The government seems shocked that the war they've been cheerleading is leading to people fleeing for safety, and have moved swiftly to limit how many can come to Britain, writes Terina Hine
Russia has warned residents of Kyiv that it will carry out military strikes in the city any moment now, and a column of Russian troops are reportedly advancing on the capital. Missiles have hit residential areas of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, and there are reports of increasing numbers of civilian casualties.
UNHCR say 660,000 refugees have already fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries. Warnings have been given that the war will be bloody and protracted; there are already allegations of cluster bombs, plans for a siege of Kyiv and terrifying threats of nuclear escalation, so it is hardly surprising that UNHCR has predicted we are on the verge of Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.
Thankfully Ukraine’s neighbours have opened their borders. Most refugees so far have fled to Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia, while some have made longer journeys to be with family elsewhere in Europe. Large numbers have also gone to Russia. And although there are some harrowing reports of border guards refusing entry of non-white refugees, there have also been heartwarming stories of local people offering support and insisting that all arrivals be treated equally.
So why is the UK behaving so differently? Having talked up war for weeks, it apparently comes as a surprise to both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister that war breeds refugees.
The government has had months to prepare for this and has done absolutely nothing. The blue and yellow colours of Ukraine have been illuminating iconic buildings around London, Ukraine flags have been flying over government buildings in and around Westminster, but what is this worth if the rights of Ukrainian people fleeing for their lives are ignored? Priti Patel has once again shown her true colours, and they are far from pretty.
This failure is symptomatic of the harsh and chronically dysfunctional regime in place in the Home Office. There has been a failure to plan, despite the fact that the government has been telling us since January that Putin intended to invade. Even the Defence Minister seemed surprised by the Home Office’s lack of response and judgement.
The insistence that the UK maintain its current hard border and antagonistic refugee policies was starkly observed in a tweet by Immigration Minister Kevin Foster, who said Ukrainians could use the “seasonal workers scheme” if they wished to come here. It’s unclear how many fruit picking jobs are going in February/March but no doubt that was not his point.
The media was justifiably outraged when an elderly woman was left stranded at Gare du Nord in Paris, her Eurostar boarding pass rejected by British immigration officials. Of course the same outrage has not been bestowed on Afghan, Iraqi, Libyan or Yemen refugees, but at least Britain’s callous approach to those fleeing war has now been exposed in this media glare. And as the Nationality and Borders bill progresses through parliament, it is not a moment too soon.
Following this mass outcry, the Home Secretary today agreed that the UK would accommodate 100,000 additional Ukrainian refugees, and the number was swiftly increased by Boris Johnson to 200,000. But quoting such random numbers provide an easy headline while hiding important detail - entrance to the UK remains restricted, available only to those with family already resident here, or to individuals who are sponsored by companies or UK citizens. This is far from the open door policy any just society would implement for those fleeing a war zone.
A full visa waiver scheme has been categorically rejected by Patel. Apparently such a policy would enable Russian agents and extremists to infiltrate Britain, putting us all at risk. A concern obviously not shared by our European counterparts who have uncompromisingly opened their doors.
Priti Patel’s shameful policies are clearly supported by Tory backbenchers. Edward Leigh, MP for Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, said he was pleased the government was “not throwing away the immigration rule book” with regard to Ukrainians, adding “we’ve done our bit with migration from Eastern Europe… we’re under extreme pressure with housing and jobs.” Oblivious to his party’s responsibility for the housing/job crisis, he is equally oblivious to the responsibility he and his colleagues have for cheering on a war with no regard for its victims. Or the fact that a recent YouGov poll showed that 77% of Britons support waiving visas for Ukrainian refugees, with only 12% against.
The irony of Johnson and his ministers joining British Ukrainians in church to pray for the safety of Ukrainian civilians while objecting to the free passage of these very same people has not been lost on the vast majority of British people. For all the blue and yellow gestures, and the government’s reluctant concessions, the moral stench of their border policies remain.
But is there a whiff of change in the air? As Ukrainian refugees were being turned away from our shores, Monday night saw the House of Lords reject some of the most dangerous and discriminatory aspects of the Nationality and Borders bill. One of four clauses peers refused to support was clause 11, making it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK via a non approved route.
Soon the bill will return to the Commons. As war rages on in Ukraine, we wait to see whether MPs will uphold the principles of refugee protection and provide more than a prettily illuminated Big Ben for those desperately fleeing war and persecution.