Ukrainian refugees are being exploited through forced labour and “debt bondage” by the British hosts who offered them safety under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, a new report has found.
The British Red Cross’s Anti-Trafficking and Safeguarding teams said they had witnessed “debt bondage” and people “forced to work for a landlord for free in exchange for accommodation”.
In a new report seen exclusively by i, the organisation stressed that the cases were “small in number” but suggested further victims could come forward.
“We know through our experience in supporting survivors of trafficking that it can take years for people to seek support,” it said.
Around 115,000 Ukrainians have come to the UK under the Homes for Ukraine, which gave them three-year UK visas providing they could find a British sponsor who could offer accommodation for at least six months.
In some cases, hosts have paid for the travel or accommodation of Ukrainians coming the UK before demanding refugees earn their keep in return, such as through domestic labour or work in family businesses.
Other hosts have paid for families from Ukraine to travel to the UK with a promise of work, but on arrival, this employment has been found to exploitative labour on farms or in domestic settings, with children encouraged to work instead of going to school.
The Red Cross, which is the largest provider of refugee support in the UK, has also encountered hosts demanding labour to compensate for the increased cost of living, including utility bills and food costs, incurred by hosting them.
Homes for Ukraine hosts already receive a monthly payment of £350 from the Government, increasing to £500 if they continue hosting for one year.
The Government said it had always been clear that “an offer of a home for Ukrainians should never be conditional on work.”
The Red Cross stressed the vast majority of hosts had been extremely generous and that cases of exploitation appeared to be isolated incidents rather than organised networks. However, it urged the Government to tackle risk of exploitation of vulnerable Ukrainians arriving in the UK and monitor the problem.
“Risks of exploitation among people displaced from Ukraine in the UK should be monitored and urgently addressed,” the report wrote.
The organisation said that its response to such incidents is “always survivor-centred”. On receiving a report of exploitation, they discuss with the person their rights, entitlements, and safety with consideration to any imminent safeguarding risks and whether they would like to report this on to the authorities.
The Homes for Ukraine scheme enabled UK hosts to offer accommodation to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, but was criticised for its failure to offer a matching service, leaving Britons and Ukrainians pairing up on Facebook.
Hosts are subjected to criminal record checks and accommodation inspections before being allowed to welcome Ukrainians to reduce the risk of exploitation, and a Strategic Safeguarding Advisory Board has been set up to help ensure safeguarding in the Homes for Ukraine scheme long term.
Charity CARE, which works against modern slavery, has repeatedly expressed concerns that “red flags could be missed in the vetting of potential UK hosts” and that it provided a ripe opportunity for exploitation.
Rebecca Stevenson, CARE’s policy lead on human trafficking, described the report as “deeply troubling.”
“Trafficking charities are also acutely aware of threats these vulnerable people face from criminals involved in organised crime, and the sex trade,” she said.
“Whilst cases of abuse identified by charities are thankfully limited, they do highlight problems with the Homes for Ukraine scheme that CARE warned about last year. The scheme was undoubtedly well-motivated, but it has not been properly delivered in the longer term.”
Ms Stevenson called for an “urgent review of the scheme” and “clarity about where refugees who came to the UK are one year after the war began.”
“Authorities need to deliver regular follow-up checks to ensure Ukrainians aren’t being exploited and enable refugees to integrate into UK society,” she said. “Part of the problem appears to be a lack of communication between central government and local authorities who were delegated responsibility for placing refugees with British citizens and ensuring their long-term welfare. We need a clear, joined up strategy for the months ahead.”
Jamie Fookes, UK and Europe Advocacy Manager at Anti-Slavery, said that the UK Government “must take every step necessary to ensure that vulnerable Ukrainian men, women, and children who have travelled to our shores to find refuge do not find themselves forgotten about and exploited.”
He added: “We have continued to warn that the Homes for Ukraine scheme could be open to abuse and, without the proper safeguards in place, something like this kind of exploitation was inevitable. It is simply not good enough for this government to rely on individual people’s generosity and kindness of spirit to prevent abuse.
“Everyone deserves to live in safety and to choose their employment, free from exploitation and slavery. We know that people fleeing conflict can be more vulnerable to exploitation, which is why governments – and businesses – must make sure there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent abuse. We hope the government will take seriously its responsibility to protect people fleeing conflict.”
The Government appeared to confirm that a small number of cases of modern slavery had been found among Homes for Ukraine arrivals, but said that they were taking steps to stamp out exploitation whenever it was uncovered.
A Government spokesperson said: “The Government remains committed to tackling modern slavery in all its forms and we continue to work with police, councils, charities and other safeguarding professionals”.
“Very few cases of suspected modern slavery had been confirmed and sponsor vetting arrivals significantly mitigated risk. We continue to work with partners to ensure swift action is taken where exploitation is suspected.”
The Government’s modern slavery helpline is available on 08000 121 700 for anyone who feels they are being exploited.