Examining the Scottish and Northern Irish responses to the Ukrainian refugee crisis

Ukranian flag blowing in the wind against a clear blue sky

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

This latest blog post in WISERD’s series on the impact of the war in Ukraine examines what we know so far about public policy and the third sector response to the refugee crisis in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In Scotland there has been cross-party support for assisting Ukrainian refugees. The first minister said, “To those Ukrainians arriving in our country, I can say we will treat you with compassion, dignity and respect, and I extend a warm welcome to Scotland, our home – and, for as long as you need it, yours too.” The Scottish Government has extended additional funding for third sector organisations, including over £1m to the Scottish Refugee Council and Ukraine Advice Scotland to enable them to take on extra staff and expand their capacity to give advice and support to a first-wave of 3,000+ refugees. In addition, over £11m has been given to local authorities to help those fleeing the war, with a further £2.25m set aside for temporary accommodation.

In a letter to the UK prime minister written at the beginning of the emergency the first minister urged him to ”remove ‘unnecessary bureaucracy’ preventing Scotland from welcoming refugees from Ukraine”. Thus, the Scottish first minister’s ‘super sponsor’ policy modifies the Home Office community sponsorship scheme policy. It avoids the need for sponsoring individuals to be matched to refugees before entry and instead provides government support and accommodation for Ukrainian refugees on arrival in Scotland before placing them with host families.

Over recent weeks, Scottish third sector organisations have undertaken a broad range of activities to support Ukrainian refugees, including fundraising, collecting goods and donations, and rallies across the country. Some, such as the charity Glasgow The Caring City, have been working in Ukraine and neighbouring countries. The latter’s operations director, Ross Galbraith, said: “Besides the alarming need for food and safe havens for refugees to reside, there is a desperate need to move people to safety. We have secured transport for the safe passage of up to 2,000 women and children to cross into Poland with the support of local aid charities. We are also working in Kyiv, Lviv and Vinnytsia to provide food to those besieged by this pointless conflict”.

Over recent days, Northern Ireland has seen a series of rallies and vigils supporting Ukrainian refugees. Speaking to one such gathering in Belfast, Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland programme director with Amnesty International said: “Ukrainians are already fleeing in numbers… It is our duty as a country to welcome them with open arms. That is our legal obligation and our moral imperative”.

However, the local policy response has been hampered by the fact that since 4 February, devolved government in Northern Ireland has been suspended following the decision of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) first minister to step down. For this reason, the response to the Ukraine crisis in Northern Ireland has largely been shaped by Westminster policy. Thus, Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis MP, said under the UK-wide Homes for Ukraine scheme people registering to sponsor a refugee would be matched from 18 March – “if they’re able to offer accommodation, whether it’s people who’ve got spare accommodation, businesses or individuals”. To date, over 6,000 people in Northern Ireland have signed-up to the scheme.

The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, the representative body of the third sector in Northern Ireland, said “We all have been horrified by what is happening in Ukraine and naturally want to help”. It has provided a raft of information on how to support refugees. Whilst Frances McCandless, the chief executive of the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, called on those wishing to help refugees to exercise caution and “look for a charity that already has… significant experience of providing assistance to refugees and displaced people, of operating in conflict zones and working with international partners”.

The crisis response in Northern Ireland has been broad-based and has included public collections of urgently needed goods for refugees – such as clothes, shoes, food and medicines – for delivery to Ukraine and neighbouring countries, such as Poland and Moldova. Refugees’ grateful and emotional response to these donations is evident in this short BBC Northern Ireland video report.

There are a number of significant points emerging from the foregoing developments. Not least, the response to refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine shows how contemporary politics are shaping the different ways the devolution settlements are working in the UK. On the one hand, the Westminster government has bowed to joint political pressure from the Scottish and Welsh governments regarding “super sponsorship”. This has paved the way for civic expansion and has allowed the implementation of a non-devolved policy area – immigration and asylum – to follow a different path in Scotland and Wales. In contrast, sectarian politics (and the Westminster Tory government’s handling of Brexit) has led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, meaning that in the province, the approach to the refugee crisis largely follows that in England.

Across England, there have been many initiatives at a local level to organise relief, raise money and to start putting in place plans for accommodating refugees. This ranges from small villages to metropolitan mayors supporting fundraising appeals. These responses are undertaken within the current Westminster framework with many councils following government guidance.

Notwithstanding the different territorial responses, the emerging evidence is clear: through voluntarism and provision of social welfare across all four UK nations, communities and third sector organisations are playing a key role in supporting Ukrainian refugees. In addition, ongoing anti-war/ refugee-solidarity rallies and vigils across all four UK jurisdictions resonate with the wider international literature underlining the key role of civil society as a site of symbolic politics, protest and solidarity.


Photo by Nati from Pexels.