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© UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Government faces tidal wave of anger over Ukraine refugee response

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is leading to the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two. With bombs targeting civilians, people are fleeing for their lives. Over two million people have already escaped the country, and as many five million could flee in the coming weeks, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. On the border with Ukraine, Poland has received over 1.3 million refugees and Hungary over 200,000. Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has accepted over 80,000 refugees. And yet only 300 Ukrainians with family connections fleeing the fighting had been granted visas by the UK (as of 7 March).

UK government response

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised that on Ukrainian refugees, “We will continue to make sure that we have a very, very generous approach.” But the Government has been under intense pressure from the public, media and its own backbench MPs for its inhumane and chaotic response. The hostile policies towards refugees, that campaigners have long highlighted, have been thrust into the limelight by the crisis. The government is left scrabbling to reconcile the contradiction between their position and the action the public now demands. Together With Refugees is stepping up its campaign in response.

In a series of chaotic and often unclear announcements the government has so far offered two main responses on refugees fleeing the crisis.

Family reunion scheme

First, it has said family members of Ukrainians already in the UK could get visas to join them. However, the scope of who is eligible and the bureaucratic, hostile process to apply for visas has led to misery for desperate Ukrainian families frustrated by the system – with tiny numbers of visas being granted. Even the changes announced on 10 March, to make “the process simpler and quicker” requires people fleeing Ukraine to complete a visa application before they come.

Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke, angrily told a Home Office minister in Parliament the government needed to “get a grip” on processing visa applications for Ukrainian refugees. “Does the Home Office recognise that this is a war of the likes that has not been seen for 80 years in Europe? We don’t want to stand in this house and listen to plans and processes, we want dates, we want action … This is a disgrace,” he said. And, of course, this scheme does nothing for refugees who have no family links in Britain. But the problem is much deeper – with the government’s insistence that people fleeing war in Ukraine have to apply for visas before they come here – unlike, for example, EU countries who have waived the need for visas.

Instead, Together With Refugees is pressing the UK government that it needs a wholly different level of response to the scale and urgency of this crisis including a fundamental rethink of its wider approach on refugees – as the British public demand. It must put immediate measures in place to ensure Ukrainian families are not left waiting in the cold because of unrealistic bureaucratic demands for visas, and instead reach the UK safely and easily, and then be able to claim refugee protection.

Humanitarian sponsorship

The second component the government has announced is a ‘humanitarian sponsorship’ scheme for groups to host Ukrainians fleeing the conflict if the hosts are prepared to provide housing and integration support. But it has still yet to give any real details on how this will work in practice, even though many communities have offered support. And while the scheme could offer part of an overall solution if done right, it cannot be the whole answer. For it to work, the government also needs to listens to the advice of community sponsorship groups – many of them members of Together With Refugees – who have done incredible work hosting refugees from Syria and other countries, but often in the teeth of endless bureaucratic hoops to jump through.

Bespoke approach for Ukrainians, against hostility for other refugees

On a wider level, the government’s insistence on restricting its response to a limited ‘bespoke’ approach is a desperate attempt to show it is responding on Ukraine while sealing this off from its wider hostile stance on refugees. Central to this is its strategy to depart from our clear international commitments in the UN refugee convention to protect refugees fleeing war and persecution exactly as in a Ukraine, and other conflicts around the world from Afghanistan to Syria, regardless of how they arrive in the UK. The government is pushing ahead with its Nationality and Borders Bill that is central to this strategy, and is in its crucial final stages in Parliament.

Joint response from refugee sector

As a group of Together With Refugees’ members said in a joint letter to the Guardian: ‘Seven decades ago in 1951, after the horrors of the world wars, the UK and other nations came together to sign the UN convention on refugees. It sets out that how a person arrives seeking protection does not matter. What matters is why – escaping war, conflict and oppression. Yet today we have a government that appears to show a callous disregard for the convention…It is pushing ahead with its cruel Nationality and Borders Bill, which will undermine the right to refugee protection and criminalise Ukrainians, Afghans and others who, through no fault of their own, are forced to make their own way to safety and arrive without all the necessary documentation.’

If this Bill becomes law, within weeks refugees from Ukraine, or any other country, arriving here could be criminalised just because of the way they travel here, despite their right to protection under the UN convention. That’s why Together With Refugees is stepping up its campaign to secure the support of MPs of all parties for big changes to the Bill.

Calling on MPs to vote for amendments to the bill

We’re calling on the government to remove the clause 11 from the bill, that would punish future refugees simply because of how they arrive here. We’re also calling for safe routes and want the government to commit to resettling at least 10,000 refugees from around the world, every year.

Amendments on both these calls have already been won in the House of Lords, and support for these are growing ahead of key votes in the House of Commons. But we will need to escalate pressure in Westminster and, crucially, in MPs’ local constituencies to translate the rising public mood into votes in Parliament. A huge effort by all of us across the Together With Refugees coalition now, can make that happen.

10 March 2022