A staffing shake-up is threatening lifeline support for Ukrainian refugees fleeing war to find safety in Scotland, unions have warned.

Calls are being made for a reversal of plans in Scotland's biggest city which has declared a housing emergency to run down a specialist team helping settle Ukranian arrivals.

GMB Scotland has said the move by Glasgow City Council is “misguided".

The 20-strong team has helped settle thousands of refugees seeking sanctuary in the wake of the Russian invasion but is expected to be told its specialist role is no longer needed at a meeting with managers today (Thursday).

The city council said the resettlement team will now be used to bolster other parts of the homeless service, as they fight to deal with a housing crisis.

Glasgow City Council made the symbolic housing emergency declaration earlier this month in the wake of concerns over social unrest following moves to accelerate the clearance of a backlog of asylum claims by the Home Office.

The council has been considering legal action against the Home Office as it fears it will breach the law through being unable to cope with the backlog.

The Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) - an amalgamation of Glasgow City Council and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde which delivers community health and social care services - has already said there is a need to find alternative temporary accommodation with the use of rest centres to be able to cope. Plans are in place to find large properties owned by Glasgow City Council that can be utilised as first stop accommodation for refugees with positive decisions.

One member of the specialist team said the continuing practical support offered to Ukrainians now living in the city was crucial to help them lead normal lives after fleeing war.

They said: “What we do in resettlement is specialist work and there is a huge need for it now and for months, possibly years, to come.

“We work with refugees to find them homes, get their children into school, all the things that need to be done to settle them.

“It is not easy and the team has been going non-stop since April last year. The work we’ve done and how we’ve done it has been copied up and down the country.

“How can we be voted a social work Team of the Year a few months ago and now be told we’re not needed?

“It is frustrating to think of all that experience and commitment being lost for no reason when the crisis in Ukraine is anything but over.”

The uncertainty surrounding the resettlement team comes after research suggested Ukrainian families across Scotland are facing homelessness and destitution this winter.

The British Red Cross said Ukrainians in the UK are four times more likely to face homelessness and warned 335 families will have applied for homelessness support in Scotland by the end of March.

And even more families will be caught up in more immediate “core homelessness” like sofa surfing, staying in unsuitable temporary accommodation and rough sleeping.

The Herald: The MS Victoria, docked in Leith, accommodated Ukrainians

The charity’s research, by Professor Glen Bramley, of Heriot Watt University, predicts the number of Ukrainian families homeless will continue at crisis levels until at least 2025.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 resulted in millions of people being displaced, both within Ukraine and across Europe.

By October 17, 25,891 displaced people from Ukraine had arrived in the UK with a Scottish sponsor – one of the three ways in which displaced people from Ukraine can obtain visas for the UK.

The Scottish Government took on a key role in the operation of the Sponsorship Scheme by acting as a super sponsor.

As at June 2023, there were around 3,900 Ukrainian nationals, who registered for active employment in Scotland. In 2002 there were just 50.

A Scottish Government survey indicates that as at September 29, 2023, 2,843 Ukrainian children were enrolled in primary and secondary schools across Scotland.

To create temporary accommodation capacity, the Scottish Government used hotel rooms and chartered two passenger ships – docked in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The ship docked in Glasgow, the MS Ambition, provided accommodation for nearly 1,500 people until March 2023 and the ship docked in Edinburgh, the MS Victoria, accommodated nearly 2000 displaced people from Ukraine until July 4.

The Herald:

By the end of last year, Glasgow was said to be home to 2000 Ukrainians living across six hotels and the MS Ambition, a repurposed cruise ship, but the specialist resettlement unit helped find them longer-term homes.

It is understood that only around 200 Ukrainians are living in hotels while around 600 more are with hosts in the city or living in housing association flats.

However, staff say, more are expected to arrive in the city from around Scotland when refurbished flats become available next year while the situation in Ukraine remains uncertain.

Of passengers disembarking the MS Ambition since January 5, 2023, as of October, Scottish Government estimates show that 33% went into alternative temporary accommodation, 7% went into hosted accommodation, 29% went into social housing and 30% went into “unknown or other accommodation”.

Of passengers disembarking the MS Victoria since April 2023, 72% went into alternative temporary accommodation, 1% went into hosted accommodation, 3% went into social housing and 23% went into “unknown or other accommodation”.

Keir Greenaway, GMB Scotland senior organiser in public services, said: “The council needs emergency funding to deal with the homelessness crisis but to wind down this specialist team seems premature and misguided.

“It has helped build new lives for Ukrainian refugees already in Glasgow and should be a lifeline for those still to come.

“We would urge management to pause and reconsider the potential cost of risking those skills, experience and commitment, particularly when the war in Ukraine is far from over.

“These specialist workers should be a source of pride for Glasgow and deserve investment and support not uncertainty about their future roles.”

Paul Sweeney, a city MSP, has written to Scottish and UK government ministers raising concern around the resettlement team in Glasgow and calling for the necessary investment to secure their work.

And, in a letter to Anne Marie O’Donnell, the council’s chief executive, he warned diverting the specialist unit to more general duties would risk vital work.

He said: “Investment in the resettlement team is needed, the last thing that social workers on the Ukrainian resettlement team need is merging with the homelessness team.

“This risks not only demoralising staff who are already over stretched, but it will no doubt lead to the loss of staff who will look elsewhere for work.

“Making this change would destroy the established expertise found in the Ukrainian resettlement team.”

Meanwhile feared it will cost the “already stretched” homelessness service in and around Glasgow more than £53m in 2024/25 to deal with the asylum backlog, but officials have been told that the UK government will not provide financial support.

The number of refugee households that have been referred to homeless support services in Greater Glasgow, having been granted leave to remain since the start of the year, has soared from 45 in January to 176 in October. There were 132 in the first three weeks of November. As many as 1000 refugee households have been referred to homelessness support services since the start of the year.

According to council data, there are currently 211 households that are managed by the Asylum and Refugee Team and are currently residing in temporary accommodation.

When an asylum seeker gets leave to remain in the UK, they are given 28 days to leave accommodation that is provided by Mears while seeking assistance from the local authority under homelessness legislation.

With refugee status, they have the same rights to emergency and settled accommodation as any other household.

It is estimated that around 33% of applications made to Community Homelessness Services are from households who have been granted leave to remain outwith Glasgow but have chosen to exercise their right to be in the city.

The service is now reporting a shift in the proportion of positive asylum seekers residing in hotels. Positive asylum seekers now account for 170 out of the existing 710 residing in hotels which is increasing weekly.

An HSCP spokeswoman said: “While the scale of work for the Ukrainian resettlement team has reduced significantly, Glasgow City Council has recently declared a housing emergency due to the pressures on the city in relation to the demand for housing and homelessness services. Staff will continue their superb work to support those who have fled Ukraine, but it is crucial that we pull our resources together during this emergency.”