This is how many Ukrainian refugees have found homes in Preston, Chorley and South Ribble - and why there is a call for more to be made welcome

A member of Preston’s Polish community is calling for more people in the city to open their homes - and hearts - to help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Friday, 13th May 2022, 8:04 am
Updated Friday, 13th May 2022, 6:18 pm

Magdalena Matuszewska recently visited the border between her birth country and its stoic but savaged neighbour - and said that many of those she met who had fled the Russian invasion would like to seek sanctuary in the UK until it is safe for them to return.

However, while several other European countries were providing advice and guidance about their own resettlement schemes for refugees as they entered Poland, she said there was little sign of an official British presence.

Taking part of a humanitarian mission drawn from across the UK, Magdalena was offering translation services and support for Ukrainians whose lives have been upended by the horror that has been unleashed on their country.

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Could Preston, South Ribble and Chorley help more people who have escaped war-torn Ukraine?

As an Eastern European who made her home in Preston 12 years ago, she was also able to give Ukrainian refugees an insight into British culture and what it is like to live here.

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The volunteer Brits set up an advice desk to provide details of the UK’s Homes For Ukraine programme, under which anyone with a spare room or self-contained accommodation can welcome one or more Ukrainian refugees into their household - provided they can commit to housing them for at least six months. Hosts receive £350 per month for up to a year, irrespective of how many people they accommodate.

Figures obtained by the Lancashire Post show that, after a relatively slow start, 43 Preston residents have now been confirmed as sponsors, offering a space to a total of 81 refugees. So far, 33 have actually arrived.

Magdalena Matuszewska says Ukrainian refugees fleeing to the UK would be an asset to places like Preston

In South Ribble, 35 sponsors are set to welcome 51 guests - the same number that will be housed by 36 volunteers in Chorley. Thirty-seven Ukrainian refugees have already arrived in Chorley, but only 16 have so far settled in South Ribble.

Across the Lancashire County Council area, 423 sponsors have been confirmed and matched up with just over 800 refugees - 280 of whom are already here.

While Magdalena recognises that inviting a stranger into your home is not a decision people will take lightly, she would nevertheless like to see the enthusiasm for the scheme amongst Ukrainians matched by residents in her adopted city.

“It would be good to promote the scheme a bit more in Preston, as there don't seem [to be] that many people interested in it.

Cllr David Borrow says that Ukrainians being supported in the UK will need places they can call home for however long they are here

“And Ukrainians are willing to work - so that would be something good for the city as well.

“I spoke to a guy who was 63 and an experienced decorator. He asked me if he was too old to work in the UK, which I thought was really shocking. I said to him: ‘Of course not - you’ll be fine.’

“He even speaks English, but ended up going to Germany to wait for a visa to come to the UK,” Magdalena added.

She said she had encountered several people who were planning to travel to other European countries as a staging post to coming to the UK. Britain was initially criticised for the speed at which refugees were being admitted - and for insisting on visa checks for those fleeing the Russian invasion.

Cllr Neil Darby says that the situation in Ukraine has worrying echos of the past

Nationwide, as of 5th May, visas had been issued to just over 59,000 Ukrainians who had found a sponsor - and 19,500 of them had arrived.

Under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, prospective sponsors have to identify a refugee before applying to bring them to the UK. There are various charities and informal social media groups which are attempting to match refugees with sponsors.

Magdalena has created a Facebook group - UK Supporting Ukrainian Refugees - designed to facilitate initial contact between Ukrainians in need and Britons with space in their homes, in order to give both parties the chance to chat before making a firm commitment.

“If they want to see and speak to each other [online], I can help - and then they can see if they are okay with each other on both sides.

“Some Ukrainians can speak Polish or we can sometimes [at least] understand each other [in our respective languages],” explained Magdalena.

She is inviting residents from across Central Lancashire who might be interested in hosting a Ukrainian refugee to get in touch with her via her Facebook group.

Magdalena made the trip to the Polish/Ukrainian border with her partner and 15-year-old son, for whom she said the experience was “a good lesson”.

“We met a British guy who was helping in Kyiv [when the city was still under attack by the Russian army]. He was helping move some humanitarian aid and he had been to Bucha and seen bodies in the street and all the damage the Russians had done.

“He is a hero - and there were others from Canada and Australia [who] have been in Ukraine helping every day since the war started.

“We [ended up] on a train with a woman of about 35, who had her 18-month old daughter with her and her son, who was 14. She had just one suitcase of luggage and was very tired and had been travelling for hours.

“It touched us, because we remember what our grandparents suffered in the Second World War. How the Russians are treating people in Ukraine [today] is similar to what they did [to] the Polish back then.”

‘SPONSOR SCHEME IS NOT A PERMANENT SOLUTION’, PRESTON COUNCILLOR SAYS

A former South Ribble MP says that Ukrainian refugees fleeing to the UK will ultimately need homes of their own - not just space in other people’s houses.

David Borrow, who is now the cabinet member for planning and regulation on Preston City Council, said that relying on the generosity of people who have volunteered for the Homes For Ukraine scheme was not “a long-term solution”.

He told a recent meeting of the authority that the UK should consider how it could replicate the support it provided for Kosovan refugees who were welcomed into the country in the late 1990s during the war in their homeland.

Back then, he said, those who had arrived here in search of safety were put up in properties which were given over for that purpose - including around 30 houses in Leyland which were offered by a social housing provider.

“The concern I have got about what we have put in place [for] Ukrainian refugees [is that] it all seems to be about welcoming people into our homes [and] looking after them within our families.

“I can't see how that is a solution for more than a few months. I think there are real risks around people staying with strangers, however good natured …for more than a very short time.

“And I'm not sure that we - either in Westminster or local government - have yet come to recognise the scale of what we are going to need to do to provide refuge for large numbers of people fleeing Ukraine until they are able to go back again.

“I pray that they will be able to go back again in less than two years - but it could be a lot longer,” Cllr Borrow said.

Liberal Democrat group leader John Potter told the meeting that the average time for which refugees are displaced globally is 20 years and said that a “co-ordinated response” was needed in the event that Preston had to support significant numbers of Ukrainian people for decades rather than months.

Councillors were debating the issue as they considered a notice of motion put forward by deputy mayor Neil Darby, which saw the authority agree to write to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to call on the government to do more to “help accept all Ukrainians fleeing the war to enter the UK, including [by] making the application process simpler, quicker and more efficient”.

However, cabinet member for health and wellbeing Jenny Mein warned that such a demand could not afford to disregard the need to protect the safety of those seeking sanctuary.

“I wouldn't like us to be taking any shortcuts when it comes to safeguarding and ensuring [the suitability of] the people who are offering homes to these refugees - many of them unaccompanied women with young children.

“[We need to be] certain that they are going to be safe in the host homes. I think that’s something that not many people have talked about - and I think it's something that needs to be brought to the surface,” Cllr Mein told the meeting, which took place late last month.

Since then, it has emerged that the government has had to find alternative accommodation for around 600 Ukrainian refugees at short notice after their hosts were deemed unsuitable.

The Observer reported last week that some of the sponsors who had put themselves forward had a criminal record. The government told the paper that no visas are issued until the Home Office has completed background checks on every adult in a sponsor household.

All households will be visited by a council representative to ensure the accommodation is fit for purpose, while local authorities will also facilitate basic Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks – or enhanced checks if under-18s are going to be staying in a sponsor household. Unaccompanied under-18s cannot be housed by sponsors who are unrelated to them.

The Lancashire Refugee Integration Team is also in regular contact with Lancashire Police and the pan-Lancashire Anti-Slavery Partnerships, to ensure safeguarding is maintained.

The city council notice of motion - which won cross-party support after an amendment from the ruling Labour group, which laid out what Preston was already doing to help Ukrainian refugees - also committed the authority to write to the local government secretary Michael Gove to request “whatever assistance may be necessary” to help authorities like Preston support people arriving in their areas.

Council leader Matthew Brown said that such support could not be provided “on the cheap”.

“We do want to open our arms and take everyone who is suffering persecution, but we need the resources from government - [for] schools, hospitals and housing - to actually do that. We’re not getting that - that is a huge problem.

“Families from distressed communities…are going to need all kinds of support [due to] what they have been through - including psychological support,” Cllr Brown added.

The government gives local authorities £10,500 for each Ukrainian refugee who settles in their area which, it says, “enable them to provide support to families to rebuild their lives and fully integrate into communities”.

Conservative opposition group leader Sue Whittam said that Preston had always been a “welcoming and inclusive” city - and that the political groups would continue to work cross-party to ensure that it remained so.

“Nobody in this chamber could [fail] to be touched by what is happening in Ukraine - it’s absolutely terrible,” Cllr Whittam added.

Cabinet member for communities and social justice Nweeda Khan said that 300 refugees and asylum seekers from right around the world currently had a home in Preston.

“In partnership with Preston City of Sanctuary, we have built a network of volunteers, professionals, statutory and voluntary and faith organisations.

“We are committed to supporting the new citizens and our multicultural communities with a two-way integration process,” Cllr Khan said.

Seconded staff from the county council's family wellbeing service are providing initial welfare checks to every family arriving from Ukraine, while commissioned casework staff are providing welfare checks for single adults.

Sponsors and their guests are provided with Lancashire-specific handbooks and the county council's integration team is hosting webinars about how to deal with trauma, registering for benefits and getting English language assistance.

County Hall is also working with district authorities and community groups to provide integration activities for Ukrainians who have travelled to Lancashire.

A WARNING FROM HISTORY?

The deputy mayor of Preston, Neil Darby, said that anybody who had studied the inter-war years would find current world events “very disturbing and familiar”.

“Economic depression, pandemic, a rise in extremist politics and nationalism - and now we have a powerful European nation, led by a cult of personality, invading its neighbour, having already annexed territories. This..feels uncomfortably familiar and we hope that it's not a historic refrain.

“[Preston does] not have the power to decide what aid should be given to Ukraine, we do not have the power to impose sanctions, we don't have the power to send weapons.

“What we do have the power to do is our part as the city of Preston to help the people of Ukraine - the ordinary and extraordinary citizens of that proud and independent country, who find themselves caught up in the vicious destruction unleashed by Putin onto their homes.

“People who [until recently] were living their lives like us - going to work, taking the kids to school, enjoying a night out [and] participating in democratic elections,” Cllr Darby said.

The notice of motion he brought before the council expressed Preston’s “friendship and solidarity” with one of its twin cities, Kamianets-Podilskyi in Poland.A Preston mayoral appeal back in March raised over £3,000 to support its twin with the work it is doing to help Ukrainian refugees passing through en route to Romania and Moldova.

LANCASHIRE SPONSORSHIP STATISTICS

As of 11th May, this is how many sponsors have been matched with a refugee in each Lancashire council area, how many refugees they can accommodate in total and how many Ukrainian people have so far arrived:

Blackburn with Darwen - 47 sponsors, 102 refugees - 18 arrived

Blackpool - 31 sponsors, 70 refugees - 39 arrived

Burnley - 22 sponsors, 43 refugees (19 under-18s) - 5 arrived

Chorley - 36 sponsors, 51 refugees (13 under-18s) - 37 arrived

Fylde - 47 sponsors, 123 refugees (58 under-18s) - 37 arrived

Hyndburn - 18 sponsors, 30 refugees (7 under-18s) - 5 arrived

Lancaster - 72 sponsors, 134 refugees (48 under-18s) - 62 arrived

Pendle - 24 sponsors, 51 refugees (15 under-18s) - 13 arrived

Preston - 43 sponsors, 81 refugees (17 under-18s) - 33 arrived

Ribble Valley - 34 sponsors, 65 refugees (27 under-18s) - 19 arrived

Rossendale - 24 sponsors, 39 refugees (11 under-18s) - 6 arrived

South Ribble - 35 sponsors, 51 refugees (15 under-18s) - 16 arrived

West Lancashire - 38 sponsors, 86 refugees (32 under-18s) - 27 arrived

Wyre - 30 sponsors, 50 refugees (18 under-18s) - 20 arrived

Sources: Lancashire County Council, Blackpool Council, Blackburn with Darwen Council

WANT TO HELP?

Lancashire County Council has an advice page for people interested in finding out more about the Homes For Ukraine scheme, which can be accessed here.

The following organisations can also help: