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September 21, 2022

Why are so many ‘Homes for Ukraine’ refugees living in England’s small villages?

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government’s unusual visa sponsorship scheme has seen Ukrainian refugees disproportionately moving to rural areas, creating communities and networks in England’s villages and small towns.

By katharine swindells

It’s been over six months since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and millions of Ukrainian refugees have fled their homes, seeking safety in other countries. In March 2022, the UK government launched Homes for Ukraine, an unusual refugee scheme for the UK that allows prospective hosts to sponsor a visa for individual refugees and take them into their homes, granting them the right to work and access to benefits.

Ukraine refugees
Tanya Chenery looks out of the window of a static caravan which she has offered to house Ukrainian refugees in Diss, eastern England. (Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)

“Hosting has never been part of government policy, more or less since the Kindertransport in 1938/9,” says Sara Nathan, co-founder of charity Refugees at Home. “That was much smaller, only 10,000 children, and in that case, no funding was provided by the government.

“Homes for Ukraine marks a real change in policy from warehousing people in hotels or just ignoring the need of desperate people fleeing war – which still happens for refugees fleeing other conflicts.”

When the scheme was first announced, 100,000 hosts registered interest within the first day, though a much smaller number have actually become hosts, as the scheme requires them to find refugees themselves in order to be able to complete the application. As of 6 September 2022, 66,825 Ukrainians have arrived in England under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

What’s notable is that Ukrainian refugees who have arrived through the scheme are disproportionately living in villages and small towns, rather than urban centres.

In Youlgrave, a village in the Derbyshire Dales with a population estimated around 1,000 people, has 21 Ukrainians living with eight sponsors, explains local Kate Fairchild, who is hosting a woman and her young daughter. At the local primary school, which usually has 70 children, there are now six Ukrainians.

In fact, among the ten local authorities that are hosting the most Ukrainians per capita, the top nine have a population density of fewer than 350 people per square kilometre. Only number ten on the list, Kensington and Chelsea, has a higher population density of 11,800 people per square kilometre according to the 2021 census.

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Derbyshire Dales, the local authority that includes Youlgrave, tops the list for refugees sponsored per capita. Across the whole of England, the average local authority has taken 1.2 Ukrainians per 1,000 residents, whereas Derbyshire Dales has housed 302 Ukrainians through the sponsorship scheme – equivalent to over four refugees per 1,000 usual residents.

In fact, Derbyshire Dales has taken around the same number of Ukrainians as Manchester or Bradford, despite those local authorities having populations of over 0.5 million.

Villages are hosting more Ukrainian refugees through community ties

Because hosts were required to connect with refugees themselves to arrange sponsorship, as Fairchild explains, a community would develop from one successful family.

“In Youlgrave the first family to arrive was a mum, dad and toddler, then the grandmother came over and she lives down the road from them with a different sponsor,” she says. “Her friend then came to Youlgrave, and since then more of her friends have come to Derbyshire. One thing I was really keen on was getting family and friend groups together as I thought a village environment would be perfect for that.”

[Read more: Census 2021: What are the UK’s fastest-growing cities?]

This aspect is crucial to the successful placement of the refugees, explains Alice Good, founder of the now 30,000-strong Sunflower Sisters Facebook group, which matches Ukrainian women and children with safe hosts. Strong host collectives allow people to share practical information on Universal Credit and school registration as well as personal support, Good says, and crucially it creates a support system for Ukrainians themselves.

“Right from the start, my golden rule was that we don’t place people randomly – we make sure they have a network,” Good says. “Where there aren’t these network communities, especially in the rural areas, guests have felt isolated and haven’t settled as well. Where there's a defined community network, we have found there's been a lot less breakdowns and issues.”

Of the 66,825 Ukrainians in England under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, almost half are in the country's most sparsely populated areas. The least densely populated two-fifths of local authorities – each with fewer than 460 people per square kilometre – contain around a third of the country's typical population, whereas they host 47% of sponsored Ukrainians.

Urban areas lack the spare rooms to host Ukrainian refugees

Perhaps surprisingly, local authorities show no strong correlation between the numbers of Ukrainians sponsored under the Homes for Ukraine scheme and the size of the pre-crisis Ukrainian population in that area. Of course, areas like Hounslow, Ealing and Newham, which have large existing Ukrainian and Polish populations, did bring over refugees on the Family visa scheme (though the exact numbers aren’t public), but there isn’t a suggestion that these communities were able to push non-Ukrainian residents to open up their homes.

The main reason for this is clear: these areas with large Ukrainian and eastern European populations also tend to be urban areas, where people have smaller homes and are less likely to have spare bedrooms. Using data from the 2011 census, we can map local authorities by the percentage of homes that have five bedrooms, showing a clear pattern with the number of Ukrainians hosted per capita.

Areas like Stoke-on-Trent and Barnesley, where less than 2% of houses have five or more bedrooms, have taken in among the lowest numbers of Ukrainians. In comparison, Waverley has taken in 3.6 Ukrainians for every 1,000 of the usual population, and almost 10% are five-bedroom homes.

On average across England, the 2011 Census found that 4.6% of homes have five or more bedrooms, with Derbyshire Dales and South Cambridgeshire both far above this average.

How are Ukraine's refugees faring in British villages?

Despite the shift, the fact remains that there are legitimate reasons for refugees to have been hosted more often in cities in the past, as opposed to sparser areas now. Though a village community can be strong and supportive, it can also be isolating and more difficult for charities and government agencies to monitor. Fairchild says the Ukrainians in Youlgrave have come up against practical challenges, such as finding local jobs and travelling to English lessons or job centre appointments in the nearby towns and cities.

“The free bus passes didn’t arrive until three months after the first families got here,” Fairchild says. “To get to the nearest town, which is an eight-minute drive, is £6 return on the bus, so they haven't been going anywhere. So it's meant that all the hosts have been driving everybody around, and no one's had their freedom.”

However, some rural and village communities have benefitted from the coordination and support of a city centre with a strong Ukrainian community, such as South Cambridgeshire.

Anatolii Pavlovskyi, a Ukrainian who has lived and worked in Cambridge for almost a decade, says that when the war first began, he was involved in events and protests with the University of Cambridge Ukrainian Society. As the war continued and the refugee sponsorship scheme began, they became a more official organisation, working to recruit hosts and connect them with Ukrainian refugees.

Pavlovskyi says they asked detailed questions of hosts to try and find them the best possible matches, and then volunteers assisted with the application process and translations, even feeding back to the Home Office to try and make the process easier.

“We tried to arrange video calls with the host and family in advance so they could see each other and speak, and we would help with translation, so both sides would be comfortable when they came here,” Pavlovskyi adds. “We wanted to prevent as many problems as possible.”

But now, as we approach the six-month marker of the scheme’s start, a new challenge approaches: hosts only committed to a six-month stint, and while some may be happy to continue, many won’t.

“Many hosts saw six months as an endpoint, not a waymarker, and it seems likely there will be a lot of Ukrainians whose hosts feel they have done enough but who have neither the resources nor skills to provide for themselves,” says Nathan of Refugees at Home. “The government hasn't said what is going to happen then and there could be considerable pressure and strain on local authorities and charities.”

Pavlovskyi says that, in Cambridge, many Ukrainians have found jobs in the city, settled into the area and their children into local schools, and now are struggling with Cambridge’s already brutal rental market. Pavlovskyi says many reported experiencing discrimination from landlords when they apply for properties and are getting desperate.

“They don't want to move to another village and stress out the kids again, and struggle with commuting to Cambridge when they’ve already found jobs,” Pavlovskyi says.  “And we are still getting requests from Ukraine for more people to come, but we have run out of hosts.”

But Fairchild argues there are still hosts out there, it’s just that the government needs to be doing more to reach out to people who have registered interest and explain the system.

“The other week when I came across these three households who had filled out the government form and were just sitting there waiting for some Ukrainians to magically arrive, because that’s what the government first made it sound like,” Fairchild says. “Especially older people who have spare bedrooms and want to help, but aren’t really on social media – how are they supposed to know?

“People are starting to come to the end of their six months and having to move on, and I know there are hosts out there that can help them. But the government doesn’t have a plan.”

[Read more: Tower Hamlets has the worst child poverty rates in the UK]

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