Lacking humanity – Whitehall’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis

Sign reading "No visas delivered in Calais", seen on the main information noticeboard at Calais youth hostel where Ukraine refugees are sleeping.
The shocking poster that greets Ukrainian refugees arriving in Calais. Photo credit: Twitter post by @andylines

Night after night over the past two weeks – with a mixture of horror, grief, anger and despair – we have been watching a humanitarian disaster unfold in Ukraine. From the comfort of our sofas it is very hard to comprehend the vastness of the displacement of people who are fleeing the horrors of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Up to 9 March, over two million Ukrainians have crossed borders into Europe, already surpassing the 1.3 million asylum seekers who fled from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa in 2015. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), this is the “fastest-moving refugee crisis we have seen in Europe since the end of the second world war”.

Europe is offering protection to Ukrainian refugees

As the desperate situation intensifies, over four million are expected to flee. Most are heading to Poland (over 1.3 million already), Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and other nearby countries, often where they already have family members.

The EU Commission is offering Ukrainian nationals automatic protection for up to three years without the need to apply for asylum. This will include the right to residence and access to employment and social welfare. Ursula von der Leyen, EU Commission president, announced: “Europe stands by those in need of protection. All those fleeing Putin’s bombs are welcome in Europe.”

By contrast, it is hard to understand or accept why, yet again, the UK government is dragging its feet over providing humanitarian assistance to refugees, making it incredibly hard for even those Ukrainians with relatives here to enter the country.

Inexcusable delays and muddle by the Home Office

At the end of February Priti Patel announced a “bespoke humanitarian route” for those fleeing from Ukraine. However, this was very limited, only applying to some family members of British nationals – partners, parents or children under 18 – and allowing them to stay for one year. After mounting criticism that the proposals were too restrictive, the scheme was extended to grandparents and children over 18 and the time to three years.

The government then announced a second scheme, called the “humanitarian sponsorship pathway”, for Ukrainians who are sponsored by individuals, charities or businesses. There is even talk of a third route, although no details have been confirmed. No wonder the Labour Party has called the situation “a complete mess”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government should be offering refugees a “simple route to sanctuary … [but] they keep changing the rules.”

To help provide food, water, shelter and healthcare to refugees and displaced families, please consider donating to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

Huge backlog in applications while refugees wait in Calais for days

Two weeks into the invasion, only 760 visas have been issued against more than 22,000 applications submitted, leading defence secretary Ben Wallace to offer military help to deal with the backlog. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said that the numbers were  “shockingly low” and the process “painfully slow.”

Conservative MPs have also severely criticised Priti Patel for the UK’s “chaotic response” to the crisis, following the announcement that the visa processing centre she said would be opening in Calais would actually be in Lille, 70 miles away. Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said Patel should resign for misleading the Commons about it.

Hundreds of refugees arriving in Calais, after making the treacherous journey from Ukraine, have been told: “No visas available in Calais” and told to go to Paris or Brussels. The French interior minister Gerald Darmanin told Priti Patel that Britain’s response shows a “lack of humanity.”

The BBC reported on one family who had been stuck in Calais for five days, unable to cross the Channel because their applications could not be processed. Other distraught families, already traumatised by their journeys, have been overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and muddle even when they get to Paris.

Relatives in the UK trying to help have reported that the visa application website kept crashing and the application form was too complicated, not to mention the £75 processing fee (£100 for a priority service). For people escaping a warzone to be expected to have all the necessary paperwork is unrealistic and inhumane.

We’ve been here before

Six months ago, the bungled evacuation of Afghanistan  ended with the pleas of thousands of Afghan refugees, many of whom had worked with British military and diplomatic forces there, being left unanswered and possibly thousands more left behind. The Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, much vaunted at the time, has only just been launched; around 12,000 refugees are still stuck in hotels across the UK.

It seems that no lessons have been learnt from this fairly recent situation. Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas expressed her frustration that Ukrainian refugees are being bounced between the Home Office and the Foreign Office, as Afghan refugees were only months before:

“You are welcome here”

The situation for Ukrainian refugees is acute and must be improved with immediate effect. As Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told the people of Lewes at the vigil for Ukraine: “If we are seriously going to be on the side of Ukraine, we need to say to the refugees escaping from Ukraine, ‘You are welcome here’.”

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