Kathy Burrell (Department of Geography and Planning, University of Liverpool)
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022 a devastating wave of human suffering was set in motion. By 8 November 2022 the UNHCR (2022) had documented that over 7.8 million refugees had left the country, with millions more internally displaced. The war, and the resultant trauma and hardship being experienced by the people caught up in it, have quickly become pan-European concerns. Continental neighbours and allies have come forward to offer emergency support in different ways and with varying intensities. Poland, for example, has offered refuge to almost 1.5 million people, Germany just over 1,000,000, and the UK 143,100 (UNHCR 2022). Already struggling with domestic housing shortages, most countries are mobilising a mix of reception centre spaces and private households to physically accommodate the new refugees.
The UK’s most significant response has been the high profile “Homes for Ukraine” scheme, launched in March through the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. This campaign has been urging UK residents to sign up to sponsor and host those fleeing the invasion in their own homes, and official statistics for 8 November 2022 suggest that there are over 84,000 Ukrainians across the country who are being hosted in this way (DLUHC 2022). This is an important development for both refugee settlement policies and wider reflections on the geographies of the home, and I have been investigating how the interweaving theatres of war and domestic space are remaking UK hosting homes through this programme (Baxter and Brickell 2014; Blunt and Dowling 2022; Brickell 2012). In July 2022 I started interviewing hosts and other people formally and informally supporting new arrivals and have now spoken to 30 people. I want to share here what I have learnt so far, both disturbing and inspiring.
The Homes for Ukraine scheme has attracted considerable media attention (Russell 2022) and the public response to Ukrainian arrivals has been generally warm, buoyed initially by a strong sense of humanitarian commitment to the victims of Russian aggression. However, it has also been criticised as a rushed, short-term, under-resourced, and bureaucratically laborious programme, accused of failing both refugees and their hosts (Dube 2022). There have been high profile media accounts of hostings which have broken down, and concerns about the laxity of security checks on potential hosts (Fyfe 2022). Furthermore, an Office for National Statistics survey with hosts published in August 2022 indicated that not all hosts would be willing to carry on accommodating their “guests” beyond their initial six-month terms, raising fears about what happens then (ONS 2022). Exacerbating all of this is the deepening cost of living crisis, with multi-occupancy hosting households becoming more expensive to run as each month passes (Thomas 2022). High fuel bills will be hitting hosts hard. Private sector rents are also soaring, and with them follow-on housing options diminishing. There is a real threat of homelessness hanging over people when their hostings end and thousands of Ukrainians will almost certainly face being displaced again (Bryant and Townsend 2022).
A lot of the criticism of this scheme seems justified. In my interviews, hosts wanted to talk in great depth about their frustrations with the systems that have been set up. First was the lack of any clear mechanism for finding compatible matches for pairing up hosts and guests once people had signed up to the scheme. Many would-be hosts ended up turning to Facebook in desperation to search for people to sponsor. Those seeking sanctuary, for their part, had to resort to the indignity of advertising themselves on social media to find a host. As one person put it, “it was like an advert for selling humans”. Then there were all the problems with the visa processes and the long waits for decisions to be made on supposedly urgent applications. According to one host,
there were different phone lines, you could call but they wouldn’t have … you know, it was just an outsourced phone line. They didn’t know anything. They couldn’t tell you anything case specific. So it was just a patience game, but it did feel, felt like a really long time.
Visas, moreover, were being issued separately for different family members, making it nigh on impossible to co-ordinate progress and decisions. Some people managed to get their local MPs to step in, phone a mysterious number, and speed up the process. Once a reliable hosting set-up was in place, the difficult job of working through welfare, health, and bank rules and systems, and navigating Universal Credit (for payments to help with living costs) and regular Jobcentre “nudges”, could begin. With little official support to draw on, hosts have been using WhatsApp and Facebook groups to guide each other through these stages. In the words of another host,
if it wasn’t for the support of the Facebook groups … they were really worth their weight in gold, because there was a couple of ladies on there who knew all the systems. They’d already gone through them and were sending you umpteen links so the information was coming in in bucket loads.
The hosts I spoke to were committed to helping their guests, but there are harder questions to confront about what hosting does in terms of the responsibilisation of refugee support (Dean 2010). This programme can be read as a continuation, and intensification, of pre-existing smaller-scale hosting programmes and recent Resettlement Schemes set up in response to new Syrian arrivals, relocating responsibility for refugees’ welfare in the hands of untrained and inexperienced, albeit often dedicated, individuals and community groups (Dajani 2021). There has already been close critique of the risks of outsourcing asylum services (Humphris 2019), and especially the horrifying damage this has done to housing provision (Darling 2011, 2022). Hosting opens up new frontiers in these debates, taking all the effort and resources, tensions and contradictions tied up in the process of offering sanctuary (Darling and Squire 2012) straight into the home, where the intensity of support required is more acute, associated issues of sustainability and fatigue more pressing, and the gravity of interpersonal interactions more consequential.
There are even harder questions again to probe about the raced and gendered elements of the programme. At the time of writing there is a disturbing confluence of asylum related developments that juxtapose the Homes for Ukraine scheme with the degrading and dangerous experiences being endured by other people also seeking refuge. For all the problems with the scheme, Ukrainians are being temporarily accommodated in family homes, and are able to attend school or work, draw on Universal Credit, and access healthcare. They are also able to apply for a Biometric Residence Permit, granting up to three years leave to remain. This is an attempt to (temporarily) settle a population who are not even formally categorised as refugees in the system. People trying to claim asylum, in contrast, are waiting to be processed rather than settled, at risk of deportation to Rwanda or prolonged detainment in an unsafe camp in Kent; human suffering the collateral damage of a government shifting further to the right with every new Home Secretary. On this sliding scale of unwelcome, the Homes for Ukraine scheme is surprisingly generous. There are clearly important geopolitical contexts to these decisions, not least the urgent need to support Ukraine as the invasion developed. But in terms of launching a scheme which relies on public support and empathy with those fleeing the violence, the fact that the majority of Ukrainian arrivals are white, Christian, women and children cannot be ignored. As we have seen, Syrian men have been especially maligned in some political, media, and popular responses to the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe last decade (Burrell and Hörschelmann 2019). Several interviews touched on these issues. Many hosts spoke about the unprecedented geographical closeness of this war, seeing it as “our” crisis too, happening right here in Europe. Others were more openly sensitive to any racial disparities reflected in the scheme, wondering why they had not heard about hosting schemes before, and why other refugees were not being offered the same support. Hosting arrangements do not sit outside of these kinds of discourses (Farahani 2021).
So there is a lot to be uneasy about with this programme, and as the six-month terms start to end, more difficulties, and worrying headlines, will emerge. It is not easy to be a host. Hosting for my participants has meant endless hours spent on administrative support, juggled around work and family commitments, and the—very gendered (Rosello 2001)—emotional labour of looking out for people who are experiencing high levels of trauma. Nor is it easy to be a guest. I have yet to speak to people who are being hosted directly, and am making arrangements to do so soon, but we know that being a guest in someone else’s house can be awkward, confusing, and diminishing (Búriková 2006). Offering sanctuary can create a complicated dynamic of imbalance and obligation (Darling and Squire 2012). The testimonies I have collected so far are brimming with examples of the asymmetrical power politics of hospitality (Derrida 2000), the shifting of roles within hospitality frameworks (Brun 2010), and the materialisation of these contestations and confusions in domestic space.
And yet, the efforts being put into hosting are humbling. After all, it is a pretty radical act to open up your home to a stranger in need. Without romanticising this care (Darling 2011:415), my participants also speak of the emergence of friendships and family-like bonding within the new household (Sirriyeh 2013). They are mindful of the importance of privacy and dignity, and attentive to the ebbs and flows of reciprocity, within their host–guest relationships (Komter and Leer 2012). A keener appreciation of what it means to be forced to flee your home is building among many of the sponsors. Hosts who have never had to think about welfare before are shocked at the meagreness of Universal Credit, and unnerved as they encounter, with new eyes, whole swathes of public services that have been hollowed out by austere politics. A lot of literature points to the importance of not underestimating the value of the quiet politics of welcome and kindness (Sheringham and Taylor 2022) and I can see this here with this scheme. There is a quiet revolution of nurture, consideration, and consciousness taking place behind some of these closed doors.
So for all the structural, operational, and interpersonal challenges embedded in the scheme, there is hope too. One local authority person I spoke with raised the spectre of moving towards more refugee hosting schemes in the future. Given recent developments in the shameful asylum provision currently being offered by the UK, this might not be the worst direction to take. But there would have to be a lot more support for hosts, and longer-term planning, to really make it work.
 This refers to the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the UK and Rwanda governments in April 2022 establishing a formal route for asylum seekers arriving in the UK to be sent (forcibly) to Rwanda for “processing”—a high profile move ostensibly designed to deter “illegal” immigration.
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Featured image: “Twickenham Church Street Showing Support For Ukraine” by Jim Linwood, 2 March 2022, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)