Stormont’s inertia over Ukraine refugees ‘puts them at risk of exploitation and abuse’

The Housing Executive is looking at setting up a single regional welcome centre for those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

owever, Belfast SDLP councillor Donal Lyons has said unless the Executive Office coordinates an approach that’s fit for purpose, the generosity of people here will go to waste.

Work is ongoing to plan for local responses to the Ukrainian refugee scheme, which opened on March 14.

Homes for Ukraine allows individuals, charities, community groups and businesses to offer accommodation to refugees.

There had been more than 6,000 expressions of interest here just days after its launch, according to Secretary of State Brandon Lewis.

However, the Home Office said figures broken down by UK region are not available.

Another phase of the scheme opened on March 18, which allows UK sponsors to nominate a named Ukrainian or a named Ukrainian family to stay with them in their home or in a separate property.

The Executive Office is engaging with local councils and the voluntary and community sectors to “find creative ways of bringing suitable accommodation into use and identifying all available capacity”.

It, the Department for Communities, councils and others are to have ‘co-design meetings’ shortly to work on the refugee response.

Belfast City Council is also represented on a strategic planning group chaired by the Executive Office that is looking at the issue.

A Belfast City Council briefing paper reads: “The original ambition was to stand welcome centres in each council up by end of March 2022 and evolve thereafter. A recent readout from the strategic planning group indicates that the NIHE is now considering a single regional Welcome Centre.

“BCC has established an internal working group and will continue to work with partner organisations as the operating model and role of local government emerges.

“BCC has requested an ongoing readout of numbers and locations from the on-line sponsor and refugee registration system, which should identify the locations of sponsors where refugees will be based and provide an indication of scale.”

But Mr Lyons said: “The contrast between the outpouring of charitable support from people and the inertia of the Executive is stark.”

He added the different council system here compared to England, where local authorities are responsible for housing and education, meant “it was never going to be an easy fit”.

“The Scottish and Welsh Governments were in a similar situation and got around this quickly by declaring themselves ‘super sponsors’ and coordinating aspects like safeguarding and administration,” he explained.

“The most recent arrivals under that approach were 52 orphans from Dnipro who landed in Edinburgh this morning. The Scottish Government had the political will to play their part, they moved quickly and people are now being given a safe refuge from war. Of course we don’t currently have a First Minister, so it’s been left to others to find solutions.

“I’ve been pushing the council to work with other agencies… to borrow what they can from the super sponsor approach, but the Executive Office can’t just shirk its responsibilities.

“Without a clear Northern Ireland-focused scheme, speedily pairing those in need with those offering help… the risks of exploitation and abuse are all too real.”

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