hoathly and Halland have formed a Village of Sanctuary.