Refugees from Ukraine arriving in Krakow, Poland on March 13, 2022. Picture Credit: Beata Zawrzel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ukrainian women are at risk in the UK

The government has not done enough to protect refugees from sexual exploitation and abuse

Artillery Row

On 14 March Michael Gove the Secretary for “levelling up” announced the scheme that will offer spaces for refugees from Ukraine to be housed in the homes of UK citizens for a monthly payment of £350 and for a minimum commitment of six months. 

There are many good people in the UK whose immediate thought is to help others in desperate need who are escaping a brutal conflict. The scheme has been overwhelmed with volunteers and in 24 hours it was reported that 100,000 people had signed up to offer homes to Ukrainian refugees. 

Women’s safety must not be sacrificed out of an expectation of their gratitude

Gove suggested that this was evidence of the generosity of the British people. It was but it was also evidence that the Tory government, accused of dragging their feet over offering help to Ukrainians fleeing a war, made a hasty decision in an attempt to deflect attention from indecisive and poor government and to retain future votes. Priti Patel and Liz Truss seemed utterly woeful in initially recognising the need to do the right thing and issue visas to fleeing Ukrainians, and were pushed to do something to make amends. This scheme appears partly to be the result of such pressure, but is it safe? In particular is it safe for women and their children? 

Details are scant at best on the Government website about the “checks” that will be made on potential hosts to ensure the safety of refugees. This is particularly worrying given that the overwhelming majority of refugees needing housing will be female, many with children. Data published by the Czech Republic shows that of 117,000 people granted residency permits there, two thirds, or roughly 78,000, are women.

A statement about these checks focus on “security”, but they say “safeguarding checks may also be made”. It is the word “may” that is so chilling. The safeguarding of women and children cannot be neglected because a government wants to offload a difficult responsibility onto the British people. 

Iryna worries for the women without someone waiting

Ukrainian women who are escaping the war waged on them by Russia are not entering a violence-free country. The level of male violence against women and girls is, as it has been for decades, stratospheric. One in four women in the UK suffer domestic violence in their lives and one in five suffer sexual violence. Rape conviction rates are at an all-time low and less than one per cent of the approximately 80,000 rapes a year end in conviction. A woman in the UK is killed by a man on average every three days. 

However difficult it is to face, we must state the truth: the UK has a lot of men walking around who have raped women and a lot of men abusing and killing women. Some of them will have spare rooms. Some of them could easily have signed up to the scheme. Escaping the abuses of war to be placed in the spare room of another abuser is not acceptable.

When traumatised women from Ukraine enter the UK everything in the government’s power should be done to ensure their trauma is considered and provisions made accordingly; that their safety is assured. Women’s safety must not be sacrificed out of an expectation of their gratitude. A desperate, vulnerable and grateful woman still deserves to be housed free of the threat of sexual violence; physical or coercive abuse.

The potential power imbalance of a woman and her children being housed, for a monthly payment, by a man who may make unlawful demands of her is startlingly obvious. She may be afraid to complain. There must be adequate support mechanisms in place for these women and there must be sufficiently-funded safeguarding for women, and by women. Because as always, sex matters. 

Highly sexualised memes are circulating online about female refugees from Ukraine

On Sunday 13th March British comedian Alex Belfield made hideous jokes about sexually exploiting Ukrainian women. On his phone-in programme he said, “I would only be willing to take a family of Ukrainians in if they were a mother and sister and two daughters…who were all under 40 and willing to line up one by one Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday … for a bit of horizontal jogging and then they have to pay me £350 a shag and I’ll give them at least one day off a week. I want an indefinite contract but… I can terminate it at any point should their downstairs look like a cauliflower.”

Of course, this could be dismissed as “just” humour but the revealed misogynistic attitudes towards Ukrainian women based on their vulnerable position is not in the least bit funny when reports are circulating of traffickers and pimps hovering like vultures at train stations in Germany and at the Ukrainian border. 

A meme is circulating on social media channels of a young blonde woman in a mini skirt and revealing top with the caption “Been asked to take in a Ukrainian refugee but the wife’s not happy”. The suggestion being that any Ukrainian woman would be sexually available to a predatory male host. As soon as Putin invaded the searches on porn websites for videos featuring Ukrainian women began. In Ireland a man is being condemned for advertising a room to a “slim Ukrainian” woman in expectation of sex. A man has been detained in Poland suspected of raping a 19 year old Ukrainian refugee after offering her shelter. 

Abusive and violent men are always alert to opportunity. Iryna, a Ukrainian woman settled in the UK for some years now is desperately trying to bring her elderly mother and father to the UK to live with her after they fled Sumy last week on the humanitarian corridor. They are currently close to the border in a safer town and finding obtaining a UK visa all but impossible due to the bureaucracy involved. 

Iryna worries for the women without someone waiting and told me “while most of the people who applied to the scheme for housing Ukrainians have their best interests at heart and are genuinely willing to help, the gangs in the UK are not sleeping and I imagine will take advantage of poor women and children who cannot speak English.” She is certain that women will be the target of these men in a more organised and criminal way alongside individual abusive men who may offer rooms. 

Women should, as a priority issue, be housed with other women. Screening and matching procedures should ensure this. By “woman” I mean only one thing. An adult female. In the current climate where the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer cannot effectively define a woman, declaring that trans identified men are women in fact and in law, it is left for abusive men and trafficking gangs to make it clear as glass. The women who will be targeted are female people. They will be targeted by predatory men because of their sex. 

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