LONDON — More than 100,000 Britons have signed up to host Ukrainian refugees in their homes in less than 24 hours, signaling a huge willingness by the British public to go further than the United Kingdom has done so far on providing support for refugees.
Richard Shakespeare, 62, a retired detective, and his wife, Wendy, 52, are empty-nesters who have signed up to offer a room in their three-bedroom house near Norwich, a city in the east of England.
“We felt that this was something positive and real, and we could see the end result. We want to help a family in a terrible situation,” Shakespeare said. He added that he was “slightly exasperated” by Britain’s response on refugees so far but added, “The British public are stepping up to the plate and offering help in numbers.”
The rush to take in Ukrainian refugees comes amid fierce criticism from opposition lawmakers and charities — and three-quarters of the public — who say that Britain isn’t doing enough. As of Monday, only 4,000 visas had been processed. Poland, meanwhile, has accepted more than 1.6 million refugees.
Unlike other European countries, Britain has not waived visa restrictions for Ukrainians fleeing war. Until this week, only those with family ties to Britain could apply for a visa, a process that has been plagued by delays and red tape. Applicants have reported technical struggles with the online applications and that some advice hotlines are charging nearly a dollar a minute.
On Monday, the British government launched a refugee pathway for those who have no family ties to the country. The government says that the first sponsored Ukrainian refugees are expected to arrive next week.
Under the new program, the British government will pay volunteers about $450 a month to house a refugee. Hosts, who must be vetted, are required to offer accommodation for at least six months. Ukrainians who arrive in the country under the program will be granted a three-year visa, allowing them to work and access benefits and public services.
Participating hosts are not matched with a refugee — they must nominate a Ukrainian family by name, prompting critics to say that this is an unnecessary roadblock.
“It cannot be right that people who are fleeing Russian aggression have to advertise themselves on social media in the hope that a British family will notice,” said Lisa Nandy, the opposition Labour Party’s point person for housing.
James Cleverly, a Foreign Office minister, defended the approach, telling the BBC that it was more efficient. “There are a huge number of people and organizations that have already got connections with Ukrainians. Rather than replicate, duplicate and slow that down, we want to be as agile and as quick as possible.”
Anthony Flaton, 69, who lives about 40 miles out of London, has signed up to offer his spare room. “I’ve had every emotions someone could have. Throwing a tenner at the problem isn’t going to do anything,” he said, using British slang for a 10-pound bank note.
He’s frustrated at the red tape and doesn’t understand why the government is insisting on hosts like him finding a Ukrainian family beforehand. “What really irks me is the bureaucracy,” he said. “I don’t know any Ukrainians. A Ukraine human being is enough for me.”