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UK’s Homes for Ukraine scheme risks operating as ‘Tinder for sex traffickers’, say charities

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Michael Gove’s Homes for Ukraine scheme risks operating as “Tinder for sex traffickers,” experts say. The warning comes as evidence emerges that UK-based criminals are targeting women and children fleeing war.

A letter from 16 refugee and anti-trafficking organizations to Communities Secretary Gove warns that the scheme in its current form is potentially dangerous for refugees who have fled Ukraine.

He says the initiative, which allows potential hosts to match Ukrainians seeking refuge in the UK, effectively mimics dating app Tinder’s signature “swipe left, swipe right” approach to reject or select. a couple, and has insufficient collateral.

Initial evidence from the letter’s signatories, which includes Refugee Action, Refugee Council and the Helen Bamber Foundation, said traffickers had already made apparent attempts to target Ukrainian women and children, as well as slum owners.

Louise Calvey, director of protection for the charity Refugee Action, said she knew one UK resident wanted to offer accommodation only to an orphan, while another had asked to house a single Ukrainian woman because she wanted help with childcare. . Launched just over a week ago, Gove’s scheme sparked a huge response, with around 150,000 offers of support.

However, the Department for Levelling, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has not said how many people have come to the UK under the scheme, saying it will “set out full details of the [number of] visas granted” this week.

Ukrainian refugees at the Przemysl railway station, southeastern Poland. Photographer Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

Some families who have applied to be godparents have complained that the system is too complicated. Calvey said: “We are concerned that the problems with the scheme mean that it risks being a Tinder for sex traffickers. We are already aware of people with illegal motives who are advertising on social media.”

Enver Solomon, executive director of the Refugee Council, said: “We have had concerns from people in the Ukrainian community about dubious Facebook pages and other websites offering a matching service that looks like it might be run by people with an ulterior motive like trafficking, exploitation or unscrupulous landowners.”

The letter, sent to Gove on Saturday, says: “By taking a hands-off approach to matching, there is a high risk that traffickers, criminals and unscrupulous landlords will set up matching sites and Facebook pages to prey on the vulnerable.” .

Calvey also called for police to be brought in to regulate the scheme and target individuals and organized crime gangs looking to prey on Ukrainian refugees.

The National Crime Agency (NCA), which investigates trafficking, confirmed that the government had not asked it to regulate the scheme. Although Gove initially said hosts would undergo “very light touch” criminal background checks, in fact, all will be required to have undergone Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks. Yegor Lanovenko, who runs an organization called Opora, which has put together a database for Ukrainians to see sponsors and logged 400,000 profile views in a week, said the criminals had also targeted UK residents who wanted to offer a home to Ukrainians.

“Everyone went on Facebook and posted their passports, houses, addresses with the obvious risks that creates and we’ve seen a lot of people say, ‘I just posted on Facebook, now I’ve been scammed five times.’ Who thought this was going to be a good idea?” Lanovenko added.

Reports from Poland already indicate that refugee women and children who have just fled Ukraine are being targeted by pimps and sex traffickers operating alone and in gangs, according to charities working on the border.

The letter from the 16 organizations “with substantive experience leading resettlement programs, delivering reception schemes, supporting refugees and fighting trafficking” also warns that the scheme is piling up a housing crisis for the fall: “We are concerned that this scheme, as currently structured, bakes into a refugee housing and support crisis by the fall. Since the hosts only have the duty to house the refugees for six months, the local authorities will have a heavy burden to pick up the pieces if new housing is required.”

The organisations, which also include the No Accommodation Network and Ecpat UK, say 11,000 Afghans are stranded in hotels months after the fall of Kabul.

A spokesman for the Department of Leveling, Housing and Communities said: “The Ministry of Internal Affairs does not issue any visa until checks of the Ukrainian applicant, as well as all adults in the sponsor’s household, have been completed. Local authorities will then conduct DBS checks on sponsors, with DBS enhanced with prohibited list checks for those families hosting children or vulnerable adults.

“Under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, Ukrainians will be guaranteed free access to NHS healthcare, including mental health care. They will also be able to work and receive benefits. The Government has also ensured that local authorities have adequate levels of funding to support new arrivals.”

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