Over 700 refugees to be housed on boat which will be docked in Leith

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The Scottish Government has suspended its overwhelmed super sponsor scheme for Ukrainian refugees and is to commission a 200 metre cruise ship to house more than 700 people off the coast of Leith to cope with demand.

Refugees will be housed on a ship, MS Victoria, which will be docked in Leith, Edinburgh, as new measures to cope with the influx of new arrivals from Ukraine have been announced.

The boat, which in 2005 was used in a re-election campaign cruise for the Finnish president Tarja Halonen, has capacity for more than 2,000 passengers in normal circumstances, but is due to take 739 refugees on a temporary basis.

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The government said it would put a three month “pause” on the scheme, which has been plagued with problems since its launch in March, saying that the number of new applicants had “increased significantly” in recent weeks and it needed time to be able to match new arrivals to long term accommodation.

MS Victoria. Tallink FerriesMS Victoria. Tallink Ferries
MS Victoria. Tallink Ferries
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The super sponsor scheme, which is not available to refugees wanting to live in England, allows Ukrainians to travel to Scotland, with the Government as the named sponsor on their visa application through the UK-wide Homes for Ukraine route. They can then be looked after by local councils until a permanent home can be found – rather than having to match with sponsors they have found on social media in advance.

In June, The Scotsman reported that government officials were drawing up plans to suspend the scheme as it emerged that hundreds of refugees had been trapped in temporary hotel accommodation for weeks amid claims that the matching process was moving slowly. However, the Scottish Government denied the claims, insisting there were “no plans to pause or halt the super sponsor scheme”.

The Welsh Government last month announced a pause to its own version of the scheme, while it works to "refine" arrangements for people arriving.

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The Scottish Government has suspended its overwhelmed super sponsor scheme for Ukrainian refugeesThe Scottish Government has suspended its overwhelmed super sponsor scheme for Ukrainian refugees
The Scottish Government has suspended its overwhelmed super sponsor scheme for Ukrainian refugees

A £5 million government fund will see the refurbishment of 200 unused council properties in North Lanarkshire. Meanwhile, additional staff will be deployed in ‘surge teams’ to assist local authorities matching those in temporary premises to suitable longer-term accommodation and the Wheatley Housing Group, Scotland’s largest social landlord, has pledged to make 300 homes available to local authorities across Scotland to house displaced people from Ukraine.

The Scottish Refugee Council today called for assurances that the pause, which comes into effect on Wednesday, would be temporary and that the scheme would be reinstated in three months.

Gary Christie, head of policy, communications and communications at the Scottish Refugee Council said: “We’re seeking assurances that this pause will be temporary and that the scheme will re-start as soon as possible. The war in Ukraine hasn’t paused and the need for escape routes out of Ukraine hasn’t gone away. This government led scheme is as vital and necessary as it was three months ago.

“We know housing is a problem across Europe right now, but the Scottish Government and local authorities must use this time to urgently put in place the necessary infrastructure so that more Ukrainians can arrive and receive the most appropriate accommodation and support and the scheme can re-start as soon as possible."

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He added: “We are also seeking urgent assurances that any stays on board the ship will be as short as possible, that people will be able to access all necessary services and support and that their rights will not be affected or jeopardised in any way.”

The pause on new applications will not affect anyone who has already made an application or had their visa granted.

Refugees minister Neil Gray said he is today to meet with Lord Harrington, UK Minister for Refugees, to seek clarity on existing funding arrangements for the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme and ask whether the UK Government will consider introducing its own super sponsor arrangements to take pressure off Scotland and Wales.

He said: “As a nation Scotland has risen in solidarity with Ukrainians in their hour of need. I am proud that thanks in large part to our super sponsor scheme, we are now providing safe accommodation to the most Ukrainians per head of population in the UK."

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He added: “With a recent decrease in people applying for private sponsorship in England, and Wales having paused their own scheme, the number of applications naming the Scottish Government as sponsor has increased considerably in recent weeks. For this reason we have taken the incredibly difficult decision to follow Wales in pausing our scheme so we can continue to provide a high level of support and care to everyone who has already been granted a visa.

“We will review our position in three months, but of course if circumstances change during that time we will bring that date forward. In the meantime we are taking significant action to increase the capacity of our temporary accommodation and are also boosting our matching system to maximise the number of displaced people placed with volunteer hosts who have completed the necessary safeguarding checks.”

Mr Gray said visa applications listing the Scottish Government as sponsor were up 21 per cent on the previous week as of 5 July, visas issued up 27 per cent, and arrivals under the super sponsor scheme up 20 per cent.

Scottish Labour external affairs spokesperson, Sarah Boyack, said: “This is deeply disappointing news. The conflict is far from over, but Ukrainians are having the rug pulled out from under them.

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A total of 21,256 visas have been issued naming a Scottish sponsor – more than 20 per cent of the UK total, and the highest number per head of population in the UK. Scotland is currently providing sanctuary for over 7,000 people, two-thirds of whom applied under the Scottish super sponsor scheme. The Scottish Government said this exceeds the 3,000 the Scottish Government committed to welcome when the scheme launched in March.