Experts have told i that more safeguarding measures should be put in place to protect minors who are fleeing the war and that the Government’s guidance for who can sponsor a child is too lax.
However, others have welcomed the decision to expand the sponsorship scheme, arguing that applications should be decided on a case by case basis.
Until recently, children under 18 were not allowed to travel to the UK alone as part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme due to safety concerns.
However, this changed last month when the government said it would begin considering applications from minors, who had already applied for visas under the scheme.
And a new application process for eligible children is set to be launched next week.
New guidance released by the government states that in most circumstances unaccompanied minors should only be sponsored by someone who “personally knows the child’s parents or legal guardians”. Councils must also obtain notarised consent from the child’s legal guardian.
But experts in the field believe that unaccompanied children should be placed in specialist foster placements or with trained carers.
The Government strongly rejected the criticism and said it had developed this phase of the scheme with safeguarding as its first priority. It added that extensive security checks take place before any visa is granted.
In the early stages of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the Government was criticised for making too many checks and rejecting the applications of unaccompanied minors.
Refugee and asylum specialist Lou Calvey told i the government’s guidance is “incredibly sketchy in terms of the level of proof of establishing that pre-existing relationship”.
She also said “proving that someone knew a child prior to the war is not really an adequate safeguard against the level of exploitation and risk around unaccompanied children”.
“We know that there are serious concerns around the existing systems and mechanisms around unaccompanied minors. There’s a high level of exploitation. There’s a high number of children who go missing from the care system in the UK every single day and actually what we’re proposing here is a system with less safeguards and less support in place. That can’t be right,” she added.
Michelle Lee-Izu, Barnardo’s executive director of development and innovation, said the government had listened to concerns about the level of safeguarding built into the Homes for Ukraine scheme for unaccompanied children but said there was “much more” it could do “to ensure the vetting of hosts and their homes is properly funded and regulated, to ensure children are safe in their new homes”.
She urged the government “to revise its approach” and said Barnado’s recommended the use of specialist foster placements.
Kate Brown, chief executive of the charity Reset Communities and Refugees, which has received funding from the government to help facilitate matches under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, said the organisation has decided it will not match unaccompanied minors fleeing the war in Ukraine with UK sponsors.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but we believe that these young people need wraparound support to ensure they are safe and can thrive in the UK,” she said, adding that children should be placed with trained carers, such as fosterers.
But Jennifer Blair, an immigration lawyer who co founded the Ukraine Advice Project, said she was “positive” about the changes being made to the Homes for Ukraine scheme as she believes the government has done this in response to the applications it has been receiving from unaccompanied minors.
Ms Blair gave the example of a single father she had spoken to, who was fighting in the war in Ukraine, and wanted to send one of his children to the UK with an older family member and another one to live with family friends in the UK. Until now, neither of these children would have qualified for a visa under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
“Yes there are some safeguarding concerns and as applications are granted those will have to be dealt with, but the safeguarding concerns are so much worse if they’re refused and that’s the decision the Home Office needs to make,” Ms Blair said.
She agreed the government’s guidance is not “overly strict”, but said this is because “it’s important they take a proper, best interest approach to each individual case” and not refuse “when there’s really not much of a concern”.
Save the Children UK previously told i it supported the government taking a case-by-case approach to granting visas to unaccompanied minors arguing that it was important to balance the “competing dangers” of children remaining in Ukraine or other countries alone or bringing them to UK.
Cllr James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said the organisation supports plans to “to make it easier for children to seek sanctuary in the UK”, but warned that the scheme requires “already-overstretched councils and children’s social work teams to manage a significant level of risk to keep children safe”.
A Government spokesperson said: “We strongly reject these claims and have developed this scheme working closely with the Ukrainian Government and councils, with safeguarding our first priority.
“The guidelines clearly state that the sponsor should be personally known to the parent, and two different forms of parental consent are required as part of the applications process.
“Extensive security checks take place before any visa is granted, making sure sponsors are suitable to provide the required level of care for children, with councils able to veto any sponsor arrangements they deem unsuitable.”