Homes for Ukraine initiative hits barriers in Harpenden

Harpenden Lions members collecting for the Ukraine Refugee Humanitarian Appeal.

Harpenden Lions members collecting for the Ukraine Refugee Humanitarian Appeal. - Credit: Harpenden Lions

It was heralded as a selfless way for UK residents to do something remarkable for Ukrainian citizens caught up in their nation's devastating war.

The government's Homes for Ukraine scheme was set up to allow individuals, charities, community groups and businesses in the UK to bring Ukrainians to safety – including those with no family ties to this country.

But the reality of the scheme appears to be very different, with district families told their Ukrainian guests do not qualify for housing support, or facing months of delays in visa applications.

Christian and Caroline Cozon, who live in Harpenden, registered to host a Ukrainian refugee family in March and were offered a family, consisting of a mother and her three children aged between 10 and 14 years old.

They were able to offer this family a fully equipped self-contained flat, which is an integral part of their home.

But what should have been an easy process has been caught up in months of red tape, as Christian explains.

"We applied for their visas with the assistance of Harpenden High Street Methodist Church on 8th May 8 and now more than 10 weeks down the line we are still no further forward.

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"What communications we have received from the Home Office have been confused, disjointed, unhelpful and repetitive. We have elicited the help of our local MP Bim Alofami's assistants, who whilst being very understanding of the predicament being faced by our Ukrainian family, who are currently residing in a hostel in Poland, have been unable to advance matters on their behalf.

"Despite numerous phone calls to the Home Office from his team, with promises of escalation of the applications, we are no further forward.

"On three occasions we have resubmitted documentation which had seemingly been lost, sometimes to the Croydon office and latterly to the Sheffield offices of the Home Office.

"This can now only be seen as a deliberate policy of discouragement of such family applications. All around us hosting neighbours who applied after us,  have received the visas for their one or two guests.

"It is frankly a scandal and goes against all the pronouncements made by this Government regarding the welcome which our country is willing to provide to these refugees. There is obviously an surreptitious and contrary instruction being given to our Civil Service to only allow single people of working age and small families to be invited to take refuge here.

"There can be no other explanation for the refusal to consider such a large family visa application.

"We all know that the Home Office is not an efficient machine, but for the love of God have these Ukrainian families not suffered enough that we should prolong their anguish further, by making them wait indefinitely for a welcome that was so openly promised to them months ago and is now being withheld?"

Harpenden MP Bim Afolami is also working to tackle the issue: “My team and I have raised this application numerous times with teams in the Home Office and with the Refugees Minister directly. I will continue to raise it at the highest possible levels until we are able to secure visas for this family.”

Mr Afolami has also been involved in another battle, this time over whether St Albans district council's claims that a Ukrainian refugee would not qualify for housing support.

One of his constituents was told Ukrainians fleeing Russian forces in Ukraine were ineligible for housing support in Harpenden because they do not have an established connection to St Albans.

This would require the Ukrainian to be currently resident and have lived in the district by choice for the last 12 months or three out of the last five years, have permanent employment in the district, or an immediate family member who has resided in the area for the last five years.

Bim Afolami said: “Ukrainians who have fled Russian aggression deserve to feel safe and welcome in Harpenden and our villages. Many refugees will obviously struggle to meet the criteria that the district council are setting to qualify for housing support.

"Having fled from Russian tanks on the streets of Ukraine, the council seemingly wants Ukrainians to be living on the streets of Harpenden before they can access support to live independently in our community.

“Sponsors who have agreed to take Ukrainians for six months under the Homes4Ukraine scheme now face a difficult situation as that period comes to an end. And Ukrainians who need support and certainty face an uncertain future."

Mr Afolami has now written to SADC leader Cllr Chris White and the Refugees Minister Lord Richard Harrington to ask what support can be provided.

Christine Traill, strategic director for community and place at SADC said:  “The council is part of a county-wide partnership supporting Ukrainian guests in Hertfordshire through the Government’s Homes for Ukraine initiative which helps those fleeing the war. 

“We have 121 sponsor households in the district currently providing accommodation to 161 adults and 122 children – the highest number in the county. 

“While at present a Ukrainian guest applying to the council is not eligible to join the council’s Housing Register unless they meet the usual criteria, the council is able to consider whether special circumstances apply. Such special circumstances are considered alongside other eligibility criteria such as the level of savings someone has.

“The council’s team works very hard, in what is an extremely challenging housing environment, to provide advice and support to residents who need our help, and to relieve and prevent homelessness.

"Joining the Housing Register does not provide an instant solution to someone in housing crisis as social housing is in limited supply. If the council has reason to believe that an applicant is homeless, and is eligible and has a priority need, we will provide interim, temporary accommodation.”