The news made Homes for Ukraine a success, now we must harness it to protect all migrants
This article was originally published in the Chartered Institute of Housing Spring 2023 Housing Rights newsletter.
When the heart-breaking images of the young Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, lying face-down on a beach in Turkey swept across our frontpages, it felt as though an impasse had been broken: a moment of realisation that the perils of these journeys are born from desperation, and that empathy is the only appropriate response. The public’s immediate reaction to this moment, while perhaps all too fleeting, shows the influence that the news can have on our attitudes, and sometimes our actions.
When Russia invaded Ukraine a little over a year ago, it understandably dominated the news cycle. The uncertainty surrounding newly created Ukrainian refugees became a policy question and Britain answered, namely in the form of Homes for Ukraine. The nature of the reporting on the war and the Homes for Ukraine (HfU) scheme led 100,000 Brits to sign up in just the first 24-hours of HfU opening.
“I think just seeing the news, seeing the appalling way in which the Ukrainians were being treated and that war was declared and that they didn’t want that, and we just felt a want to help.”
That quote is from a host, recently interviewed as part of a report into HfU that we funded and produced alongside Nottingham University’s Rights Lab and hosting charity Hope at Home. It captures the tumultuous jolts of action inspired in response to the war in Ukraine. The report, Homes for Ukraine: learnings to inform and shape future hosting schemes, showed that the news was a major motivator for people to act and host. So too was the feeling of injustice and immorality over the invasion.
Government involvement, ease of applying, the short-term nature of the scheme and of course the practical ability to host were all reported as reasons why hosts signed up too. While all of these point to the success of the scheme, there were a number of key concerns among hosts. A lack of checks on properties, that the scheme was heavily bureaucratic, a series of unexpected lifestyle challenges posed difficulties, and the lack of move-on accommodation options for Ukrainians were all major areas of concern.
However, beyond all else, HfU proves one thing clearly: hosting works. British people are willing to open their homes to the vulnerable from across the world. Indeed, one of the most interesting anecdotes from the research showed the changing perceptions of hosts towards refugees of non-European descent and the influence that the news plays in these misconceptions.
“To be brutally honest, I think I possibly wouldn’t have [hosted someone from a different country such as Syria or Afghanistan] because it’s been in the background of what’s going on in Syria and Afghanistan. I haven’t really understood it or engaged in it. You know what it’s like when you listen to the news and stuff – there’s always some story going on and I don’t even know where some of the places are. I probably wouldn’t have, but because of that, just because I hadn’t really engaged with it as much. But it does make me think now about that. And now I think: why haven’t I done that and would I do that in the future? And I think I’d like to say I would, but I don’t know’.”
The quote feels like a similar snapshot to that of many others during the period following Alan Kurdi’s death: one of introspection about our own attitudes and what action that may elicit.
One of the key recommendations in the report is for the third sector to shape and change the narrative around deservingness of refugees. The uniqueness of the response to the war in Ukraine from both the government and the public demonstrates a disconnect between our beliefs and support for one population group against others.
As the government further entrenches -anti-migrant sentiments into legislation, it is an incredibly tough fight to win, but one that we in the third sector absolutely must champion. But the HfU scheme and this report show one thing to be clear: the British public care about the vulnerable and will do what is necessary to help them. Sometimes they just need a nudge from the news.