Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is causing the largest movement of displaced people in Europe since World War II, and in a much shorter timescale.
The UN has estimated that over 3 million people – well over 5% of Ukraine’s total population – have already left the country.
Those fleeing – overwhelmingly women and children – are leaving their homes in circumstances which, however hard we try, are impossible for us to truly imagine. They deserve, need and must receive compassion, care and support.
Countries across Europe are confronting what is a humanitarian emergency.
It is estimated that 1.8 million people have arrived in Poland, 250,000 in Hungary, and 80,000 in Moldova – which has a population of just 4 million.
Many of us were moved last week by scenes in Berlin, of German families flocking to the railway station to offer shelter and support for those arriving from Ukraine.
However, even as we are moved and inspired by such scenes of compassion, we continue to be deeply shocked that this is happening at all.
Just three weeks ago, the world still hoped there would be no invasion. People in Ukraine were still going to work, school and university. They were living normal lives.
Today, those lives have been ripped apart. More than 3 million are displaced, thousands more are fighting on front lines, many have been killed, and an entire population has shown incredible courage and resistance.
All of that is down to the evil – and I used that word deliberately – of one man. Vladimir Putin.
Scotland stands firmly with all governments – including, of course, the UK – in condemning Putin’s war crimes, taking action to isolate and penalise his regime, and doing everything possible to support Ukraine.
The Scottish Government is committed to playing our full part in the international effort to help those displaced as a result of the war.
Other countries have waived the requirement for people from Ukraine to obtain visas in order to gain entry and settle. The strong preference of the Scottish Government is for the UK to adopt the same approach.
However, while we will continue to press for this, we will also work with UK Ministers to make the processes it has put in place as effective as possible. That is the focus of my statement today.
At present, people from Ukraine can enter the UK through the family scheme. I hope the changes announced last week will make it easier and quicker than it has been so far.
A second route – ‘Homes for Ukraine’ – was announced this week.
In time, it is hoped that very significant numbers of Ukrainians will come to the UK through this scheme.
The fact that more than 100,000 people across the UK have already signed up to offer accommodation demonstrates the willingness of the public to help – the response has been magnificent.
The terms of the scheme, though, mean that it will take time for this outpouring of support to translate into large numbers of Ukrainians actually able to come to the UK.
The first phase of the scheme depends on matches being made between refugees and individual sponsors. And initially, it is only those who already have, or can themselves find, details of people seeking refuge who will be able to provide help quickly.
The Scottish Government’s proposal seeks to short circuit that process.
We want to act as a single, super-sponsor to allow significant numbers of people fleeing Ukraine to come to Scotland immediately.
We have offered to sponsor 3,000 straightaway. Longer term, we have given an uncapped commitment to support at least 10% of the total number who seek sanctuary in the UK.
In practice, Scottish Government sponsorship would mean that people from Ukraine don’t need to be matched with individual sponsors before being allowed entry to the UK.
They would be able to come here to sanctuary and safety first.
We will provide temporary accommodation and then, with people already safely here and wrapped in a warm Scottish welcome, we will work at speed with partners – local councils, the Scottish Refugee Council, the NHS, Disclosure Scotland and others – to complete safeguarding checks, put in place wider health, education, practical and befriending support, and arrange longer term accommodation.
We warmly welcome – and intend to fully harness – the thousands of individual offers from people willing to provide refugees with a home.
I want to thank everyone who has volunteered. Of course, not everyone will be in a position to offer accommodation. But there will be many other ways for people to offer support.
However, welcome and necessary though the voluntary offers of accommodation are, we must be mindful that those fleeing the war may need to be here for a long time.
They will wish – as we wish for them – to return to Ukraine as soon as possible and for Scotland to be just a temporary home.
But, unfortunately, they may need to be here for longer than we can reasonably expect members of the public to provide accommodation.
So as well as fully harnessing the goodwill of people across Scotland, we also need to plan for long-term sustainable accommodation, and ensure appropriate public service provision. I will say more about that shortly.
Firstly, though, let me underline the immediacy of the preparations we are making.
As I indicated yesterday, the UK Government has given in principle support to the super-sponsor proposal, and we are now seeking to agree the operational detail.
Our aim is that our super-sponsor route will run in parallel with the first phase of the wider UK scheme.
That should make it possible – and this is our hope – for the first 3,000 displaced Ukrainians to begin arriving in Scotland from as early as this weekend.
Now, I need to be clear that this is dependent on UK Government agreement – only the Home Office can issue the visas – but there is no good reason, in my view, for this agreement not to be reached.
We hope and expect that it will be and, crucially, this is the basis on which we are planning.
Detailed preparations are being led by Neil Gray, as Minister with special responsibility for co-ordinating this response.
They cover five priorities: ensuring we get the data we need from UK Government systems, making contact with those coming to Scotland, securing short-term accommodation for those who need it, working on longer-term support, including housing and community integration – and, finally, establishing Welcome Hubs over coming days.
I will say a bit more on each of these, and on resources to support delivery.
We are working closely with local authorities, other public sector agencies – Disclosure Scotland, for example – the third sector and the UK Government on the practical issues that need to be addressed to ensure the process operates smoothly.
For example, urgent work is underway to ensure the sharing of data from UK Government systems, including from the visa applications system.
That information will allow us to better and more quickly understand who is coming here and what needs they might have.
We are also exploring how we can start making support available even before people get here – help with travel, for example.
Obviously, as a matter of priority, we are working to secure immediate temporary accommodation that is safe and comfortable for people, while longer term arrangements are put in place.
In addition to harnessing voluntary support, we are assessing other longer-term housing options. This will include, where available, local authority and housing association properties, but also private sector or holiday accommodation.
And finally, we are establishing with a range of partners – including local authorities, the police, health services and the Scottish Refugee Council – Welcome Hubs to offer practical help and assistance, for example, with food, clothing, healthcare, language support and signposting to other services.
Decisions on exactly where these hubs will be located will firm up as we develop a better understanding of when and exactly where people will arrive.
We have considered the resources necessary to support this work in the first instance.
I can confirm that, in addition to financial support the UK government will provide, the Scottish Government is allocating £15 million to support our immediate refugee response.
Just over £11 million will be allocated to local authorities.
£2.25 million will be set aside for temporary accommodation.
And a further £1.4 million is being allocated to the Scottish Refugee Council for the expansion of their Refugee Integration Service.
I visited the Scottish Refugee Service earlier today to discuss their invaluable contribution to Scotland’s response to the Ukraine crisis, and to thank them for their wider work to support refugees and asylum seekers.
The challenges of resettling thousands of displaced and traumatised people in such a short space of time are significant and should not be underestimated.
Given the sheer pace at which everyone is working – and the need to agree operational arrangements with the UK government – not every question of detail yet has a definite answer.
Meeting the challenge will require effective and ongoing cooperation between the Scottish and UK governments and councils, with and across the wider public and third sectors, and with many other partners and local communities.
Parliament also has a vital part to play. As MSPs, we gain a unique insight into the quality of support provided on the ground – and can be instrumental in making sure problems are identified and quickly addressed.
But for all the challenges, I am confident that Scotland will live up to our humanitarian obligations.
We have recent experience of successfully integrating refugees into our communities, schools, and workplaces.
And I am confident that we will provide not just refuge, but a warm welcome, and a helping hand, to people whose lives have been ripped apart.
We will open our doors and our hearts.
The duty of government is to ensure that the practical assistance we provide, matches the warmth and goodwill of people across the country.
We have an obligation to play our full part in the global humanitarian effort, and offer sanctuary, security, and a home to thousands of people who desperately need it.
I know these aims are shared across Parliament.
Let’s work together, as we stand in resolute solidarity with the people of Ukraine in this hour of need.