The writer is a Labour peer and former MP
We have known for weeks, if not months, that Ukraine was at risk of a refugee crisis. That the UK government has shown itself to be uniquely ill-prepared and unwilling to offer sanctuary to our fair share of these victims of war is a national disgrace. It betrays both the Ukrainian people and Britain’s proud humanitarian tradition.
I arrived in the UK aged six on a Kindertransport train from Prague, fleeing the Nazis who subsequently murdered several members of my family and our friends. The country that welcomed me was generous and kind. Now, it uses warm words to disguise a total refusal to engage in global humanitarian crises.
We know the figures but they’re worth repeating — Ukraine’s neighbours made the necessary preparations to take in almost 2mn Ukrainian refugees in less than two weeks. Countries further afield like Portugal and Ireland were also quick to act to offer genuine refuge and easy routes to safety. Visa requirements were waived and governments and communities mobilised to help with the emergency. Ireland, with a population of 5mn, has already taken in well over 2,000 Ukrainian refugees and has said it is willing to take 2 per cent of all Ukrainians escaping this terrible war.
By comparison, the UK has, at the time of writing, granted just 760 visas to Ukrainians. In stark contrast to our European neighbours, we stipulate that Ukrainians must complete a visa application. The process is cumbersome, complicated and certainly not designed to help desperate people who are fleeing for their lives, taking almost nothing with them. In response to national outrage, Priti Patel, home secretary, announced some changes this week to streamline the process, including an online application route for refugees with a relative in the UK. It’s very little, very late.
Until this point, all Ukrainians were required to apply for visas in person. Since there is no processing office in Calais, they were directed to offices in Brussels and Paris. A new processing centre being set up outside Lille will reportedly only be open to those referred by Border Force officers. In the meantime, some refugees are sleeping rough or in their cars. It’s no wonder French interior minister Gérald Darmanin has accused the UK of a “lack of humanity”. He is right.
Our response has been either incompetent or plain nasty. That is nothing new. Given this government’s record of weaponising refugees (its decision to scrap the only mechanism for reuniting unaccompanied child refugees in Calais with family in the UK; its talk of offshore detention centres; its determination to build a fortress around these islands), I am inclined to think it is both.
The impossible, cynically disguised as the possible, is being repeatedly asked of desperate people to excuse our failure to help them. We’re told, for instance, that refugees are welcome if they come via “safe routes”, but there are no safe routes: the government closed those, forcing families to pay people traffickers and risk their lives in perilous dinghies.
Afghan refugees are told they can apply for protection here if they can provide biometric data, but biometric data processing is not available in Afghanistan, as the Home Office must be aware. Until the rule relaxation comes in next week, the same is being demanded of Ukrainians. We are told that a welcome will only be extended if a refugee has not passed first through a third country. But we are an island. The country’s national policy towards refugees has become “computer says no”.
One may speculate that the UK has resisted setting up a visa office in Calais for Ukrainians in case asylum-seekers from countries such as Syria or Afghanistan try to apply there as well.
The government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which is making its way through parliament, seeks to criminalise refugees based on the method they have used to reach the UK. This is a breach of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, which Britain was instrumental in developing — and risks being applied to incoming Ukrainians. The House of Lords has inflicted a number of heavy defeats on the bill but it will now return to the Commons where MPs will have the final say.
It is my hope that calls from many Conservatives for better treatment of Ukrainian refugees is translated into action and a government defeat. That action should begin with accepting my amendment, which would extend family reunion rights to unaccompanied child refugees from around Europe.
What the past weeks have shown us is that the EU is able to act together to tackle some of the knottiest issues we face as a continent. A consensus is now emerging on the need for a common European defence policy, and an energy strategy to ensure all citizens have security of supply. That co-operation must now also be extended to a humane policy on refugees, and the UK must play its part. We have a proud history of extending compassion towards those in need — it is not too late to live up to that promise.