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When I wrote my first blog on Ukraine in February, the Russian army surrounded Kyiv. The fall of the Ukrainian government and a hostile takeover by an ostensibly more powerful neighbour seemed inevitable. 90 days later, we see a different picture.
Instead of being imprisoned, the LGBTQ+ community took up arms, journalists play a crucial role in reporting war crimes, and civil society leaders have mobilised action inside Ukraine and harnessed their global connections to raise money, awareness, and political support.
But two related things did happen as we anticipated. Firstly, the public responded with incredible generosity, with record-breaking donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee and tens of thousands of people volunteered to host those fleeing Ukraine. Which, tragically, was our second prediction. In three months, over 13 million people have been displaced, with 6.2 million leaving the country.
If the role of civil society in February was primarily to support actions within Ukraine, the responsibility of charities and voluntary organisations is undoubtedly more complex as people arrive in the UK.
In March, the government launched the Homes for Ukraine scheme which provides an unprecedented package of support. Though the scheme initially relied on individual sponsors to find Ukrainian nationals to host, charities can now become matching organisations to facilitate the process. Government guidance provides full information for voluntary and community organisations. In addition, those with family in the UK can apply through a separate scheme.
Charities have a vital role to play, particularly supporting those most vulnerable and from marginalised communities. The requirements are minimal, but the responsibilities will be great. Though some organisations have received government funding, there is currently no widespread financial assistance for charities that support the matching process.
Currently, supply outweighs demand. Though 100,000 visas have been issued, less than half have arrived in the UK, and there are twice as many willing sponsors.
Alongside charities and national infrastructure bodies, we have worked closely with government departments, advising on guidance, amplifying the stories we hear, highlighting campaigns to support Afghans, and sharing concerns directly with ministers and officials. This builds on lessons from previous emergencies, but robust data gathering and feedback mechanisms will be required now the schemes are fully operational.
Charities, businesses, and community groups will need to mobilise at the local level to provide a range of support, advice, and guidance to Ukrainian nationals and host families. Many are doing so with speed, skill, and care.
There will be immediate needs to service, but longer-term questions to resolve on housing, employment, education, and access to medical treatment. In the same way communities self-organised mutual aid through lockdowns, local level coordination may be informal, based on existing networks, and relationships.
We encourage charities, informal groups, and local authorities to work collaboratively, strengthening the work of each other and channelling the willingness to help effectively.
Those arriving will have experienced – and will only be at the start of processing – enormous physical, emotional, and psychological trauma. Hosts cannot be expected to assist. Charities, alongside the state, will need to step in. We are already seeing breakdowns of matches, mostly due to unsuitable hosts having been approved. However, it’s surely plausible that we will start seeing breakdowns resulting from the immense strain placed on unprepared households overnight.
This will overlap with civil society contributions to future war crime tribunals. The UK government is sending experts to gather evidence in Ukraine, but as more people arrive in the UK, their stories may form an important part of any future case against the Russian state. Through documentation and collation of evidence, civil society organisations have long played important roles in international criminal proceedings.
In my last blog, I said: “While threats aren’t prophecies, we can’t take for granted that they’re empty.” Atrocities and war crimes have been committed. While it is true that the very worst has not happened, this war isn’t over. We’re not at the end, but we’re not where we feared.
And let’s be clear: this wasn’t a given. It results from the choices we made as citizens – to encourage our governments to do more, to take the streets, to donate to organisations on the frontline, to keep media attention on Ukraine, and to provide vital medical and humanitarian support.
Who knows what this blog would be saying if we hadn’t. Our collective outrage and will to act must be taken forward to ensure future humanitarian crises and horrors are matched with the same level of response.