Because vulnerable refugees are often targeted by criminal gangs and lured into slavery, The Clewer Initiative has done a lot of thinking about the best way to support refugees as they try to rebuild their lives.
Sadly the challenge of effectively caring for and protecting refugees is as old as time itself. It is a big theme in the Bible – God’s people were effectively refugees in the wilderness for 40 years; Ruth and Naomi were refugees in Bethlehem and many exiles were displaced following the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions. When the Old Testament law was written, God made provision for “strangers” or “sojourners” or “foreigners,” insisting that God’s people leave grain around the edge of their fields so that the poor and “foreigners” could pick it. Time and again, God commanded his people not to “mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself.” (Leviticus 19.33-34). Even at the very beginning of the Bible, God was calling his people to act radically and sacrificially to provide for the needs of refugees.
Since then, there have been numerous refugee crises. 40-60 million people were displaced during World War 2, 10-20 million during the Partition of India and 6.8 million during the Syrian refugee crisis (which is ongoing.) The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than ten million people have now fled their homes in Ukraine - four million have left for neighbouring countries and another 6.5 million people are thought to be displaced inside the war-torn country itself.
To date, the UK Home Office has issued 25,500 visas to Ukrainians, including 2,700 under the sponsorship scheme and 22,800 under the family scheme. These refugees will join the 15,000 Afghans who were evacuated to the UK last summer as well as others from all over the world who are already in the country. According to UNHCR statistics, as of mid-2021 there were 135,912 refugees in the UK.
Against this backdrop, what should churches and communities be doing?
- Inform refugees about the risk of modern slavery
Many Anti-Slavery organisations are working in border countries to raise awareness of the risks of trafficking and exploitation. They are trying to provide vital safety information in English, Ukrainian and Russian about how criminal gangs might lure refugees into slavery, signs to look out for and actions to take to protect themselves. We need to keep spreading this message, not just now at the moment of crisis, but ongoing, as Ukrainians settle into new countries and look for work.
The Clewer Initiative’s Farm Work Welfare App is a good example of what this might look like in practice. The app provides migrant workers with up-to-date information, in eight languages, about labour rights and what to do if they are being exploited.
Educating refugees on their rights will become even more crucial in six months’ time when the initial Homes for Ukraine sponsorship period ends. It is unclear what will happen at this point but the fear is that huge numbers of Ukrainians will find themselves homeless, without work and, in their desperation, even more at risk of exploitation.
It is important that refugees from Ukraine know they are allowed to work legally and after their first six months in sponsorship will have access to housing benefit. There is quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding the rights of the thousands of Ukrainians who were already in the UK before Russia invaded, including the 20,000 Ukrainians on seasonal worker visas. Providing clear information (such as this new leaflet from the GLAA in Ukrainian and English) and long-term, wraparound support to new refugees, previous arrivals and seasonal workers will be vital in protecting them from potential exploitation.
2. Train volunteers working closely with refugees
Criminal gangs will continue to be opportunistic and target the most vulnerable. The arrival of thousands of Ukrainian refugees in the UK will, sadly, provide huge potential for exploitation. As Ukrainians settle into our communities and potentially access support from church social action projects, we must prioritise safeguarding training. Food bank volunteers, people running drop in cafes or toddler groups, all need to know what modern slavery is, how vulnerable people get targeted, the warning signs to look out for and what to do with concerns. You could flag up the need for bespoke training with your Parish Safeguarding Officer or Diocesan Safeguarding Officer or get in touch with us. Again, this will become even more vital in six months’ time when the vulnerability of some refugees could increase if they are evicted by their UK sponsors.
There are many actions we can take to help refugees settle into our communities. Protecting them from slavery must be top of our agenda.
The Church of England has published a ‘toolkit’ of resources for parishes seeking to help refugees and evacuees from Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion of the country. War in Ukraine: responding | The Church of England The material brings together advice on how churches can welcome people arriving from Ukraine through giving, longer-term practical support such as community sponsorship, prayer and advocacy, as well as links to other sources of information.