After fleeing war, Ukrainians face uncertain future across Europe

By Thomson Reuters Feb 23, 2024 | 12:05 AM

By Elizabeth Piper

HATFIELD, England (Reuters) – When she arrived in England almost two years ago, Mila Panchenko thought her months-long journey from the devastated Ukrainian city of Mariupol was over and she could settle down.

But, after moving home four times since then, the 55-year-old Ukrainian has been declared homeless and her future is unclear. She has nowhere to return to. Her apartment block in the Russian-occupied port city was bombed and then pulled down.

In her room at temporary accommodation for the homeless run by the YMCA youth charity in Hatfield, a town about 18 miles (29 km) north of London, Panchenko says she feels at the mercy of the British government.

“At any time, they can tell me, the war is over, goodbye. Where would I go?” she said.

Panchenko is not alone. Ukrainians are four times more at risk of homelessness than other families in the country, research from the Red Cross shows. And some of the more than 200,000 Ukrainians now living in the United Kingdom worry whether they will ever be allowed to settle in the long-term.

It’s a problem felt across Europe, the United States and Canada, which are still hosting more than 6 million refugees two years after Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022 invasion.

There is deep sympathy for Ukrainians, opinion polls show, but with no end to the war in sight, governments that offered them short-term help now face a much bigger bill than they expected and are looking to control the spending.

In the past few days, Britain has halved to 18 months the time it allows new arrivals to stay initially and closed a scheme allowing Ukrainians to join family members in Britain, saying it was streamlining the provision.

It has also pared back some refugee support funding for local councils, similar to cuts being considered by Ireland and already made by several eastern European nations.

Earlier this month, Poland, which houses around a million Ukrainian refugees, extended welfare assistance to them, but only until June, a departure from EU guidance that members should continue support until March 2025. Poland has said it might lower payments going forward.

Some administrations are also sensitive to the wishes of the government in Kyiv, which wants Ukrainian refugees to return eventually to help rebuild the country.

While it offered an 18-month visa extension last week to Ukrainian refugees already in the country, the British interior ministry said it supported “the hope of the Government of Ukraine that their citizens will eventually return”.


But Panchenko has no home to return to in Mariupol. She wants to make a life in Hatfield, which developed as an overflow from London after World War Two.

“First of all, I would like to thank this country,” Panchenko said in her room, where a painting of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv she bought in a charity shop takes pride of place.

We “want to be useful here”, she said of Ukrainians like herself whose homes were destroyed and towns are under Russian occupation.

After being taken to Russia during the siege of Mariupol, she escaped and made her way to England, via a short stay in Italy. She was placed with a local family who had volunteered to host a Ukrainian refugee in the bedroom of their now-grown son, under a programme called Homes for Ukraine.

Pursuing a college course in English and a voluntary job in the area, Panchenko soon sought more independence. Unable to find an affordable home, after staying with friends for a period, Panchenko registered as homeless.

She was sent to a hostel before being moved to the YMCA shared house in Hatfield.

In the Welwyn Hatfield district, 19 Ukrainian families and nine Ukrainian individuals were registered for homeless support as of Jan. 31, government data shows. Welwyn Hatfield council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The government makes one-off payments for every Ukrainian arrival, designed to help councils integrate refugees over three years. From Jan. 1 2023, the payments were reduced to 5,900 pounds from an initial 10,500 pounds. A similar scheme for Afghans offers more than 20,000 pounds.

With local councils providing longer term support than initially envisaged, pressures from multiple asylum schemes and housing shortages are leading more Ukrainians to register as homeless, Roger Gough, refugee and migration spokesperson for the Local Government Association said.

“The funding arrangements for councils to support arrivals need urgent review,” Gough told Reuters.

In response to a request for comment, a government official said it allocated an additional 109 million pounds this year to help prevent Ukrainian homelessness, adding that “the majority of Ukrainians” did not need such support.

The government will provide also 1.2 billion pounds by 2026 to help councils build or buy housing including for Ukrainians and Afghans refugees, the British housing department said.

Britain has also increased payments for hosts under Homes for Ukraine to 500 pounds ($627) a month after 12 months from 350 pounds a month to help with rising living costs, the department said.

Former refugees minister Richard Harrington said he came up with the Homes for Ukraine programme after then-prime minister Boris Johnson promised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy he could take an “uncapped number of refugees”.

“We put out a call to arms,” for volunteers to host refugees, Harrington said. “And 210,000 people answered.”

After the initial enthusiasm, a government official said, “the number of people applying has now reduced significantly”.

In a study by Britain’s Office for National Statistics in October, two thirds of hosts said the rise in cost of living was affecting their ability to provide support. Just over half intended to provide accommodation for 18 months or longer.

The outlook is also uncertain in other European countries.

In Germany, the head of the regional government association called for future arrivals from Ukraine to receive the benefits accorded to other asylum seekers rather than being given the more generous unemployment benefit – a demand so far resisted by the government.

After being overwhelmed by applications, Scotland paused its so-called super sponsor scheme in 2022 for Ukrainians, which had allowed them to select the government as the sponsor for the visa, bypassing the need to match with a host in a private home.

A Scottish government spokesperson said Scotland was spending 40 million pounds in 2024/25 on its Ukrainian Resettlement programme, down from 100 million pounds in 2023/24, and that Scotland wants to “establish clear routes to settlement”.


On Feb. 17, Britain said it would give an 18-month extension to those whose initial three-year visas were due to expire next year.

While welcome, the application to extend can only be made three months before the current visa expires and, as yet, doesn’t offer a route to settling in Britain, said refugee Volodymyr Holovachov, who fled Ukraine before martial law was declared.

He said the lack of certainty was a problem with employers and landlords who want assurances of refugees’ legal status.

“It is unclear how in the near future we can prove our ‘right to work’, ‘right to rent’ for a required length of time,” said Holovachov, 31, who works in marketing. “Without them we are at the mercy of landlords, employers.”

For Panchenko also, temporary measures do little to end her fear of being expelled.

The former factory duty manager and local politician says her life would be different if she was offered a route to settled status, being able to pay towards a pension and have the right to live, work or study indefinitely.

“I’m very nervous, constantly,” she said.

“I have nothing to go back to. I would take my suitcase, leave prosperous England where I can be useful, and where would I go?”

($1 = 0.7977 pounds) ($1 = 0.9347 euros)

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, additional reporting by Conor Humphries in Dublin, Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Karol Badohal in Warsaw; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)