A CHARITY has called for urgent changes to the Homes for Ukraine program to avoid future backup failures.
Campaigners from social policy charity CARE have urged the UK government to address issues with the scheme, after reports of serious safeguard failures.
The flagship scheme, announced in the first half of March, allows Britons to help refugees by hosting them in their homes, with financial support from the state.
However, there have been alarming reports of Ukrainian refugees being targeted by predatory men and left homeless after relations with their hosts soured.
Trafficking charities have also warned of an increased risk of exploitation, given the limited nature of controls in place after a refugee is settled in the UK.
Government guidelines for advice in England provide advice on safeguarding, but lack detail on ensuring longer-term well-being.
The Scottish and Welsh governments have forged a slightly different approach, with the Scottish framework being stricter in some respects than England.
CARE sounded the alarm over a threat of human trafficking in the early days after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Since then, he has been monitoring the implementation of the Homes for Ukraine program, fearing that the “well-intentioned but hasty” policy could run into problems.
Lauren Agnew, a trafficking policy expert at the charity, said problems with the scheme had become “increasingly apparent”.
“The Homes for Ukraine idea is undeniably laudable, but as the weeks went on the problems became more and more apparent,” Ms Agnew said.
“We have warned that people with malicious intent will use the scheme to exploit women and children.
“Reports of men proposing Ukrainian women, both online and after they have been placed, confirm our fears.
“We also remain concerned that criminal networks involved in trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation will view the influx of vulnerable and displaced people as an opportunity to recruit new people to exploit.
“Refugees who have been left homeless will be particularly vulnerable to gangs who offer them housing before forcing them into modern slavery, whether it be agricultural work, domestic servitude, county work or of the sex trade.”
In April, The Times highlighted rifts in relationships between sponsors and refugees, including cases of women being proposed by single men.
A whistleblower with knowledge of the scheme told the BBC in some local authorities that up to 30% of potential sponsors are single men over the age of 40.
The majority of these men offer to host single women in their 20s and 30s, although the government says it does not recognize these numbers.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, called for more “adequate protection and control measures” and suggested that women should not be placed with single men.
Ms Agnew added: “The government must improve checks on potential hosts and ensure that women and children are not put at risk.
“Experts have questioned the wisdom of placing women with single male hosts given reports of predatory behavior.
“Mistakes have been made and cannot be reversed.
“The most important thing the government can do now is to ensure that more mistakes are not made in the future.
“We cannot allow double injustice to fail those we have pledged to help.”
Ms Agnew also called for a ‘joint approach’ to protection between councils in England, to ensure the best outcomes for refugees.
She said: “It is essential that authorities across the country have a joint approach to safeguarding.
“It means a universal standard of screening of hosts and their guests, by those who know how to spot problems, including subtle signs of exploitation.
“The fact that Ukrainians in the UK are left homeless shows that not all local authorities are prepared for this program.
“It is the responsibility of central government to ensure best practice at all levels, to ensure that unacceptable failures do not occur.
“An agreed standard on the nature and frequency of checks should be applied across England and reflected in Scotland, Wales and NI.
CARE is calling for several changes to address the issues, including a review of the policy of placing refugee women with single male hosts and a crackdown on unofficial “matching” groups on social media.
There are also calls for a crackdown on unofficial social media “matchmaking” groups and a mandatory number of follow-up visits by each local authority.