A humanitarian disaster and refugee crisis is unfolding in Ukraine. Since Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion last week, more than one million people have already fled the country. The UN has warned that that number could grow to up to five million as the war continues.
On Tuesday, the Home Secretary announced the government’s ‘bespoke’ humanitarian support package for Ukrainian refugees. While any emergency support is of course welcome, it is still heavily caveated and falls far short of what is needed.
Most Ukrainian refugees will not be eligible. Ukrainians with no settled family in the UK are not included in the new Ukrainian Family Scheme and therefore will not be able to seek safety in the UK via this route. While a humanitarian sponsorship scheme allows companies, charities and community groups to sponsor individual Ukrainians, the Refugee Council has highlighted that this is “a slow process” and in recent years “has only resulted in hundreds of refugees coming to the UK”. It is shameful that while neighbouring countries have opened their doors to those fleeing, the vast majority would be denied sanctuary here.
Under current proposals, Ukrainians must apply for UK visas at centres in Lviv, or cross the border to Poland, Moldova, Romania, and Hungary and apply from there. This requires people to make long journeys, some of which might become increasingly impossible as the situation evolves.
We should follow the EU in waiving visa requirements and allowing all those who wish to come to the UK to travel and remain here. We must also work to establish humanitarian corridors so Ukrainians can come here safely.
Those who are able to enter the UK through the proposed extended family reunion and humanitarian sponsorship schemes will be allowed to stay in the UK for up to 12 months. Ukrainians who are already here on temporary work visas can get extensions until 31st December. This is short-sighted thinking from the Home Secretary: there is no guarantee that the conflict will be over within a year. We must ensure that refugees have quick and easy access to permanent settlement routes.
And of course, this should not apply to Ukrainian nationals only. There must be long-term solutions for all refugees seeking safety, and the problems Ukrainian refugees are confronted with can best be resolved by a compassionate system for everyone. It is clear to me that the government’s strategy of ‘bespoke’ approaches to every conflict will result in vulnerable people falling through the cracks.
It is telling that, amid this crisis, this government continues to push through its nationality and borders bill. This bill is designed to deter people seeking sanctuary and violates our obligation under the Refugee Convention. It would introduce “differential treatment”, depending on the method through which someone arrived in the UK. It will deny many of the most vulnerable refugees permanent protection if they come here through so-called “irregular” means.
Currently, there are simply not enough safe routes for those fleeing war – whether from Ukraine or elsewhere – and this government seems to have no intention to open more. The Tories are hardening ‘Fortress Britain’ at a time when we should make this country a safe harbour for those seeking sanctuary.
We must also not forget about the courageous Russians who are protesting the war, risking arrest, and putting their lives on the line to stand up to the Putin regime. If they face repercussions over their anti-war activism, the UK must welcome them, too.
The Home Secretary is doing nowhere near enough to bring refugees to safety, and is pretending that the nationality and borders bill will not impact those fleeing Ukraine. The government can’t claim ignorance: just this week it has suffered crushing defeats in the Lords, with many peers raising Ukraine in the debate.
There is still time to act. Let’s waive visas now, work with our European partners to establish safe and legal routes, and reject the nationality and borders bill once and for all.